Innovators

UVA Faculty Fellows of the National Academy of Inventors

Since the National Academy of Inventors (NAI) established the NAI Fellows Program in 2012, eight UVA faculty innovators have been inducted. This acknowledgement aims to "highlight academic inventors who have demonstrated a prolific spirit of innovation in creating or facilitating outstanding inventions that have made a tangible impact on quality of life, economic development and the welfare of society. Election to NAI Fellow status is the highest professional distinction accorded solely to academic inventors."

  • Class of 2019: John P. Mugler III, Ph.D
  • Class of 2018: George T. Gillies
  • Class of 2017: Craig H. Benson
  • Class of 2016: Barry W. Johnson
  • Class of 2015: Joe C. Campbell
  • Class of 2015: Jayakrishna Ambati
  • Class of 2014: Thomas C. Skalak 
  • Class of 2014: John C. Herr*

This industry recognition and all UVA innovation activities drive institutional notoriety, leveraged capital, new quality partners, sponsored research, financial return, and above all else, lives enriched and improved by UVA research. These are the impacts we seek at the Licensing & Ventures Group. We compiled the details of each UVA NAI Fellow on this page to further acknowledge each innovator's accomplishments as well as their contributions to the UVA innovation community.

John P. Mugler III, PhD

NAI Fellows Class of 2019 | Director of Medical Imaging Research, Professor of Radiology and Medical Imaging, Professor of Biomedical Engineering

MRI Pioneer John Mugler Named to National Academy of Inventors

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This story was originally published by the UVA Health System on Feb 5, 2020

By: Joshua Barney | jdb9a@virginia.edu

The University of Virginia’s John P. Mugler III, PhD, has been named a fellow by the National Academy of Inventors in recognition of his game-changing work in medical imaging, particularly MRI.

Mugler, of UVA’s School of Medicine and School of Engineering, is one of 168 academic innovators being recognized by the National Academy of Inventors (NAI). The NAI Fellows Program salutes “academic inventors who have demonstrated a spirit of innovation in creating or facilitating outstanding inventions that have made a tangible impact on quality of life, economic development and the welfare of society.”

“It is a great honor for my work to be recognized in this way by the National Academy of Inventors. Getting to this point would not have been possible without the support and collaboration of wonderful colleagues at UVA and in the medical-imaging industry,” said Mugler, of UVA’s Department of Radiology and Medical Imaging and the Department of Biomedical Engineering. “It is very gratifying to see that techniques developed at UVA have made a difference in the clinical care of patients. As a medical-imaging developer, this is the most satisfying outcome that one can achieve.”

Transforming MRI

Mugler was instrumental in developing innovative pulse sequences that revolutionized magnetic resonance imaging, making it practical to create high-contrast 3D images quickly and with high resolution. Previously, MRI machines produced primarily two-dimensional “slices” for clinical imaging, but Mugler’s research allowed for the creation of detailed images that can be viewed from any angle. The increased detail allows doctors to identify subtle abnormalities earlier, leading to better diagnoses and treatment for patients.

Mugler’s work proved so important that it has been implemented in MRIs in hospitals and research institutions around the world.

“John earned this recognition because he has invented multiple major technologies in the field of MRI. All major MRI manufacturers currently provide multiple brain imaging techniques that John invented,” said Frederick H. Epstein, PhD, chairman of UVA’s Department of Biomedical Engineering. “The simplest way to describe the impact of John’s work is to say, without exaggeration, that if you or anyone you know has ever had a brain MRI, their resulting diagnosis probably benefitted from John’s inventions.”

Mugler, UVA’s director of medical imaging research, also has been conducting cutting-edge work with hyperpolarized gases for imaging the lungs. These nontoxic, helium- and xenon-based approaches provide high-resolution images far superior to any existing clinical method. UVA is one of the top research and training institutions for lung research using these gases.

Mugler was previously recognized, with his colleague James R. Brookeman, as the 2009 Edlich-Henderson Inventors of the Year by the UVA Patent Foundation, now known as the UVA Licensing & Ventures Group.

“This recognition from the National Academy of Inventors is well deserved in light of John Mugler’s transformative work that has had concrete benefits for countless patients,” said David Wilkes, MD, dean of the School of Medicine. “We congratulate him and look forward to seeing what he develops next to better the human condition.”

“John is a world-class researcher who has leveraged UVA’s strong collaborations between engineers and medical professionals to make the university an international center of excellence for medical imaging,” said Craig H. Benson, PhD, dean of the School of Engineering and himself an NAI fellow. “Thanks to innovations from John and other UVA faculty, people who suffer from cancer, lung disease, neurological disorders, cardiovascular conditions, among other issues, are receiving better diagnoses and care than ever before. John is an excellent addition to the National Academy of Inventors.”

Inspiring the Next Generation

The National Academy will induct the new fellows at a ceremony in April. In announcing the latest fellows, NAI President Paul R. Sanberg said, “The breadth and scope of their discovery is truly staggering. I’m excited not only see their work continue, but also to see their knowledge influence a new era of science, technology and innovation worldwide.”

George T. Gillies

NAI Fellows Class of 2018 | Research Professor, Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Biomedical Engineering

Engineer George Gillies Named Fellow of National Academy of Inventors 

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This story was originally published by UVA Today on Dec 11, 2018

By: Fariss Samarrai | farisss@virginia.edu

The National Academy of Inventors has named George Gillies, a University of Virginia research professor of mechanical and biomedical engineering, as a 2018 fellow. Election to fellow status by the organization is considered one of the highest professional distinctions for academic inventors.

The academy lauded Gillies, who holds 36 U.S. patents on several medical devices for neurosurgery and cardiology, for demonstrating “a highly prolific spirit of innovation in creating or facilitating outstanding inventions that have made a tangible impact on quality of life, economic development and the welfare of society.”

Gillies has played an active role in the technology transfer process for commercialization of his patented medical devices. He is a co-founder of the publicly traded company Stereotaxis Inc., which produces a minimally invasive remote magnetic navigation system for guiding catheters within the heart for the treatment of cardiac arrhythmias.

He also is co-inventor of the “I-Patch,” an implantable electronic system that stimulates the spinal cord for treating chronic back and leg pain; and is the co-inventor of a suite of clinical tools that facilitate minimally invasive access to the outer wall of the heart for enabling improved electrophysiological therapies.

“It has been a tremendous privilege to work with so many wonderful colleagues and students here at UVA and our partner universities over the past many years, toward the goal of creating new approaches to difficult problems in neurosurgery and cardiology,” Gillies said. “I am very grateful to the National Academy of Inventors for recognizing these contributions, and to our research sponsors, the UVA Licensing and Ventures Group, and our licensee companies for their strong ongoing commitments to seeing these inventions through to the marketplace.”

A member of UVA’s engineering faculty since 1985, Gillies received UVA’s 2006 Edlich-Henderson Inventor of the Year Award. He also is a co-recipient of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers’ Lewis F. Moody Fluids Engineering Award (2003), the University of Iowa’s Howard Lectureship on Surgical Innovation Award (2008), UVA’s President and Visitors Research Award (1988) and North Dakota State University’s Alumni Achievement Award (2007).

“The talents and expertise of researchers like George Gillies lead to precision treatments for complex diseases, which means less suffering for patients,” UVA Engineering Dean Craig H. Benson said. “This is a well-deserved recognition for George’s many contributions to medical technologies.”

Gillies has published more than 300 journal articles and has served on the editorial boards of the academic and professional journals Reports on Progress in Physics, Review of Scientific Instruments, and Metrologia.

“Dr. Gillies is one of the earliest and strongest champions of translational research and research commercialization at the University of Virginia, and he has spent his career sharing this passion with undergraduate, graduate and medical students,” Frederick Epstein, Mac Wade Professor and Chair of Biomedical Engineering, said. “He’s an exceptional mentor, and his election to NAI is well deserved.”

Gillies is a fellow of the American Physical Society, the American Institute of Medical and Biological Engineers and the Institute of Physics. He also is a senior member of the Optical Society of America, a life senior member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers and an associate member of the American Association of Neurological Surgeons.

When not tinkering in the lab, he said he enjoys running in 35 to 40 local foot races per year, and growing “interesting kinds” of fruits and vegetables in his garden.

With his election to the National Academy of Inventors, Gillies joins five other UVA inventors who are fellows with the organization: Jayakrishna Ambati, Joe Campbell, Benson, John Herr (deceased) and Barry Johnson, as well as about 1,000 other fellows representing research universities and government and non-profit research institutes.

The 2018 class of fellows will be inducted in April at the Space Center Houston during the academy’s annual meeting, and will be announced in The Chronicle of Higher Education and the academy’s multidisciplinary journal, Technology & Innovation.

Craig H. Benson

NAI Fellows Class of 2017 | Dean, School of Engineering, Janet and John Hamilton Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering

Benson Named Among Nation’s Top Inventors for His Natural Approach to Environmental Challenges

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This story was originally published by UVA Today on Dec 12, 2017

By Elizabeth Thiel Mather | emather@virginia.edu

In Charlottesville, Va., CRAIG H. BENSON is best known as an accomplished researcher and dean of the University of Virginia School of Engineering. Around the globe, he will go down in history as the engineer who developed a brilliant way to use natural processes to prevent landfills from leaking pollutants into groundwater.

For this and many other innovations that have revolutionized his field of geoenvironmental engineering, Benson has been elected a fellow of the NATIONAL ACADEMY OF INVENTORS. He has been a member of the National Academy of Engineering since 2012. Together, the designations place Benson in the top echelon of engineering leaders worldwide.

“I want people to think of me as an environmental gatekeeper – someone who saw the need for a natural world that is clean and healthy, and who also saw the need for an economy and industries that allow us to thrive,” Benson said. “People who make a difference understand that we can have both.”

His passion is inspired in part by his upbringing. He grew up in an industrial area of Pennsylvania where he could see firsthand how businesses and communities could benefit from technologies that would improve profitability and quality of life. He also observed how uncontrolled industrial emissions could cause severe damage to the environment.

One focus of his work is designing extremely long-lasting containment systems for municipal, hazardous and radioactive wastes, and by long lasting, he means 1,000 years or more. His team developed the technology for natural landfill covers, now used around the world.

“If you drive by a landfill or other underground containment system, the top two meters – about six feet – involve a highly engineered system,” Benson said. “It just looks like grass, but it’s super heavily engineered.”

In the past, the most common methods for covering landfills included clay or synthetic materials, designed to prevent rainwater or groundwater from getting inside. Water that flows into underground waste becomes contaminated, and when that liquid inevitably leaks back out into the environment, it pollutes groundwater and soil.

“All the previous methods were best the day you built them and slowly got worse and worse,” Benson said.

His answer was to stop fighting nature. He developed a method called a water balance cover, in which the vegetation and soil topping a landfill work together to release excess water into the atmosphere during growing seasons. This evaporation process minimizes the rainwater percolating through the soil, which means there is less water getting contaminated and leaching out of the landfill. The method sounds simple, but it takes an entire textbook and at least a three-day seminar to explain the specialized engineering behind it.

“Our approach optimizes nature’s hydrological processes, which is much more economical for companies and communities that operate waste containment systems,” Benson said. “People all over the world are using these methods and procedures, and that’s incredibly gratifying.”

Another important focus area for Benson’s work is discovering ways to recycle and reuse industrial byproducts for construction.

“Manufacturing of construction materials is very energy intensive, so we can use the industrial byproducts that we would otherwise throw away,” he said.  “The amount of energy and excess carbon we can reduce by doing this is just remarkable.”

When he joined UVA as dean of the Engineering School in 2015, Benson brought his vision for creating and disseminating knowledge that will make the world a better place, and for training future engineering leaders who will continue the pursuit of discovery for the public good.

“We are fortunate to have in Craig a leader who brings the same inventiveness he demonstrates as an engineer to leading UVA’s School of Engineering and Applied Science,” said UVA Executive Vice President and Provost Thomas C. Katsouleas. “This recognition for his work to ensure groundwater quality is well deserved, and we are proud of his election to Fellow of the NAI.”

Benson is a member of the board of directors for Virginia’s Commonwealth Center for Advanced Manufacturing, a partnership of industry, government agencies and universities that is dedicated to boosting the economy by developing and implementing cutting-edge manufacturing technologies.

“Craig embraces a holistic and interdisciplinary approach to his work, focusing on research that is grounded in basic principles, but has practical application that is important to practicing professionals, our industry, and our economy,” said Joe C. Campbell, UVA’s Lucien Carr Professor of Electrical & Computer Engineering. Campbell, who was elected to the National Academy of Inventors in 2015, nominated Benson. “He is a remarkably dedicated educator and servant to his profession, and he engages with industry to solve practical problems using elegant and economic solutions.”

In a letter of support for Benson’s nomination, David E. Daniel, deputy chancellor of the University of Texas System and a renowned environmental engineer, said Benson “is unquestionably the top academic researcher in the U.S. in the field of environmental geotechnology. His publication list is extraordinary. He has won essentially every prize there is to win for excellence in research and dissemination of research findings.”

Benson’s formal induction will take place during a ceremony in Washington, D.C., in April.

“I am very honored,” Benson said. “This organization is made up of people who put ideas to work. They are doing things that actually make a difference in the world, and that’s really important.”

Barry W. Johnson

NAI Fellows Class of 2016 | L.A. Lacy Distinguished Professor, Electrical & Computer Engineering

Engineering Professor Gets Double Dose of Good News to End 2016

This story was originally published by UVA Today on Jan 12, 2017

By: Dan Heuchert | danh@virginia.edu

Barry Johnson, L.A. Lacy Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, received two prestigious appointments last month.

On Dec. 13, he was among 175 leaders of academic invention who were elected fellows of the National Academy of Inventors. Also last month, he was named acting assistant director for the Engineering Directorate at the National Science Foundation.

According to the announcement, “Election to NAI Fellow status is the highest professional distinction accorded solely to academic inventors who have demonstrated a prolific spirit of innovation in creating or facilitating outstanding inventions that have made a tangible impact on quality of life, economic development and welfare of society.”

The newest fellows will be inducted April 6 as part of the sixth annual Conference of the National Academy of Inventors, to be held in Boston. Fellows will be presented with a special trophy, medal and rosette pin.

Those elected to the rank of fellow are named inventors on U.S. patents and were nominated by their peers for contributions to innovation in areas such as patents and licensing, innovative discovery and technology, significant impact on society, and support and enhancement of innovation.

Johnson is one of five current or former UVA faculty members elected fellows of the NAI, including Jayakrishna Ambati, Joseph Campbell, the late John C. Herr and Thomas C. Skalak.

At the National Science Foundation, Johnson, currently on leave from the University, had been serving as acting deputy assistant director and division director for industrial innovation and partnerships within the Engineering Directorate. In his new post as acting assistant director, he will report directly to NSF Director France Córdova.

Joe C. Campbell

NAI Fellows Class of 2015 | Lucien Carr III Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering

Inventive UVA Professor Boosts Communications Around the Globe

Engineering professor Joe Campbell has been changing the world of telecommunications for more than four decades and he’s on the verge of another major breakthrough.

This story was originally published by UVA Today on Dec 28, 2015

By: Katie McNallykatiemcnally@virginia.edu

When one thinks of influential Campbells, the mind usually turns to a certain soup-making family. Many people outside the world of engineering may not know the University of Virginia’s Joe C. Campbell, but chances are that they use his inventions much more often than they heat up a bowl of chicken noodle.

The work of Campbell, Lucien Carr III Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, directly affects the speed at which phone calls, text messages, streaming videos and nearly every other major form of communication are sent.

He joined the Engineering School faculty in 2006 and was recently named a fellow in the National Academy of Inventors in recognition of his contributions to the field of telecommunications and fiber optics. Fellowships are awarded to academic inventors who embody the spirit of innovation and whose inventions have made a tangible impact on human welfare and economic development.

“Most of the recognition I’ve received is for my work with avalanche photodiodes,” Campbell said.

Avalanche photodiodes are semiconductor photo-detectors that are used in long-distance fiber-optic communications, where information is transmitted as pulses of light.

“In a fiber-optic link, the information is usually transmitted digitally, where a light pulse is a ‘one’ and no light pulse is a ‘zero,’” said Campbell. “So the information is transmitted with pulses of light down hair-thin glass fibers and at the other end, you have to convert that back into an electrical signal, and that’s what my device does.”

For example, if you text a photo to a friend, it gets broken down into a binary code of light pulses and then Campbell’s avalanche photodiode reassembles it into an image right before it’s delivered.

He first began developing the device in the 1970s while he was working at AT&T Bell Laboratories and has continued to update it ever since.

“He does an amazing job identifying a problem and pursuing it with laser focus. Joe is without a doubt the world leader in these types of photo-detectors,” said John Lach, who chairs the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Campbell’s latest research on Grounds is focused on how to greatly increase the speed and capacity of his detectors.

“As of the past few months, we have a new breakthrough that we think will really transform fiber optics and data communications. It’s a new type of photodiode,” he said.

The new device is similar to the avalanche detector, but it’s made from new material and has a new structure that allows it to work at much higher speed.

“To give you an idea, the standard for many years for most links has been a 10-gigabit-per-second transmission speed,” he said. “Your eye communicates with your brain at about 1 gigabit per second.”

Telecommunications companies have been under pressure to move up to 100 gigabits per second, and many would like to go even higher than that to handle the growing number of users and devices on their channels.

“Their goal is to go beyond that to 400 gigabit, but the detectors they need to do that don’t exist yet,” Campbell said.

He and his team at UVA are about to change that.

“We think the new detectors we’ve been working on will be able to handle that speed and 400-gigabit Ethernet capability is going to be a big deal,” he said.

In addition to supporting faster Internet and phone communications all over the world, Campbell’s body of work also includes new technology that’s assisting the Department of Defense. He’s been working with the U.S. Army to adapt his avalanche photodiodes so their light detection capabilities can be used to identify biological agents.

“Basically, the Army has a box that sucks in air and they have either a laser- or light-emitting diode that excites fluorescence from the biological material,” Campbell said. “Then our detectors measure different wavelengths of the fluorescence, and by taking the ratio of those wavelengths, the materials inside the box can be classified.”

In the past, Campbell has also worked with the military on creating better night vision binoculars and more efficient long-range communication using microwave signals.

Despite the commercial success of his inventions, it’s a pure love of discovery that drives Campbell to keep innovating and he’s always excited to pass that on to fellow engineers.

“Joe is just an outstanding citizen in our department,” Lach said. “He goes out of his way to support the initiatives of younger faculty and he scours the earth to find the best possible graduate students and encourage them to come here. Once they’re here, he always takes a genuine interest in their success.”

At the end of the day, Campbell is just glad to be able to continue sharing his passion for innovation with others.

“I got a Ph.D. so that I could do basic research. When I was at Bell Laboratories, I just loved playing in the lab,” he said. “Now I do most of my research together with students and it’s been so rewarding to watch those same students mature and become my peers.”

Jayakrishna Ambati

NAI Fellows Class of 2015 | Jayakrishna Ambati, M.D., vice chair for research in the UVA School of Medicine’s Department of Ophthalmology and founder of the Center for Advanced Vision Science

Dr. Jayakrishna Ambati Among Indian American Innovators Named NAI Fellows

This story was originally published by The Universal News Network on Dec 29, 2015

By: Ajay Ghosh

Dr. Jayakrishna Ambati, an Indian American vice chair of the department of ophthalmology and visual sciences, and professor of physiology at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine, was recently elected a Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors.

The designation of NAI Fellows, announced Dec. 15, is awarded to those academic inventors who have demonstrated a proficient spirit of innovation in creating or facilitating outstanding inventions that have made a tangible impact on the quality of life, economic development and the welfare of society.

The 2015 NAI Fellows selection committee included 17 members, comprising NAI Fellows, recipients of U.S. National Medals, National Inventors Hall of Fame inductees, members of the National Academies and senior officials from the USPTO, Association of American Universities, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Association of University Technology Managers and National Inventors Hall of Fame.

The Indian American professor is the first from the UK to receive NAI Fellowship honors.

“I’m honored and humbled to have been elected to the NAI alongside so many other amazing innovators,” Ambati said in a statement. “This award is really a testament to the outstandingly creative and motivated young scientists that I am fortunate and proud to lead. I look forward to supporting the NAI’s efforts to promote the application of technology and innovation to improve quality of vision and health for people worldwide.” Ambati and his lab also recently received a $2.4 million grant to study the genetics of a new source of DNA discovered at the lab (I-W Nov. 2, 2015).

Thomas C. Skalak

NAI Fellows Class of 2014 | Former UVA Vice President for Research

Two UVA Faculty Members Named Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors

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This story was originally published by UVA Today on December 15, 2014

By: Chiara Canzi

Two faculty members are the first from the University of Virginia to be named fellows of the National Academy of Inventors, an accolade created in 2010 to recognize those who invent or facilitate significant patents issued by the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

Thomas C. Skalak, U.Va.’s vice president for research and a professor of biomedical engineering, and John C. Herr, a professor of cell biology, biomedical engineering, urology and obstetrics and gynecology in the School of Medicine, joined 168 other distinguished inventors from prominent research institutions of higher education, governmental agencies and nonprofit organizations in the 2014 class of NAI Fellows. They bring the total number to 414 – among them, 16 who have received the U.S. National Medal of Technology and Innovation, 10 recipients of the U.S. National Medal of Science and 21 Nobel laureates.

“It is a great honor to be inducted as a fellow of NAI,” Skalak said. “NAI fellows have been the foundation of our nation’s innovation enterprise through their creativity in moving new knowledge to societal benefit, in the form of inventions that meet real needs for all of us. Winning the future of America depends on our collective ability to create truly new value through inventiveness.”

According to NAI, the accolade is a “high professional distinction accorded to academic inventors who have demonstrated a prolific spirit of innovation in creating or facilitating outstanding inventions that have made a tangible impact on quality of life, economic development, and the welfare of society.” Fellows are nominated by colleagues and must meet strict eligibility criteria. The names and institutions of all NAI Fellows are on permanent display at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

“Recognition as an NAI fellow stems from collaborative efforts over many years with teams of enquiring and dedicated individuals who worked with me to discover previously unknown genes and proteins involved in reproduction, particularly fertilization,” Herr said. “The NAI recognition is also founded on diligent efforts of senior managers in U.Va. spin-out ventures whose work ensured that U.Va. ideas and discoveries achieved capitalization, FDA clearance, entered into the marketplace and became commercial successes.”

Appointed vice president for research in 2008, Skalak has worked to create pan-University initiatives on topics spanning from sustainability and clean energy to innovation and entrepreneurship. He launched OpenGrounds, an initiative that brings faculty, students and University partners together across disciplines; he took the lead in creating the U.Va. Venture Summit, a gathering of top-tier venture capitalists from across the nation who come together to explore new trends and emerging fields; and he manages the U.Va. Entrepreneurship Cup, a University-wide student business concept competition.

He was the founding investigator of the U.Va.-Coulter Foundation Translational Research Partnership, which brought a $20 million endowment to fund biomedical research and commercialization. Skalak chaired the Department of Biomedical Engineering for seven years before being appointed to his current post. He is a past president of both the Biomedical Engineering Society and the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering, representing more than 60,000 professionals in the field. In 2013, he was a member of President Obama’s White House “Lab-to-Market” Advisory Group

Herr founded U.Va.’s Center for Research in Contraception and Reproductive Health and serves as the faculty director of the Lymphocyte Culture Center, where monoclonal antibodies are made. He holds 26 issued patents and has many additional pending patents.

Herr was named U.Va.’s Inventor of the Year in 1999, an award bestowed upon U.Va. students, faculty or staff members whose research has made an impact on society.

In 2000, Herr was named Virginia’s Outstanding Scientist. His patent portfolio has focused on the discovery of “differentiation antigens of gametogenesis”: protein molecules that are uniquely expressed in the sperm or the egg and are not found in other normal organs in the body. These sperm-and egg-specific proteins have found uses as targets for developing male and female contraceptives, in forensic science, as well as in cancer therapy.

Herr’s interest in technology commercialization has made him a serial entrepreneur: he has started four biotechnology companies: Humagen, centered on male reproduction and in vitro fertilization; ContraVac, maker of SpermCheck, a home sperm count test that is now available at pharmacies nationwide; Neoantigenics, a company focused on the development of oncology theranostics products; and OVASTASIS, a company developing a non-steroidal female contraceptive.

NAI fellows will receive a trophy and a rosette pin in honor of the accomplishments and will be officially inducted into the academy March 20 during the academy’s annual conference at the California Institute of Technology.

John C. Herr*

NAI Fellows Class of 2014

In Memoriam: John C. Herr, UVA Champion of Translational Research 

John Herr approached all that he did with remarkable energy, determination and enthusiasm, said his colleagues and former students in the School of Medicine. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

This story was originally published by UVA Today on Sept. 20, 2016

By: Anne E. Bromley | anneb@virginia.edu

Update, Sept. 26, 12:15 p.m.: A memorial service, open to the public, will be held Oct. 21 from 2 to 4 p.m. at the University Chapel. 

John C. Herr, 68, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Research in Contraceptive and Reproductive Health, died unexpectedly on Saturday after having participated that morning in the Gene Arnold Memorial Special Olympics 10K Run & 2 Mile Walk at Meriwether Lewis Elementary School in Ivy.

A professor of cell biology, urology and biomedical engineering, Herr, who came to UVA’s School of Medicine in 1981, championed basic science and translational goals, sharing that dedication with colleagues and students. He focused his research on reproductive biology and made several breakthroughs toward developing a reversible contraceptive option for men and contraceptive vaccines for women.

Most recently, he was working on promising research that is shedding light on the fundamental nature of a wide variety of cancers and possible new paths of treatment.

“We are all deeply saddened by the sudden loss of our friend and colleague,” said Dr. David S. Wilkes, dean of the School of Medicine. “John Herr was a scientist and entrepreneur who had a commitment to transforming fundamental scientific research to better the human condition. His creative and energetic curiosity will be missed.”

Dr. Erik L. Hewlett, a professor of medicine and microbiology who chairs the board of the UVA Licensing & Ventures Group, called Herr “truly a leader at the University of Virginia as a faculty innovator and entrepreneur.”

An active inventor, Herr and his laboratory named more than 35 genes in the human genome and applied for patents on their use as diagnostic or therapeutic targets. In addition to basic science, his laboratory conducts translational research with the intent of moving discoveries into products, and he created several companies for that purpose.

He was one of the first two UVA scientists to be named a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors, an accolade created in 2010 to recognize those who invent or facilitate significant U.S. patents. He is listed as inventor on 64 issued patents and scores of pending patent applications throughout the world. Formerly a 15-year member of the UVA Licensing & Ventures Group’s board of directors, he was named Inventor of the Year in 1999 when the group was the UVA Patent Foundation.

Herr “approached all that he did with remarkable energy, optimism and enthusiasm,” said Douglas DeSimone, who chairs the Department of Cell Biology. “Whether it be his work on developing new contraceptive strategies or his most recent efforts in the area of cancer immunotherapy, John pushed ahead with characteristic determination, boldness of vision that inspired many. He also worked tirelessly to instill in others the importance of translating science important to human health through his teaching and training of undergraduates, graduate students and postdocs.”

Internationally recognized for the discovery of a unique sperm protein called SP-10, Herr’s findings led to development of the first FDA-approved home-diagnostic tests for male fertility, including SpermCheck, sold in pharmacies and stores around the world.

He started the company Ovastasis in 2014 to develop a new form of women’s birth control, free of unpleasant side-effects, that would interact only with a woman’s reproductive cells to arrest their development by using egg-specific drug targets.

Like Ovastasis, Neoantigenics, his first cancer research company, is focused on creating a targeted drug that will affect only those cells identified by the correct cell surface biomarkers.

Eusebio Pires, a researcher in the UVA Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, was collaborating with Herr when they discovered a surprising link between developing egg cells and cancers – a protein both have in common. This led to a new path of research on cancer-oocyte neoantigens that may allow doctors to use antibodies to deliver medication directly to tumors while sparing healthy tissue.

Pires, who met Herr in 2002 when a doctoral student in Mumbai, first joined Herr’s lab in 2008. “Spending time with him both professionally, as well as on a personal front, has made me realize that he is one of the best scientists, inventors and entrepreneurs I have ever met,” Pires said.

“He was completely focused, visionary, helpful, patient, always lending a listening ear, advising and updating himself with the modern era. I have always asked him, ‘How do you manage all this?’ And he always replied: ‘If you love science, this is what you live for!’

“I will miss him terribly and I am determined to continue his legacy, which is also close to my heart.”

Many who knew Herr for nearly 30 years echoed the same themes about his enthusiasm and drive for innovation, his bold vision and collaborative nature.

Charles Flickinger, professor emeritus of cell biology, past department chair and close colleague, remarked on how inspiring Herr was to students and junior researchers. In particular, he attracted and welcomed scholars from different countries, Flickinger said.

Colleague David Castle, also a UVA cell biologist, said that he “influenced and motivated colleagues throughout the School of Medicine, the University and beyond.

“Those of us who have interacted with John on a near-daily basis were awed by his extraordinary drive and seemingly limitless capacity to create new directions and engage colleagues to push the frontiers. We are simply stunned that he’s not here anymore, because we thought he would go on forever.”