Family inspiration sparked Dr. Norma Alcantar’s influential research career


Among the things you’d expect to find in a chemical engineer’s office—honorary awards, patent plaques, and books including “Environmental Analytical Chemistry” and “Introducing Chemical Engineering Thermodynamics”—Dr. Norma Alcantar’s office at the University of South Florida also showcases her love of life and teaching with books such as “Intentional Integrity.”

But hidden between the intellectual and inspirational materials, two sets of objects stand out: a series of cacti and owl collectibles.

The folklore wisdom of the owl and the hardy but elegantly designed cactus plant represent the tapestry of her life and career. They are also the embodiment of two fundamental forces that have guided her life and career: her mother, Acrelia Alcantar, and her grandmother, Balbina Zamora.

The owl, a symbol of wisdom since ancient Greece, is a reminder of her grandmother’s insistence on academic pursuits; her mother’s advice about identity and self-determination when Alcantar came to a fork in the road; and, presently, for Alcantar to pass along her decades of knowledge to the next generation—even at 2 a.m. in a phone call to a graduate student halfway across the globe.

Enduring challenging conditions through innovative adaptations, the cacti represent the teachers who inspired Alcantar’s curiosity about nature and a serendipitous conversation in youth that altered the trajectory of her life and career. This resulted in more than 20 patents, focused mainly on cacti and Alzheimer’s research, and invitations from around the world for her expertise on water purification technology.

Her lips quiver as she reminisces about her mother and grandmother and the lessons taught and learned: respect for nature, self-determination, work ethic, and mentorship.

“[Acrelia] was the force of the family,” Alcantar said of her mother, who was one of 12 children. “Everybody respected her.”

Widowed at a young age, her mother was a tireless worker who encouraged young Norma to study hard, and be confident in her abilities.

Alcantar recalled a conversation she had with her mother when she was 7. She told her mother she wished she had been born a male because she believed boys had more opportunities than girls.

“’Listen, as a girl you can do whatever you want. You can do even more things,’” she recalled her mother saying.

Alcantar said she was talking to her grandmother about what she had done in her high school chemistry class one day when Balbina shared knowledge that would later shape Alcantar’s career: that cacti can be used to clean impurities from water.

Her grandmother grew up in Michoacán, a region located in western Mexico, in the early 1900s. Alcantar said her grandmother told her that as a child she needed to gather water from nearby sources. If the water was dirty, they boiled the water with cactus to clean it.

“How does that work? It just doesn’t make sense,” she said. “But when I came to the U.S., that’s what started my research.”

After receiving undergraduate and graduate degrees in Mexico, Alcantar moved to Santa Barbara, California, to pursue her doctoral degree in chemical engineering at the University of California- Santa Barbara.

Alcantar’s research focuses on a gelatinous substance called mucilage, the result of boiling cactus pads. Mucilage can expand the molecular removal of harmful substances from water and soil.

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