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Outstanding ASU student wins USA Today academic honors

February 14, 2007
An outstanding ASU student who has developed an instrument for DNA research has won national honors from USA Today.

James Cronican, a senior in biochemistry, was named in the newspaper's Feb. 15 issue to the All-USA College Academic Second Team for his exceptional intellectual achievement and leadership.

Nineteen ASU students have been chosen for the top three academic teams in the past 15 years, one of the best records of any public university in the nation. USA Today chooses 20 students each for the first, second and third teams.

A national team of judges selected top students based on grades, leadership, activities, and how students extend their intellectual talents beyond the classroom. More than 600 students were nominated by colleges and universities across the United States.

Cronican, a National Merit Scholar, started doing lab research as a freshman with Wilson Francisco, associate professor of biochemistry in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Three years later, he won an Edson Student Entrepreneur Initiative grant to further develop an instrument he designed to rapidly and automatically extract DNA and RNA from tissue. He then began working with professor Frederic Zenhausern of the Biodesign Institute, and the two have written a patent application on the device.

“James is an outstanding fellow who combines academic excellence with entrepreneurial attitude,” Zenhausern says. “He works closely with our team and quickly applied his scientific knowledge to practical problems. His instrument has the potential to influence everyday work of molecular biologists and clinical researchers.”

Cronican, 21, says television's fictional crime scene investigators who can identify a suspect in five minutes using a strand of hair are only a screenwriter's dream. In reality, extracting DNA is a tedious process, often requiring dozens of samples.

His machine automates a complex hourlong process and streamlines it to 20 minutes. He is working to expand the functions to purify genomic DNA, RNA and affinity-tagged proteins, speeding up protocols that can take a week. He believes it could accelerate all kinds of research, including cancer research.

Four years ago, Cronican turned down Harvard University to attend ASU. He says he was attracted by Barrett, the Honors College, and by ASU's “beautiful weather, great student body and tons of opportunities for anybody willing to take them.” He decided to work hard and try to make it back to Harvard for graduate school.

“My ASU experience has turned out better than I could have ever hoped,” says Cronican, who also is a weightlifter, intramural basketball player and an avid hiker in the Superstition Mountains. “This university has a tremendous amount opportunity, and I have made some of the greatest friends in the world. The Honors College has also opened doors, such as getting into Dr. Francisco's lab as a freshman. He took me in as someone new to science and has put me where I am today.”

While at ASU, Cronican has tutored, provided outreach chemistry demonstrations to local elementary and middle schools as an officer in the student chapter of the American Chemical Society, and has served on a number of student advisory boards and councils.

He has been accepted into biochemistry doctoral-degree programs at Harvard, MIT, Cal Tech and Berkeley, with interviews also scheduled at three other top universities. Cronican plans a career in industry research.