15 Good Minutes: Cassandra Quave

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When most people think about medicine, plants are not what immediately jumps to mind. However, for Emory Assistant Professor Cassandra Quave, PhD, the relationship between plants and medicine is career-defining. Quave is an ethnobotanist, meaning she studies human interaction with plants and their potential medical properties. Her work has led to important discoveries including treatments for eczema and skin infections. Quave describes her research as investigating compounds on a fundamental level, derived from their source in plants. She and her lab then determine whether the compound has properties that would allow it to be used in medicine.

“In a single plant species, you have hundreds or thousands of unique molecules, and so there’s a lot of chemical diversity found in nature to still explore,” Quave said. “There are over 28,000 species of plants used by humans on earth for medicinal purposes, and we’ve barely scratched the surface in exploring their medical potential.”

Quave decided to pursue her career studying plants based on her interests in microbiology and nature. Today, in addition to her role as an Emory Professor, she also serves as a curator of the Emory Herbarium and as CEO of the start-up company PhytoTEK LLC. In her role at PhyoTek, which she co-founded, Quave helped the company discover innovative plant-based medications for fighting antibiotic-resistant drugs. Currently, PhytoTEK is working on the technology for a new line of medicated bandages.

Protecting the intellectual property of her innovations can be more complicated for Quave than it is for many other researchers. This is because plants themselves can only be patented in a narrow set of circumstances, while the medical use of compounds isolated or formulated from the plant can be patented more broadly. Quave’s company PhyoTEK holds one patent, and Quave has worked with Emory’s Office of Technology Transfer (OTT) to secure additional patents for innovations discovered through her academic research. Quave says working with OTT has generally been a smooth and quick process.

“I’ve been really impressed by Emory’s OTT because they’re pretty fast in getting provisional patents filed and then converting them when the year is up,” Quave said.

For those also hoping to pursue a career in ethnobotany or biology in general, Quave recommends that they polish their writing skills. She spends much of the time writing, from grant proposals to academic papers and a science memoir.

“Start writing earlier and practice writing,” Quave said. “Write a lot more grants because grants are what make the research possible. So just building skills in the field of scientific writing and communicating science from an early stage is really important.”