Dr. Asanga Ranasinghe named AC’s 1st Distinguished Research Scientist

Community colleges are not often recognized as hotbeds of academic research, but at Amarillo College, once again a finalist for the nation’s foremost community college accolade – the Aspen Prize – research is a highly tangible pursuit.

The Amarillo College Foundation recently underscored the veracity of that assertion when, in support of its ongoing comprehensive campaign Badger Bold, it made a generous $250,000 bequest to establish the inaugural Distinguished Research Scientist endowment at AC.

The College correspondingly named Dr. Asanga Ranasinghe, professor of chemistry, its first-ever endowed Distinguished Research Scientist.

As such, Ranasinghe is empowered to undertake new experimentation and fieldwork; endeavor to develop new products and techniques; acquire cutting-edge equipment; include students in occasionally paid laboratory research; and attend conferences to network and collaborate with peers in the advancement of scholarly work.

“Amarillo College is fast changing the perspectives about research at community colleges,” Vice President of Institutional Advancement Joe Bill Sherrod said. “Endowments such as this honor faculty for meritorious work, and our College is blessed to have exceptionally talented faculty who are enriching the academic environment and inspiring our budding scholars.

“Establishing research scientist endowments is among the foremost priorities of our College’s philanthropic efforts, and with Dr. Ranasinghe’s appointment I think we are off to a fabulous start.”

Ranasinghe, who undertook his doctoral work at UC Santa Barbara because its faculty at the time featured Nobel laureates Walter Kohn, Alan Heegar and Shuji Nakamura, joined the AC faculty in 2017. His sweeping research has ranged from investigating new drug-analysis methodologies, to automated liquid handling systems, construction of photovoltaic devices, electrochemical speciation of uranium, and much more.

“I’m honored to have been selected for this endowed position, which is something you usually see only at big universities,” Ranasinghe said. “This will provide us with many excellent opportunities, especially for our students to enjoy research-related experiences normally associated with what graduate students get to do at the university level.

“We now have the wherewithal to perform proprietary research with an eye on intellectual property rights, generating revenue streams, and putting more students on the path to highly viable careers in the sciences, or even entrepreneurially.”

Upon joining the AC faculty, Ranasinghe immediately introduced an optional undergraduate-style research seminar into his chemistry classes, and he initiated a STEM Research Club that swiftly took root.

Among the club’s achievements so far is the development of a teeth-whitening agent that prompted the College to apply for a pair of patents that Ranasinghe says he believes are nearing fruition.

Additionally, some of Ranasinghe’s STEM scholars have been participants in his ongoing efforts at the behest of narcotics investigators with the Amarillo Police Department and the FBI to analyze and identify illegal substances such as oft-disguised fentanyl. Before tapping into AC’s expertise, those law-enforcement agencies’ only option was to send unidentified specimens out of town for time-consuming analyses that often took many weeks to complete.

Thanks to state-of-the-art equipment like a mass spectrometer and a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) detection system housed in AC’s STEM Research Center, the analytical turnaround can be comparatively prompt.

“We are constantly on call now for both those agencies,” Ranasinghe said. “Each has had representatives on our campus, and we are happy to participate in efforts to help identify and control illegal drugs in our community.”

AC, which in 2021 was named one of the nation’s Top 5 community colleges by the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program, is once again a finalist for the nation’s signature recognition of community colleges, the Aspen Prize, which is awarded every two years.

The 10 current Aspen finalists are defined by their focus on outcomes and how they develop, among other things, the talents of their students in ways that strengthen their regional economies and communities.

In October, the AC Foundation launched the public phase of a $45 million fundraising campaign – Badger Bold – which aims to vastly enhance the College and transform the economic vitality of the region. In establishing a philanthropic template with this first Distinguished Research Scientist endowment, Badger Bold has now garnered $31.5 million – a full 70 percent of its goal.