Elizabeth Cantwell

Senior VP for Research and Innovation – University of Arizona

By Tara Kirkpatrick

To be true to herself, Elizabeth “Betsy” Cantwell walked away from graduate school at Stanford University.

The University of Chicago graduate, with a bachelor’s degree in human behavior, walked into an orientation for the school’s social work program and knew it felt wrong. She left the school, followed her intuition and pursued an illustrious career in science, business and engineering. 

“No matter what you major in in college, it doesn’t define you,” said Cantwell, senior VP for research and innovation at the University of Arizona. “So many of our students are so anxious about getting it right early in life, when you may not know what is right. 

“I loved science fiction,” she said. “I was motivated by space. The idea of going into a power plant and looking around was thrilling to me.” Cantwell went to community college to get her math and science prerequisites and set off on a career path that today advances UArizona and its tremendous research community.

Cantwell, who holds an MBA and doctorate in mechanical engineering, has worked in leadership at the nation’s most prominent labs and institutions, including the Los Alamos National Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, NASA headquarters and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. At the latter, she was part of the team, after 9/11, that helped stand up the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

At UArizona, she is responsible for expanding the university’s capacity for knowledge creation and discovery and oversees innovation across campus. This includes the 1,267-acre UA Tech Park, home to more than 100 businesses including startups, IBM and Raytheon Technologies and contributes $2 billion annually to the region. 

“Dr. Cantwell is a tremendous leader,” said UArizona President Dr. Robert C. Robbins. “Thanks to her knowledge and experience in creating the conditions for long-term research success, she is taking our research enterprise to new heights. This includes measures of current activity such as research expenditures, which are approaching $800 million under her watch…I am extremely glad she brought her talents to Tucson.”

Cantwell recently helped spearhead, along with digital marketing specialist Rocque Perez, the inaugural Women of Impact awards at UArizona, which honored 30 women in August whose work addresses society’s biggest challenges.  

“We have truly remarkable researchers here,” Cantwell said. “The best of the best. The environment we have created here, it’s a moonshot culture. The really hard, low-probability big ideas are permissible to think about and talk about at this university. I love it and I revel in it.”

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