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4 hires joining initiative for UA

Prosthetic tech is focus of work by Jaime Adame | October 17, 2021 at 3:15 a.m.
Old Main on the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville campus is shown in this Aug. 30, 2014, file photo. (NWA Democrat-Gazette file photo)

FAYETTEVILLE -- Four "critical team members" will join the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville as part of a hiring agreement with Ranu Jung, the inventor chosen to lead a major campus research initiative backed by a $194.7 million Walton grant.

The new hires include Jung's husband, James Abbas, an Arizona State University professor who has worked with her on developing a new kind of prosthetic that's able to give users a sense of feel or touch.

Grant support announced last year from the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation established the UA Institute for Integrative and Innovative Research, which will involve construction of a new campus facility -- expected to be the costliest academic building in university history, a spokeswoman has said -- and support for taking research to the marketplace.

Jung, since 2011 the head of the biomedical engineering department at Florida International University, will join UA in December as the new institute's founding executive director, the university announced Wednesday.

The grant from the foundation controlled by relatives of Walmart founder Sam Walton was announced by UA last year, along with the research initiative's five focus areas -- data science, food systems, materials science, metabolic disease and integrative neuroscience.

The new research facility for the institute, also known as I3R, is still being designed but has a budget of $114 million, a UA spokesman has said.

[DOCUMENT: Read the job offer extended to Ranu Jung »]

The new hires take to UA a team of researchers who have worked together -- some for many years -- on certain types of projects dealing with prosthetic technology and what's known as neural engineering. Their work has included a clinical trial testing prosthetics with military veterans who have lost limbs, according to an interview with Jung and Abbas published last year by the scholarly journal Bioelectronics in Medicine.

"The four are essential team members who have played fundamental roles in creating the neural-enabled prosthetic hand system over many years and launching the clinical trial which will now continue in Arkansas," Jung said in an email. "They have considerable expertise in engineering, neuroscience, and regulatory affairs which will be of value in launching some of the new initiatives from I3R."

Jung described to the scholarly journal how she and her husband began to collaborate as researchers.

"In terms of how we started working together, I used to work in the preclinical space with animal models, computational modeling and also some neurostimulation work, while Jimmy was working with people with disabilities and with neuro electrical stimulation," Jung told the journal. "We were colleagues in Biomedical Engineering at the University of Kentucky at the time and with our complementary strengths we thought that it would be a great opportunity if we could work together."

A Sept. 21 offer letter to Jung released Thursday under the state's public disclosure law specifies that UA agreed to make employment offers to some of Jung's colleagues at Florida International and also Abbas, who at Arizona State is director of the Center for Adaptive Neural Systems.

"Upon your acceptance of this offer your critical team members will receive employment offer letters within five business days," states the letter addressed to Jung from John English, UA's vice chancellor for research and innovation. UA has said Jung will report to English and to David Snow, UA's interim vice chancellor for economic development.

The offer letter states that Abbas will receive an academic appointment as a tenured "full" professor in biomedical engineering with a 9-month base salary of $140,000.

Andy Albertson, a UA spokesman, said Friday that Abbas will have a joint appointment, with 51% of his salary coming from UA's Department of Biomedical Engineering and 49% from the new research institute. Albertson said the Walton grant will cover the research institute salary portion.

A database of Arizona public university employee salaries published online by The Arizona Republic lists Abbas as earning annual pay of $100,390 as an associate professor at Arizona State.

"My research, much of which is in collaboration with Dr. Jung and our R&D team, will add new dimensions to the Department's research portfolio. Notably, it will offer more opportunities for students to research and develop technologies that can assist people with neurological injury, neurological disorders, or limb loss," Abbas said in an email Thursday.

The offer letter to Jung states that Abbas is to begin work at UA this month. The pair previously worked together at Arizona State, serving as co-directors of the neuroscience research center at the university before Jung's departure to Florida, according to Abbas' curriculum vitae posted on Arizona State's website.

The other three hires are for positions considered a part of the new research institute, according to the offer letter.

Sathyakumar Kuntaegowdanahalli will join UA as a senior research scientist after being offered a 12-month base salary of $115,000. Anil Thota will hold the same title at UA, with an offer for the same salary amount. Andres Pena is set to join UA as an assistant research professor after being offered a 9-month base salary of $75,000.

Albertson said in an email that each of their three salaries will "initially" be paid for out of the Walton grant and "eventually supported with 70% of those salaries paid from forthcoming grants."

All three of the Florida International University researchers in emails said they were joining UA.

"For the past decade, I have had the honor to be part of the esteemed research group led by Dr. Ranu Jung and Dr. James Abbas," Thota said in an email, adding that he was "very pleased and excited" to continue working with the team at UA.

Albertson, the UA spokesman, said the qualifications of all the new hires were reviewed using the same procedure as with other hires, and that they will all be bound by university policies regarding conflicts of interest.

"Group hires in the scientific community are not unusual," Albertson said in an email.

The offer letter to Jung states: "Your approval will be required for all personnel hires and appointments in the Institute."


The offer letter breaks down Jung's salary, stating that she will be paid $350,000 annually as the new institute's founding director, with her compensation consisting of a "faculty salary" of $300,000 and a $5o,000 administrative stipend to lead the institute, often referred to by the university as "I3R."

Jung also is accepting a position as a "Distinguished Professor," with tenure, in UA's Department of Biomedical Engineering, the letter states.

Florida International University is paying Jung a 12-month salary of $270,866.29, spokeswoman Madeline Baro said.

The offer letter specifies that Jung is hired for a "five-year renewable term," and that while serving as director she will have access to a portion of the expendable income resulting from the I3R Director's Chair endowment.

The letter states that this amount annually "is estimated to be approximately $600,000 per year," but that the current accrued balance is $257,000.

"A portion of these funds are used to pay 49% of your salary plus fringes on an annual basis. The remaining funds will be available to you as discretionary funds to support your leadership in I3R and your scholarship," the letter states.

Jung is also being reimbursed for moving expenses not to exceed 10% of her base salary at UA.

The letter states that the university "reserves the right" to end Jung's employment as director "at any time during any given 5-year period based upon the best interests of the university."

The offer letter states that upon stepping down from the director position, "your salary will be converted to a 9-month salary of $225,000," plus "any accumulated merit increases."

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