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New Mexico State University

Medicinal Plants

Image of NMSU Regents Professor Mary O’Connell

A primary, interdisciplinary research area for Regents Professor Mary O'Connell centers on medicinal plants of the Southwest. She works side by side with colleagues and student researchers to identify cancer-fighting compounds that could eventually be extracted to develop new cancer treatments. Her group is also busy looking for compounds that can help prevent chronic conditions and promote overall health.

"Native American and Hispanic communities in New Mexico have used plants for medicines for hundreds of years, and in some cases thousands of years," O'Connell says.

Because desert plants grow in a harsh climate, O'Connell believes they could provide a richer source of medicinal compounds than many tropical plants.

"Plants make these compounds to protect themselves against pathogens, so the greater the stress, the greater variety and quantity of beneficial compounds the plant will produce," O'Connell asserts.

O'Connell and her students have studied dozens of Southwestern plants. They have found cancer-fighting compounds in several, including datura (commonly known as Jimson weed), acacia and yerba mansa. For her research on health benefits and prevention, chile is a leading contender, thanks to its abundance of carotenoids and capsaicinoids.



  • Distinguished Achievement Professorship
  • Environmental Health & Safety “Friend of Safety” Award
  • Regents Professorship
  • NACTA Teaching Award of Merit, College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences
  • Distinguished Research Award, College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences
  • NIH Minority Access to Research Careers, mentor
  • NIH Minority Biomedical Research Support/RISE program, mentor
  • NIH Bridges to Native Americans Program, mentor
  • NIH RISE Medicinal Plants of the Southwest, director (2000 to 2009)

NMSU Distinguished Professor Mary O’Connell, Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences, received undergraduate degrees in biology and chemistry from College of Mt. St. Vincent, Riverdale, New York. She earned a doctorate in biochemistry from Cornell University.

Students develop research skills at Southwest medicinal plants workshop

NMSU goes ‘green’ with red chile research at NMSU

Video: Ancient Roots, Modern Medicine

MBRS-RISE to Excellence Program

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