A once-in-a-century pandemic found many researchers at the University of Nebraska in a place to immediately contribute to the national response.
Dr. Josh Santarpia, an associate professor of pathology and microbiology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, has spent his career studying biological aerosols.
When the Air Force came calling earlier this year, needing to consult with an expert about how to safely move patients infected with the coronavirus in an airplane, Santarpia and others at the National Strategic Research Institute sprung to action.
They helped the Air Force develop movement plans and validate the systems that would be used for transporting sick people, said Santarpia, who is the institute's research director for chemical and biological programs.
The National Strategic Research Institute, a university-affiliated research center, was also able to apply its previous work moving individuals infected with Ebola to the coronavirus pandemic, and help crews understand the capabilities of their aircraft.
"We were able to immediately take years of work and deep expertise in working for the Department of Defense and apply it to a problem of health security that's affecting the entire world," Santarpia said.
The work the research institute and NU do in support of U.S. Strategic Command, the Air Force, and the defense department hasn't gone unnoticed or unappreciated.
On Tuesday, the research institute announced it had been awarded an early renewal of its five-year, $92 million contract connecting research done across the NU system to the men and women of the armed forces.
"Today, we're announcing the University of Nebraska has delivered for our United States Department of Defense warfighters, and we're going to continue to do so well into the future," NU President Ted Carter said.
The renewal marks the third round of "investment" into the research institute by the defense department since the institute was founded in 2012, and signals further confidence in the institute, Carter added.
"When DOD needs a project done, they call the University of Nebraska and they call NSRI," he said.
After an initial $84 million from StratCom to conduct research on combating weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear, biological, chemical and cyber weapons, NSRI’s contract was renewed for $92 million in 2018.
Over the last eight years, the research institute has worked on a total of 110 contracts for more than 40 customers in the defense department and federal government, involving more than 350 faculty, researchers and students in a wide array of projects.
The institute has engaged research teams at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and UNMC to develop drugs to protect military servicemen and women from radiation exposure, as well as therapeutic antibodies to treat patients with COVID-19.
UNL's NIMBUS Lab has had work to improve drone delivery of certain sensors or other payloads sponsored through NSRI, said Brittany Duncan, an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering and a co-director of the NIMBUS Lab.
The institute has worked with UNL and UNMC researchers on a project that helps deliver oxygen to soldiers who have suffered traumatic lung injuries, as well as a vaccine for deadly agents such as anthrax and ricin.
And the work the research institute did studying the psychology and organization of terror networks helped spin off the new National Counterterrorism Innovation, Technology and Education Center, which received a $36.5 million U.S. Department of Homeland Security grant last year.
Carter said the new contract will launch the institute into “a new phase of growth and momentum in performing this incredibly important research.”
Retired Lt. Gen. Bob Hinson, the institute's executive director, said the institute started in its mission eight years ago "to burn the shoe leather," in building relationships with defense agencies and contractors and show them NU's research capabilities around combating weapons of mass destruction.
"With hard work and determination of university faculty, research, students and our NSRI team, we delivered and established the credentials, completing these multiple tasks on schedule, and in many cases, exceeding requirements," he said.
To date, NSRI has done $268 million in contract work for StratCom and more than $30 million in research work for other agencies.
The contract renewal also presents a chance for NU to continue growing its research portfolio and attracting talented faculty, researchers and students "to become part of a higher calling in supporting our national security requirements."
Paul Davis, an associate professor of biology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said one of his former undergraduates wasn't sure if she was going to finish her degree until she had her life changed after she was exposed to the work done through NSRI.
The student, Davis said, later went on to pursue a Ph.D. in infectious diseases. "She became enamored" with the potential threat of viral infections spreading from bats to humans, the same way the coronavirus pandemic is thought to have started.
"Her career has now been made, as she essentially predicted that mankind faced the potential of a viral pandemic that might have come from a bat or a similar organism," Davis said.
Breaking down Nebraska's colleges and universities
Bryan College of Health Sciences
Central Community College
Chadron State College
CHI Health School of Radiologic Technology
College of Hair Design
College of Saint Mary
Doane University Crete
Joseph's College Cosmetology
La'James International College
Metro Community College
Mid-Plains Community College
Nebraska Christian College
Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture
Nebraska Indian Community College
Nebraska Methodist College of Nursing & Allied Health
Nebraska Wesleyan University
Northeast Community College
Peru State College
Southeast Community College
Summit Christian College
University of Nebraska at Kearney
University of Nebraska Medical Center
University of Nebraska at Omaha
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Wayne State College
Western Nebraska Community College
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