University of Nebraska researchers working to advance national security, defense

Defeating a violent extremist organization requires an understanding of how the group’s leaders operate and recruit.

For insight, the U.S. military can turn to experts like the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Gina Ligon, who specializes in analyzing both productive and destructive leadership, including how leaders of extremist groups develop, make decisions and influence others.

Ligon, an assistant professor of management and director of research and development for UNO’s Center for Collaboration Science, is one of a number of faculty from across the University of Nebraska who are engaged in NU’s National Strategic Research Institute. The institute, a collaboration between the university and the United States Strategic Command, aims to be a global leader in research on combating weapons of mass destruction.

Established in 2012, the institute already has attracted $15 million in contract funding for NU faculty to pursue critical research projects focused on advancing national security – including projects led by Ligon that analyze how enemies might use cyber-terrorism to attack the United States.

“The reality is, weapons of mass destruction present a grave threat to the American public. The cutting-edge research taking place at the University of Nebraska is helping to keep that threat to a minimum,” said Robert Hinson, founding executive director of the National Strategic Research Institute and a retired U.S. Air Force Lieutenant General. “Our faculty are leading experts in their fields and they have helped us get off to a terrific start. I’m proud of the work we’re doing to keep our country safe and support our men and women in uniform, and I’m excited about what’s to come.”

The National Strategic Research Institute is one component of the university’s 2015-17 biennial budget request, which includes a $20 million economic competitiveness package that seeks to advance initiatives related to workforce development, talent recruitment, public-private partnerships, and research and innovation. About $1.5 million of the package would be directed to NSRI to support personnel and programmatic needs of the institute during its early stages. The university expects the institute to become self-supporting in the near future after additional contract awards are received.

The National Strategic Research Institute is the newest of 13 University-Affiliated Research Centers (UARCs) across the United States, all of which are affiliated with leading research universities and involve a long-term partnership with the Department of Defense. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Johns Hopkins University and Penn State University – all national leaders in research and development expenditures financed by the Department of Defense – are among the other prestigious universities hosting a UARC.

NU’s institute focuses on five core areas of expertise demonstrated by NU faculty: nuclear detection and forensics; detection of chemical and biological weapons; passive medical defense against weapons of mass destruction; consequence management; and space, cyber and telecommunications law.

For example, Kenneth Bayles, associate vice chancellor for basic science research and professor of pathology and microbiology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, is working to develop a more effective vaccine for anthrax that could be used in the field in the event of a bioterrorism attack. His research project, which has received more than $750,000, supports six employees.

“The National Strategic Research Institute has allowed me to expand my research to include more translational research – research that could apply to finding cures for diseases, vaccine development, and development of antidotes. It could directly benefit individuals who will be exposed to biodefense agents,” Bayles said. “UNMC is ideally suited for this type of research because we have the secure laboratory space, expertise and experience for the development of improved countermeasures against chemical and biological weapons.”

Another faculty member, Don Umstadter, Leland J. & Dorothy H. Olson Chair in Atomic, Molecular and Optical Physics in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Department of Physics, is pioneering the science, technology and applications of extreme light with the high-powered Diocles laser. This work relates to NSRI’s core capability for better detection of nuclear materials.

“Our recently developed technology uniquely allows us to ‘see’ what was previously invisible,” Umstadter said. “Also, our ongoing fundamental scientific research will undoubtedly lead to other breakthroughs that provide the Department of Defense with unforeseen advantages.”

Other initial projects at the National Strategic Research Institute include:

  • James Talmadge, UNMC professor of pathology and microbiology, is working on strategies that can better protect soldiers from biological weapons. He leads a team focused on formulating a vaccine for Ebola, which is estimated to have killed nearly 5,000 people thus far in the current outbreak in West Africa. While no vaccine yet exists, two Americans have been successfully treated at the Biocontainment Patient Care Unit in Omaha.

  • Jeyamkondan Subbiah, Kenneth E. Morrison Distinguished Professor of Food Engineering and associate professor in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering at UNL, is conducting research that could lead to more thorough and rapid responses to foodborne outbreaks affecting Department of Defense or Department of State personnel in the United States or other countries.

  • Douglas Derrick, assistant professor of information technology innovation at UNO, is working on a project that could enable more rapid understanding, risk assessment and decision-making for national leaders in the event of hostile enemy actions or man-made or natural disasters.

  • Mario Scalora, professor of psychology at UNL and an expert in threat assessment, is analyzing strategies that can “prime” potential adversaries to be more receptive to messages that could deter them from deploying weapons of mass destruction.

SOUND BITES

  • “Small & Select Group”
    University of Nebraska Interim President James Linder, M.D., explains that the University of Nebraska is home to one of only 13 University-Affiliated Research Centers in the country. All UARCs are affiliated with the Department of Defense and are focused on advancing national security and defense.

  • “Facilities & Expertise”
    Dr. Bayles explains that the University of Nebraska has the faculty expertise and resources in place to make it a leader in national security and defense research.

  • “Our UARC”
    Dr. Bayles notes that the University of Nebraska’s National Strategic Research Institute is the only biomedical University-Affiliated Research Center in the country and discusses the unique funding opportunities that come with it.

  • “Reap the Benefits”
    The University of Nebraska established the National Strategic Research Institute in 2012 and in its first two years, the institute has already attracted more than $15 million in contract funding. Dr. Bayles discusses the opportunities for the future and the impact the institute can have in conducting research that supports the military.

Melissa Lee
Director of Communications
University of Nebraska
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(402) 580-3297 (cell)
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