up next Ken Bayles
Keeping our Country Safe
By Jackie Ostrowicki
The Department of Defense (DoD), America's largest government agency, is tasked with providing the military forces needed to deter war and ensure our nation's security. Although you may think of national defense as originating from the Pentagon in Washington D.C., support for national defense comes from across the nation—including Nebraska.
U.S. Strategic Command, one of eleven combatant commands located around the world, is headquartered at Offutt Air Force Base in Bellevue, Nebraska. From there, it works across the world to deter and detect strategic attacks against the United States.
Strategic deterrence includes research that ensures U.S. safety and preparedness against increasingly sophisticated threats. And this is where the University of Nebraska steps in.
National Defense Research and NSRI
Many of the national defense opportunities that come the university’s way arrive through the National Strategic Research Institute, the university’s research center that serves the Department of Defense and USSTRATCOM.
Established in 2012, the National Strategic Research Institute, or NSRI, is one of only 15 DoD University-Affiliated Research Centers across the nation. Each of these UARCS has a dedicated research focus area and partners with a specific DoD service or command. The centers are responsible for maintaining essential research and development capabilities to support the DoD with basic, applied and technology demonstration research.
NSRI focuses on strategic deterrence and combating weapons of mass destruction—both important U.S. Strategic Command and DoD mission areas.
“I describe UARCs as part of the research enterprise that fills gaps where the DoD can’t otherwise meet its needs,” said Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Rick Evans, NSRI’s executive director. “The DoD has a variety of federally funded labs, federally funded research and development centers, and other organizations that it can call on, but they can't fill all its requirements.
“The DoD recognizes that academia has a lot of capability to contribute to national security. The University of Nebraska has faculty who are experts; we have cutting-edge research facilities and technology that that is valuable to them. They created UARCs to give them an efficient way to tap into university capability to support their military missions.”
The relationship is positive for both the DoD and for faculty who are interested in conducting research that supports national defense. Dr. Ken Bayles, the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s vice chancellor for research, is one of those faculty members. In 2014, Bayles worked to develop a more effective vaccine for anthrax that could be used in the field in the event of a bioterrorism attack. He was one of the first researchers to work with NSRI.
“We have unique access to the biomedical research portfolio of the DoD, which is massive. It opens a whole new world of research to our faculty.”
Now, Bayles leads research at the UNMC—a research powerhouse. In 2022, sponsored research totaled at UNMC $251.9 million dollars, creating a new annual record. These dollars build on state support—which pays faculty and keeps buildings open and lights on—and allow researchers to pursue innovative approaches to solve pressing problems.
“The UARC status gives UNMC a seat at the table,” Bayles said. “It's a great collaboration. We have unique access to the biomedical research portfolio of the DoD, which is massive. It opens a whole new world of research to our faculty—and allows them to contribute to the well-being of our country in ways not possible through more traditional funding agencies.”
Ideally Suited for National Defense Research
In addition to his role as UNMC’s vice chancellor for research, Bayles is an active infectious disease researcher and a professor in the Department of Pathology and Microbiology. His research has helped expand DoD-related activities, including work on countermeasures against weapons of mass destruction.
Bayles grew up in Kansas with the goal of becoming a biologist. He graduated from Kansas State University with his Ph.D. in 1989, where he focused on microbiology and molecular genetics. After completing postdoctoral work at the University of Maryland, he landed his first faculty position at the University of Idaho. He left Idaho to come to UNMC and has been in Nebraska ever since.
Although other University of Nebraska campuses also work on national defense, UNMC holds a large portion of NSRI's portfolio when it comes to funded research.
“UNMC is ideally suited for this type of research,” Bayles said. “We have the secure laboratory space, expertise and experience for the development of improved countermeasures against chemical and biological weapons.”
UNMC's cutting-edge technology core facilities range from advanced microscopy and DNA sequencing to mass spectrometry flow, cytometry, mouse genome engineering and more.
They also have a large number of laboratory spaces where chemicals, drugs, or other biological material are tested and analyzed. This includes Biosafety Level 3 (BSL-3) laboratories, used to study infectious agents or toxins that may be transmitted through the air and cause potentially lethal infections.
“Having a UARC in Nebraska is a priceless asset. If you look at who the other UARCs are, you're talking about a prestigious group of universities to be affiliated with. This is unique, and we're very proud to have it here.”
“Having a UARC in Nebraska is a priceless asset,” Evans said. “If you look at who the other UARCs are—Johns Hopkins, Georgia Tech, Texas, Penn State, Maryland, MIT, Southern Cal—you're talking about a prestigious group of universities to be affiliated with. This is unique, and we're very proud to have it here.”
He continued, “The dollars and the task orders and the contracts are numbers, and they're important. But the real measurement of our success is our impact on the warfighter and on the national security of our country.”
What the Future Looks Like
UNMC is involved with the federal government in many ways beyond national defense. Project NExT is a transformational public-private partnership currently underway—one that will improve the readiness of the American health system to respond to a catastrophic disaster, another pandemic, or an overt attack.
The Project NExT plan calls for creating a federal, all-hazard health security disaster response space. The space leverages UNMC’s experience and global leadership in infectious diseases and biopreparedness to meet America’s current and future unmet health care training, education and capacity needs.
“The dollars and the task orders and the contracts are numbers, and they're important. But the real measurement of our success is our impact on the warfighter and on the national security of our country.”
The Davis Global Center is a highly advanced simulation training facility located at UNMC. It’s a place where learners at all levels of training, and from every healthcare discipline, can practice and hone their skills in realistic health care environments. From surgical simulation to clinical and patient simulations, it replicates a complete health care system.
In 2016, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services awarded nearly $20 million to UNMC and Nebraska Medicine to develop a national Training, Simulation and Quarantine Center. And in 2017, the Global Center for Health Security, which oversees all biopreparedness efforts, was established.
“The Global Center for Health Security helps train and prepare the federal government for any kind of disaster—from responding to an infectious disease to handling and transporting patients with highly infectious diseases,” Bayles said.
“NSRI focuses on training the military audience. UNMC has the same type of capabilities, focusing more on training the professional medical community,” Evans said. “When you put those two together, it coalesces to a very unique capability—right here in Nebraska.”
“Part of the vision for UNMC is to build areas of expertise. We can't do everything. But we can focus on our strengths, build on them and make them the best in the world.”
With nationally recognized centers like the Global Center for Health Security and transformational opportunities like Project NExT, UNMC is poised for research success—particularly when it comes to national defense.
“If you're going to be a first-class university system, these are things that give us an advantage over others in terms of attracting elite faculty and research opportunities to Nebraska,” Evans said.
When NSRI’s Evans thinks about the future, he thinks about growth:
“If I look out 50 years, we have the capacity to do more than a $92 million contract with the DoD — we can be a $1 billion system of national security problem solvers. I want to set the stage for decades of growth and relevance.”
“Part of the vision for UNMC is to build areas of expertise,” Bayles said. “We can't do everything. But we can focus on our strengths, build on them and make them the best in the world.”
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