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In April 2020, scientists from the National Strategic Research Institute (NSRI) at University of Nebraska (NU) joined with active-duty, reserve and Air National Guard personnel to execute particle and airflow testing of six aircraft. The project aimed to eliminate the risk of COVID-19 spread to aircrew if infected personnel were brought on board.

“It usually takes months and months to plan an experiment like this. We executed it with two weeks’ notice,” said Dillon Cunningham, NSRI director of special projects. “It was definitely an extreme turnaround for everyone involved.”

The first set of airflow tests were conducted on the KC-135 Stratotanker, C-17 Globemaster III and C-130J Hercules aircraft, followed by tests on the KC-46 Pegasus, KC-10 Extender and C-5M Super Galaxy aircraft.

The scientists from multiple disciplines used a new method of dispersing aerosol DNA tag beads, a concept Dr. Joshua Santarpia, NSRI research director for CWMD programs, invented two years before.

After the beads were released, multiple tests were performed in the air and on the ground. The scientists taped off and numbered small areas of the aircraft’s floor to capture surface samples.

“Basically, we run multiple tasks on an airframe to understand if bead one, released at the rear of the aircraft, made it up to the front; or if bead two, released in the middle of the plane, made it up to the front of the aircraft,” Cunningham said. “We can look at their spread in real time to make sure they are representative of a particular size of interest relative to the spread of different potential infectious substances.”

There wasn’t a single person on the joint-operations, interdisciplinary team that week who didn’t play a critical role in the success of the mission.

Maj. Dave Sustello, U.S. Air Force Air Mobility Command Test and Evaluation Squadron operations officer, commended NSRI and all the entities that took part for contributing to protecting the health of the mobility force.

“This was world-class support,” Sustello said. “Anything and everything we’ve asked for they’ve been able to provide, and I’m seeing that Nebraska work ethic shine through.”

Excellence, responsiveness, teamwork — that is what NSRI is all about.

Biennial Report 2020

1 July 2018 - 30 June 2020

Ted Carter

“It has been an honor and a privilege for the University of Nebraska to consistently deliver innovative solutions to the Department of Defense since the inception of the National Strategic Research Institute in 2012. We have built tremendous relationships with a wide range of government sponsors and remain a committed partner across a broad scope of capabilities for national security. Our researchers and students have tremendous opportunities to support those who wear the cloth of our nation and bring forward insights to keep us looking to the possibilities of the future.”
Ted Carter
President
University of Nebraska

ADM RIchard

“As the sponsor of the NSRI, the United States Strategic Command and its 150,000 military and civilian force are proud of their accomplishments, and we look forward to what they will offer this command and the nation in the future. Deterrence is a multi-domain effort and the outstanding faculty, staff and students at the University of Nebraska are consistently providing the tools necessary to keep our nation and our allies safe.”
ADM. Charles Richard, Commander
U.S. Strategic Command
NSRI University Affiliated Research Center Sponsor

Read

In April 2020, scientists from the National Strategic Research Institute (NSRI) at University of Nebraska (NU) joined with active-duty, reserve and Air National Guard personnel to execute particle and airflow testing of six aircraft. The project aimed to eliminate the risk of COVID-19 spread to aircrew if infected personnel were brought on board.

“It usually takes months and months to plan an experiment like this. We executed it with two weeks’ notice,” said Dillon Cunningham, NSRI director of special projects. “It was definitely an extreme turnaround for everyone involved.”

The first set of airflow tests were conducted on the KC-135 Stratotanker, C-17 Globemaster III and C-130J Hercules aircraft, followed by tests on the KC-46 Pegasus, KC-10 Extender and C-5M Super Galaxy aircraft.

The scientists from multiple disciplines used a new method of dispersing aerosol DNA tag beads, a concept Dr. Joshua Santarpia, NSRI research director for CWMD programs, invented two years before.

After the beads were released, multiple tests were performed in the air and on the ground. The scientists taped off and numbered small areas of the aircraft’s floor to capture surface samples.

“Basically, we run multiple tasks on an airframe to understand if bead one, released at the rear of the aircraft, made it up to the front; or if bead two, released in the middle of the plane, made it up to the front of the aircraft,” Cunningham said. “We can look at their spread in real time to make sure they are representative of a particular size of interest relative to the spread of different potential infectious substances.”

There wasn’t a single person on the joint-operations, interdisciplinary team that week who didn’t play a critical role in the success of the mission.

Maj. Dave Sustello, U.S. Air Force Air Mobility Command Test and Evaluation Squadron operations officer, commended NSRI and all the entities that took part for contributing to protecting the health of the mobility force.

“This was world-class support,” Sustello said. “Anything and everything we’ve asked for they’ve been able to provide, and I’m seeing that Nebraska work ethic shine through.”

Excellence, responsiveness, teamwork — that is what NSRI is all about.

Read

I am 50 years into my career, a career spent directly serving our country in the U.S. Air Force and in support roles to the Department of Defense, and I honestly can say that 2020 is as significant as any year I have seen to date. I know I’m not alone in that assessment.

While I’m sure your mind immediately tracks to the concerns and challenges of COVID-19 — as it should until there is a vaccine to combat this deadly virus — I assure you that it only represents one of the evolving threats that our sponsors must be prepared for every day. The insights and research opportunities of the last two years covered by this report are just the tip of the iceberg in illustrating the critical work we have continued to perform.

Through the National Strategic Research Institute at the University of Nebraska, I have witnessed an unwavering sense of purpose, a resolute desire to perform to the highest potential and a keen intellect, sparked by urgency and broadened by action. I am proud to lead this eminent group of professionals who continually impress me with their dedication and ability to deliver solutions to difficult problems.

For NSRI, moving toward our mission most recently has meant pursuing focus and clarity, a task we embarked on in 2019 — a goal which the intensity of 2020 has confirmed. As U.S. Strategic Command’s University Affiliated Research Center (UARC), designated by the Department of Defense, we are charged with and fully committed to helping our sponsor fulfill their mission requirements.

This year the University of Nebraska was awarded its third USSTRATCOM IDIQ contract through NSRI, an award of $92 million to bring our institute’s total contract and grant awards to $298 million since 2012. This continued commitment by USSTRATCOM, as our UARC sponsor, demonstrates our ability to deliver at the highest levels. As we have refined our focus, we have not compromised what has made us great — the expertise more than 40 customers have relied upon across the DOD.

In 2020, our dangerous world presents many serious threats to our freedom and way of life. Those threats and the world itself have become much more complex, and all defense domains will continue to be challenged in the years ahead. Hand-in-hand with our sponsor and other defense partners, NSRI and the University of Nebraska remain poised to enable research and support deterrence of, preparedness for and response to national security threats across multiple domains.

Our institute combines a rapid-response ability and genuine teamwork with leading-edge chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive technical expertise — a combination that offers both practical tools to support the warfighter and thought leadership to assist those who make the highest level defense decisions for our nation. We have demonstrated this capacity, for example, through our timely response to U.S. Transportation Command in testing their capacity for transporting infected patients on six different airframe types in just six days in April 2020 as well as our contributions to extremely high-level nuclear policy engagements. And so much more as highlighted in this report.

Our success in these efforts has been entirely dependent on the grit, intellectual capacity and resourcefulness of our people. Since 1 July 2018, we have significantly expanded the bench of our leadership team with the addition of Dr. Neal Woollen, senior research strategy officer, Dr. Christopher Yeaw, research director of nuclear programs, Dr. Josh Santarpia, research director for CWMD programs, and Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Rick Evans, deputy executive director. In total, our leadership team now touts more than 275 years of direct DOD or DOD-support experience.

Looking forward, we will continue our investment in people. We recently launched an independent research and development initiative to catalyze continued innovation for the Department of Defense from the University of Nebraska. We also refined our student intern opportunities to ensure the highest-level experiences for the highest-caliber students. We continue to convene academic experts who are driven to provide USSTRATCOM with actionable insights across the 21st century deterrence landscape.

From deliverables to capabilities to talent, NSRI is built to last well beyond our decade mark of 2022. On the occasion of the release of this biennial report, we recommit ourselves to serving as an enduring resource for the Department of Defense, a conduit through which the University of Nebraska delivers support in the form of the finest national defense and deterrence minds and resources. Our aim as a trusted agent working alongside USSTRATCOM, and other DOD agency decision-makers is to support and protect the warfighters and first responders who protect us all.

It All Starts With The Threat

As the United States’ mindset around deterrence continues to evolve given the changing international landscape, the National Strategic Research Institute (NSRI) at the University of Nebraska (NU) has evolved as well, refining its focus while remaining broad in its scope.

Understanding Our Purpose

It would be impossible to list all the ways NSRI addresses 21st century threats to our nation’s security. Here are examples that provide a glimpse into the world-class work being performed by the NSRI team with collaborators across the federal government and the University of Nebraska.

Discover Solutions To Known Unknowns

Threat

Grave challenges are being presented to U.S. national security by the rapid expansion, diversification and modernization of the nuclear forces of our great-power competitors.

Solution

NSRI is providing extremely time sensitive research on future arms control options, expanding and deepening the U.S. government’s access to technical, analytic and policy expertise for treaty architectures, core principles, national security implications, new technologies in support of treaty verification, and foreign nuclear threat and treaty compliance assessments. A leading NSRI researcher was a special advisor to the head of delegation at an international engagement on warheads and doctrine.

Learn More

Prepare for the Unthinkable

Threat

Too often, laboratory and other highly technical personnel do not receive the access to analytical exercises that decision and response groups do. As a result, these technical personnel often are unaware of the many highly qualified technical resources available nearby.

Solution

Analytical exercises allow participants to develop technical relationships among groups that have never explored opportunities to work together. In March 2020, the California WMD-Civil Support Team did not wait to be called upon to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. Science Officer Cpt. Brian Quigley, who had participated in a 2018 NSRI exercise with local partners, called the Orange County Public Health Laboratory directly and offered to help. They were directed to a nearby county in great need. The NSRI team also immediately integrated several resources and offered to help the county perform diagnostic assays based on polymerase chain reaction.

Learn More

Support the Warfighter

Threat

Traumatic lung injury often leads to death, particularly on the battlefield, since the body relies on the lungs to provide oxygen.

Solutions

Researchers from the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC), the University of Nebraska–Lincoln (UNL) and the University of Colorado–Boulder developed and validated a patented, life-saving solution using oxygenated microbubbles to bypass damaged lung tissue and release oxygen into the abdomen. Microbubbles technology can increase the survival rate of victims of mass casualty events, as well as injured, forward-deployed warfighters in low-resource environments.

Learn More

Empowering Our People

The ever-changing strategic defense environment demands ongoing parallel changes in expertise to meet dynamic research needs supporting defense leaders and warfighters. Within the last two years, NSRI has brought on leading talent to ensure accurate and efficient delivery to the Department of Defense.

NSRI Leadership & Board of Directors

In total, NSRI's leadership team possesses more than 275 years of experience working in or supporting the work of the Department of Defense.

Meet Our Team

Students of NSRI

One of the most critical solutions is a knowledgeable, capable and committed workforce equipped to carry forward 21st-century national security missions. NSRI invests its time, talent and resources into developing students from the University of Nebraska and beyond to pursue defense-related careers.

NSRI Principal Investigators

Ken Bayles, Ph.D.; David Berkowitz, Ph.D.; John Swegle, Ph.D.; Michelle Black, Ph.D.; Paul Brantmier; Keely Buesing, M.D.; Wes Carter; Dillon Cunningham; Carrick Detweiler, Ph.D.; Aimee Ketner; Sean Kinahan; Emmanuel Kumfa; Sy-Hwang Liou, Ph.D.; John Lowe, Ph.D.; Rupal Mehta, Ph.D.; Thomas Mueller, Ph.D.; Jody Neathery-Castro, Ph.D.; Laura Nolan; Lana Obradovic, Ph.D.; Stephen Obaro, M.D., Ph.D.; David Roberts; Joshua Santarpia, Ph.D.; James Talmadge, Ph.D.; James Taylor, Ph.D.; Donal Umstadter, Ph.D.; Michael Wiley, Ph.D.; Christopher Yeaw, Ph.D.

University of Nebraska Leadership

Ted Carter, President, University of Nebraska

Susan Fritz, Ph.D., Provost, University of Nebraska

Jeff Gold, M.D., Chancellor, University of Nebraska Medical Center & University of Nebraska at Omaha

Ronnie Green, Ph.D., Chancellor, University of Nebraska–Lincoln

Doug Kristensen, JD, Chancellor, University of Nebraska at Kearney

Alicia Bevins

Alicia Bevins

Computer Science, Graduate Student

University of Nebraska–Lincoln

“Working on this team with computer science researchers and students showed me what was possible when you bring these disciplines together. This project is the reason why I’ve gone on to graduate school.”
Dustin White

Dustin White, Ph.D.

UNO Assistant Professor

NSRI Principal Investigator

“Teaming up with the team at USSTRATCOM was an amazing experience that helped me understand the constraints under which their work takes place, and the ways in which automation of some of those processes makes it possible to enable improved performance of a support for military units across the DOD.”
Jennifer Larsen, UNMC VC

Jennifer Larsen, M.D.

UNMC Vice Chancellor for Research

NSRI Board of Directors

“Our researchers develop novel, cutting-edge research and solutions critical to supporting those leading our national security. We recruit exceptional faculty and students and, as needed, expand our facilities. I am proud of what we deliver to our customers and remain committed to expanding NSRI’s portfolio and the resources needed to address its core mission.”
Ronnie Green, UNL Chancellor

Ronnie Green, Ph.D.

UNL Chancellor

“Nebraska’s tremendous research growth is expanding our capacity to deliver results for our partners across the Department of Defense. Our continued momentum and NSRI’s unique focus are critical to discovering solutions for the 21st-century challenges our military faces to keep this country safe.”

Catalyst For Our Partners

The University of Nebraska (NU) continues to demonstrate its prowess in national security research and solutions. With NSRI as a DOD-designated University Affiliated Research Center (UARC), NU is a trusted-agent of the Department of Defense and a tremendous asset to the federal government.

Researchers, students, colleagues and sponsors who work with NSRI discover opportunities beyond their initial inclinations, and NRSI is proud to be a catalyst for leading national efforts coming out of the University of Nebraska.

In particular, in spring 2020 under the leadership of NSRI PI Gina Ligon, Ph.D., Jack and Stephanie Koraleski Professor of Collaboration Science and professor of management, the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) became the home of the National Counterterrorism Innovation, Technology and EducationCenter, a U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Center of Excellence. The center is spearheading a consortium of academic, industry, government and laboratory partners throughout the country in support of DHS’ mission to keep the country safe.

“NSRI played a significant role in winning the largest federal grant in the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s history. The opportunities NSRI has provided NU faculty across all four campuses has allowed us to build our capabilities in ways that are unmatched for national security research at other institutions.” 
— Gina Ligon, Ph.D., Director, National Counterterrorism Innovation Technology and Education Center

Preparing for our Future

In some ways, national defense is an inexact science. We have no choice but to grapple with unpredictable shifting, changing circumstances of world conflict and aggression from year to year and from decade to decade.

However, science and diplomacy can be used to deftly mitigate the uncertainty and respond intelligently and confidently to threats that could tear apart our way of life. Throughout the past two years, NSRI and the University of Nebraska have continued fighting behind the scenes to support our brave leaders and warfighters on the front lines of conflict. In the pages of this report, you’ll read the highlights of our efforts — and we’ll help you peer into the potential of coming years. We invite you to join the fight in your own way: through supportive contributions, participation, collaboration, communication and legislation.

NSRI's Mission
Enable deterrence of, preparedness for and response to strategic national security threats across multiple domains through leading research and support.

Committed Mission

Contracting & Business Process

As a University Affiliated Research Center (UARC), NSRI accesses an indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity (IDIQ) contract vehicle through its sponsor U.S. Strategic Command. This shortens the timeline from identification of need to contract award and creates trusted, collaborative relationships. NSRI also accepts funding from direct contracting vehicles, other transaction agreements, cooperative agreements and grants.

Doing Business with NSRI

Meeting Our Customers

NSRI and the University of Nebraska continue to invest in opportunities to provide customers across the DOD and federal government with convenient access to leading facilities and subject matter experts. Within the last two years, NSRI has upgraded its headquarters in Omaha, Neb., to a secure facility, Scott Technology Center, adjacent to the University of Nebraska at Omaha and within a short distance to the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

NSRI also opened a field office in Melbourne, Fla. The 4,100-square-foot building, adjacent to Patrick Air Force Base and less than 25 minutes from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, is well-positioned geographically to host, execute and expand scientific and engineering projects efficiently for federal sponsors.

NSRI Facilities

Reflecting on Our Accomplishments

 

The National Strategic Research Institute (NSRI) at the University of Nebraska (NU) is one of an elite group of 14 university-associated research centers that provides critical defense solutions for the nation’s decision makers. As a University Affiliated Research Center (UARC), NSRI is engaged in a long-term, strategic partnership with its Department of Defense (DOD) sponsor, United States Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM).

NSRI, a 501(c)3 organization, accesses the intellectual capacity of leading NU researchers to support the country’s deterrence and defense objectives, providing mission-essential research and development capabilities for USSTRATCOM as well as other DOD components and federal agencies focused on national security.

“University Affiliated Research Centers (UARCs) are not-for-profit entities sponsored and primarily funded by the U.S. government to address technical needs that cannot be met as effectively by existing government or contractor resources. These organizations typically assist government agencies with scientific research and development, studies and analyses, and systems engineering and integration by bringing together the expertise of government, industry, and academia to solve complex technical problems in the public interest.”
— Department of Defense UARC Engagement Guide

 

 110

40+ 

 $162M

 350+

 Contract
Awards
 Customers
 Total Award Value 
for Research Contracts
Task Order Participants
from NU

 

34

44

10

Undergraduate Students
Involved in Projects

Graduate Students
Involved in Projects

Paid Graduate
Assistantships

NSRI by the Numbers

Copy goes here

34

Undergraduate students involved in projects

44

Graduate students involved in projects

10

Paid graduate assistantships

110

Contracts Awarded

40+

Customers

$162M

Total Award Value For Research Contracts

350+

Task Order Participants From The University of Nebraska

Mission Milestones

2012

The University of Nebraska (NU) competes in a national open call for and is selected as a University Affiliated Research Center (UARC) designated by the United States Office of the Secretary of Defense. NU establishes NSRI as an affiliated but independent 501(c)3 organization to carry the UARC designation. U.S Strategic Command awards NU/NSRI its first indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity (IDIQ) contract vehicle representing future projects worth $84 million. NSRI begins convening NU researchers with federal agency customers to accomplish deliverables.

2013

With $600,000 NU startup funding, NSRI lands contracts for 22 task orders. The task orders total $9 million — a significant accomplishment for a UARC’s inaugural year. This validates the demand for national defense support and confirms the value of NU’s and NSRI’s research capabilities across chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive domains.

2014

NSRI serves its 10th customer. Projects demonstrate the breadth of NU’s capabilities and capacity. Through a key project, “Low- Dose Radiographic System,” University of Nebraska– Lincoln physicists eventually will demonstrate that laser-produced X-rays can penetrate steel much thicker than cargo container walls and detect an even smaller amount of uranium than the minimum required by inspection standards.

2015

NSRI and NU complete their 25th research project for Department of Defense (DOD) and federal agency customers, while conducting 20 additional projects. In total, 24 NU researchers have participated as principal investigators on projects through NSRI since 2012. Projects include immunomics unit research support ($5.3 million), traffic-calming elements for entrycontrol facilities to delay and contain threats ($1 million) and a next-generation sequence training module ($1 million).

2016

Total contract awards since 2012 surpass $42 million, with $18.3 million awarded in 2016 alone — the highest one-year total to date. NSRI and NU have provided deliverables on 60 task orders, contracts and grants. NSRI scientists with extensive DOD experience are brought on board and begin work on a $9.3 million, 3-year contract involving biological field and laboratory support.

2017

NSRI begins expanding its physical footprint beyond Nebraska to better support defense customers. The NSRI National Capital Region Laboratory and Conference Center opens in Annapolis Junction, Md., and the NSRI Fredericksburg Field Office & Laboratory opens in Fredericksburg, Va. A cross-campus partnership of UNMC and UNL launches the Nebraska Drug Discovery Pipeline through a $7.3 million DOD contract. The pipeline will go on to assist in development of drugs to mitigate and/or counteract effects of Acute Radiation Syndrome.

2018

NSRI has facilitated 83 contract awards from 24 sponsors, totaling $61 million. More than 240 NU researchers and students have participated in projects. In this year alone, five contract awards total more than $8 million each. Several projects enter a second phase, including, “En Route Care Acute Respiratory Distress System (ARDS) Mitigation Using Oxygenated Microbubbles” and “Medical Countermeasure Drug Discovery and Development.” To keep pace with demand, USSTRATCOM awards the second IDIQ to the University of Nebraska through NSRI. This one for $92 million.

2019

NSRI and NU experience the most significant year-over-year contract growth to date — a 51% increase over 2018. Since 2012, NSRI has facilitated $155 million in contracts, with an estimated NU ROI of $3.30 for every $1 invested. By 2019, NSRI has served more than 40 defense customers. NSRI’s employee numbers surpass 50, and the institute expands its leadership team.

2020

The University of Nebraska and NSRI respond rapidly to evolving COVID-19 mitigation efforts, quickly adapting existing defense data, skills, tools and personnel to support the nation’s most immediate need. NSRI is awarded its third IDIQ contract from USSTRATCOM, another $92 million for application to ongoing defense initiatives, and the institute opens the new Space Coast Field Office in Melbourne, Fl.

Innovative Capabilities Across Multiple Domains

 

With the University of Nebraska, NSRI delivers technology, product and strategy development as well as training, exercises and subject matter expert advice to Department of Defense sponsors across the spectrum of national security threats and across multiple domains.

While the institute’s priorities shift based upon the needs of the Department of Defense, its focus within the core competencies defined by its designation as a University Affiliated Research Center endure. Institute and university leadership continually build upon the accomplishments of researchers and students to bring the foresight of its experts to bear on not only the current needs of those charged with protecting our country, but the needs of the future as well. The following pages drill down into the abilities and deliverables within the key focus areas of the institute over the last two-year period.

UARC Core Competencies

  • Active & Passive Defense Against Weapons of Mass Destruction
  • Nuclear Detection & Forensics
  • Consequence Management
  • Detection of Chemical & Biological Weapons
  • Mission-Related Research

The Modernization of Nuclear Deterrence

U.S. defense efforts in many ways broadened after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Cold War ended, and while foundational nuclear capabilities remained, the nation’s defenders turned their attention to terrorism and counterterrorism, with multiple expanding domains ranging from chemical and biological threats to electromagnetic security and evolving cyber and space threats.

Nuclear weapons again became a leading defense priority with the advancing nuclear capabilities not only of the U.S.’s traditional great power adversary, Russia, but of smaller competitors such as India, Pakistan and Iran, as well as an emerging third great power: China. In this multipolar threat environment, the U.S. government intensified its focus on nuclear deterrence and nuclear command, control and communication (NC3) at a level not seen in the decades since the last nuclear weapons were tested.

To support the government’s ability to lead the U.S. interagency and the worldwide diplomatic community in nuclear areas of national and global security, USSTRATCOM and the government called upon NSRI to expand and deepen its access to technical, analytic and policy expertise in this field. During the two years covered by this report, the institute’s service to American defense has been driven by this intensified focus and the ensuing needs of NSRI’s sponsor and the U.S. Department of Defense.

Detecting and Countering Biological and Chemical Weapons

Trusted-Agent of the Federal Government Working to Modernize Defense Assets

Shortly after news of the Anthrax letters became public, graduate student Joshua Santarpia, who was studying atmospheric aerosols at Texas A&M, began to wonder how he could apply his work to the problems of biological defense. He thought of technologies that could use light to discriminate biological threats from innocuous particles.

In 2005, Dr. Santarpia took his first job at the Edgewood Chemical and Biological Center and began testing biodetection devices for the Department of Homeland Security. At the time, the biodetection and identification systems might be the size of a refrigerator and no one understood their performance in an operational environment.

Today, Dr. Santarpia is a pathology and microbiology associate professor at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and NSRI’s research director of CWMD programs. He is working with colleagues to develop a technology that will weigh less than five pounds, fit on a small unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) and perform the same functions as the refrigerator-sized systems of 15 years ago. He is also working on new technology, in collaboration with a colleague at Army Research Labs, that uses a novel light scattering technique to detect biological aerosols in the atmosphere.

Biological weapons are difficult to detect, but surveillance to identify attacks early is the best way to mitigate them.

“Our purpose is not just about giving answers. What we do is actually take the research and give our sponsors the capability, and that’s what we do well.”
— Joshua Santarpia, Ph.D
NSRI Research Director for CWMD Programs, UNMC
Associate Professor of Pathology and Microbiology

Addressing Unseen WMD Threats with Real-World Solutions

In part due to advances in science and technology, such as UAV capabilities, throughout the past few decades there has been increased attention on chemical and biological terrorism and a growing concern that foreign states could use these WMD — or already are using them. The fast spread of the

COVID-19 coronavirus underscored the potential devastation that could result if someone did decide to use such a weapon.

However, the same technology that has advanced potential threats also increases defenders’ ability to fight them. For these and other reasons, interdicting, detecting and mitigating biological and chemical WMD is and has been a priority for NSRI and its defense customers.

Biological WMD solutions: NSRI has collaborated for many years with NU researchers and endusers to develop and implement new technology to support virtually every aspect of biological defense and biosurveillance, especially regarding organisms dispersed in aerosols. Individual efforts support a range of aerobiology and environmental microbiology research.

Chemical WMD solutions: NSRI researchers have been working to address chemical threats for defense agencies including supporting chemical detector programs and hosting tabletop exercises and technology reviews.

Anticipating and Responding to Evolving Threats

Built on a foundation of decades of University of Nebraska research capabilities, NSRI projects in the past two years have helped develop WMD countermeasures in multiple domains. Projects ranged from concept and development to testing and prototyping. Much of the work during these two years was focused heavily on detection using unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) like the one being developed by Dr. Santarpia’s team.

When the coronavirus appeared at the end of this period, NSRI and NU researchers were ready to step in with technology and skills already in play — and they expect to be working on virus-related challenges for some time.

In April 2020, NSRI formalized the process of developing chemical WMD solutions with a new chemical defense directorate. In the few months since opening, the new directorate has engaged in projects with NU research experts, top government stakeholders, other UARCs and private industry. The initial focus has been on direct support for operational use, including providing subject matter expertise, field testing, and training law enforcement.

The NSRI Chemical Defense Directorate, since its launch in April of 2020, has been led by Dr. Thomas Mueller. He offers a decade of senior-level experience in chemical research and development from Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) and Battelle Memorial Institute. He has been with NSRI since 2018. Dr. Mueller will continue to grow NSRI’s capabilities across the chemical threat spectrum to become a go-to resource for government, military and private mission partners. Read more about Dr. Santarpia and Dr. Mueller at nsri.nebraska.edu/experts.

“I’m a scientist through and through. I’m not on the front lines, but this is my way to give back to support my country.”
— Thomas Mueller, Ph.D.
NSRI, Director, Chemical Defense Programs

Much of NSRI’s work in all of these domains is steeped in the science behind solutions, because the tasks are taken on by NU researchers who have devoted their lives to scientific study. However, lessons learned and skills obtained through science offer a secondary value as a support for operational and intelligence tasks within military and government defense-focused departments. In addition, NSRI researchers have worked with the institute’s field operations and training team to prepare law enforcement departments, military missions and civil support teams to identify and successfully respond to incidents.

NSRI is committed to keeping the pipeline of scientific researchers filled to provide a future workforce in these areas. A great deal of the institute’s support goes to providing student opportunities. From building prototypes to manufacturing biomedical devices, mechanical engineering undergrad and graduate students directly supported projects for Department of Defense agencies during their experience in the University of Nebraska– Lincoln Terry Research Laboratory.

Evie Ehrhorn, senior molecular and biomedical biology major at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, was one of six undergraduate students working closely with Dr. Paul Davis, associate professor, on several projects through NSRI during this reporting period. She specifically focused on exploring the mechanistic actions of the immune system.

“Once beginning this research, I realized my love and passion for it. I have decided to pursue a doctorate degree in immunology and infectious diseases, and, in the future, I would like to continue my work of protecting our country by supporting the Department of Defense.”
— Evie Ehrhorn
Senior, Molecular and Biomedical Biology, UNO

Tangible Steps Toward 21st-Century Solutions

COVID-19 Pandemic Support

NSRI’s background and expertise in aerosolized bioweapons and measurement were immediately transferable to the institute’s response to COVID-19, because transmission of the virus works in a similar way. NSRI teams were able to push solutions out to sponsors quickly.

Going forward, NSRI and NU researchers will work directly with the Department of Defense to help develop and field environmental monitoring capabilities and learn more about patient transport and general troop movements with the reality of the novel coronavirus. Scientists will develop capabilities for detecting the virus with new technologies, administer clinical samples of antibodies and very comprehensively help to address the problem in virtually every aspect.

UAS Detection

NSRI and the university have various people working on unmanned aircraft projects across this focus area. Projects include both fixed-wing chemical and biological detection devices, which expands the chemical and biological work of the last couple of years. The new systems are being developed at the request of government, military and commercial end-users who will use them to help protect military installations and other environments where biological WMD are suspected. Experience gained also is going to be used by a similar set of defense customers to evaluate detection technologies for COVID-19.

Field Test of Mass Spectrometer

With NU and commercial partners, NSRI researchers are integrating a high-pressure mass spectrometer (HPMS) into a fixed-wing unmanned aerial system (UAS). The HPMS provides trace-level chemical vapor selectivity to discriminate priority threats from interferents, as well as actionable intelligence, in seconds. NSRI is field-testing the integrated HPMS to provide real-time trace vapor detection capabilities with geolocation tags to support find-and-fix missions.

“We go into the field and put tech through its paces to make sure it works under operational conditions,” Dr. Mueller said.

Contributions to Darpa Echo

Exciting projects in the biological domain include exploration of the human epigenome in a new way to get a diagnostic and forensic picture that contains historic events locked into each individual’s epigenome. The program goal is to harness the epigenome to determine if and when someone has been exposed to WMD precursors or agents. NSRI is coordinating the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency ECHO effort focused on the large-scale production of synthetic opioids by providing subject matter expertise for opioid synthesis, operational training scenarios and sample collection for mission partners.

Training Course for Fentanyl Response and Chemical Synthesis

For the institute’s training team, NSRI chemical WMD experts provided realistic scenarios focused on pharmaceutical-based agents, including fentanyl and analogs. The chemical defense directorate provides up-to-date information and current understanding of the hazards to course instructors.

“Because overdoses have been in the news a lot over the last couple of years, there has been a lot of misinformation about the hazards and how to respond,” Dr. Mueller said. “Some of this stems from the media not understanding exactly what happens and how it works.” Learn more about NSRI training opportunities on page 40.

Developing Defense-Ready Capabilities for Impending Threats

Until NSRI’s next biennial report, much of the emphasis in this focus area will be on working in partnership with NU researchers to respond to evolving needs related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, the beauty of this and other work NSRI and NU researchers are undertaking right now is that the current advancements will help defense decision-makers anticipate the threats to the United States that may be coming next.

Featured Facilities, Centers & Laboratories

Resources On-Tap To Power Defense Missions

Facilities

Developing Our Future Workforce

One of the greatest threats to our country’s national security is the lack of workforce across the disciplines of science, technology, engineering and math. As a University Affiliated Research Center, one of NSRI’s major responsibilities is to contribute to the development of our next generations of scientists and leaders. This is critical to staying ahead of evolving threats and international competition. NSRI takes action to empower and inspire postdoctoral scientists as well as graduate and undergraduate students.

Postdoctoral Scholars

NSRI postdoctoral scholars work directly with the Defense Threat Reduction Agency’s basic research and development program managers to support the countering weapons of mass destruction mission. At one of the top Department of Defense research institutions in the nation, these scholars have the opportunity to contribute in the areas of nuclear technologies, CWMD technologies, chemical-biological sciences and test science.

Within the roles they fill scholars learn first-hand from operators in the field about technological gaps. They work to translate complex national security needs into basic research and development requirements while also providing technical programmatic oversight and actualizing innovative ideas and solutions in the CWMD mission space.

Learn More


NSRI Postdoctoral Scholars During This Reporting Period:

  • Tariq Alam, Ph.D.
  • Damien Alexander, Ph.D.
  • Evan Eakins, Ph.D.
  • Ronald Gamble, Ph.D.
  • William Hoston, Ph.D.
  • Helen Jackson, Ph.D.
  • Marie Kirkegaard, Ph.D.
  • Samuel Rhodes, Ph.D.
  • Jeffrey Rolfes, Ph.D.
  • Fidel Ruz-Nuglo, Ph.D.
  • Richard Oates, Ph.D.
  • Adam Weltz, Ph.D.
  • Andrew Zeidal, Ph.D.

Students of NSRI

University of Nebraska students have the opportunity to expand their perspectives and shape their futures through NSRI internships, training and research. Funded through sponsor contracts or NSRI initiatives, students gain invaluable, paid real-world experience and often earn course credit for their work. In all instances, their contributions lead to valuable deliverables for DOD and federal agency customers and/or NSRI.

Learn More


Featured Students Throughout This Report

  • Alicia Bevins, University of Nebraska–Lincoln
  • Nathan Borcyk, University of Nebraska–Lincoln
  • Jasmine Cashin, University of Nebraska–Lincoln
  • Dylan Christiansen, University of Nebraska at Omaha
  • Dallas Drapal, University of Nebraska–Lincoln
  • Evie Ehrhorn, University of Nebraska at Omaha
  • Ashlee McGill, University of Nebraska–Lincoln
  • Matthew Newman, University of Nebraska–Lincoln
  • Walker Pendleton, University of Nebraska at Omaha
  • Grant Phillips, University of Nebraska–Lincoln
  • Tony Wilson, University of Nebraska–Lincoln

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