NBDC seeks to lessen the impact
Hui Ru Ng might not have boarded a flight to Nebraska if not for Tommy Lee.
Ru (as her friends call her) was raised in Malaysia and dreamed of traveling to the U.S. to enroll at a college that was equally affordable and reputable. She also dreamed of seeing the sun-swept landscape exhibited in the since-canceled TV show “Tommy Lee Goes to College,” which chronicled the former Mötley Crüe drummer’s uninspired attempt to assimilate at Nebraska’s land grant institution.
Ru ultimately chose the University of Nebraska at Omaha and boarded an airplane for the first time.
“Back home, it’s summer all year,” she said. “When I got to the airport, I was like, ‘Oh, this isn’t what I thought.’ But I grew to love this place because of the people. I will never forget how Nebraskans supported me.”
After completing her undergraduate degree, Ru applied to be a graduate assistant at the Nebraska Business Development Center located at UNO. Oluwaseun Olaore (Seun, as his friends call him) applied around the same time.
A project director back home in Nigeria, Olaore foresaw a professional ceiling unless he had an advanced degree.
Ru and Seun’s two years with the NBDC coincided with a 100-year flood and a COVID-19 pandemic. Suddenly the vulnerabilities of the Midwestern economy were tested like never before.
“This whole experience actually made me realize that I want to start a small business,” said Ru after having experienced a frightening two-part course on the financial realities of small-business ownership in times of crisis. “You get inspired by clients, see their innovation and passion.”
Seun too came away from this experience reaffirmed in his commitment to the industry.
“I’ve been able to help business owners figure out a way around these problems,” he said. “This hasn’t scared me away. It has strengthened me.”
Since its founding in 1977, NBDC has operated with a statewide mission out of its office in UNO’s College of Business Administration. For nearly four decades, Robert Bernier shepherded the center as its director.
“My opinion is that small business is more important to Nebraska, more important to our communities than anything,” said Catherine Lang, assistant dean of the UNO College of Business Administration who took over as NBDC state director for Bernier in 2016. “Nebraska small-business owners are innovative, resilient and tenacious. They care about their community.”
With Lang’s guidance, NBDC has assisted more than 8,500 clients — everything from fire-rated window providers to monarch butterfly habitat conservers — and helped them obtain in excess of $590 million in government contracts. All told, NBDC had a $1.9 billion impact on Nebraska’s economy over just the last four years, either directly creating or saving nearly 6,000 jobs.
If the NBDC is a tent, there are five support poles beneath: the Small Business Development Center, the Procurement Technical Assistance Center, Innovation and Technology Assistance, Professional and Organizational Development, and NU Connections.
There are centers in Chadron, Grand Island, Kearney, Lincoln, McCook, Norfolk, North Platte, Omaha, Scottsbluff and Wayne.
As Lang puts it, “We are kind of campus agnostic. We serve the entire state.”
One-on-one discussions are confidential and available free of charge. Proposals are tailored to the client.
“We work with them to develop their business plan,” Lang said. “That way they’re 100 percent intimately knowledgeable about financials, market research, everything.”
Located in UNO’s Mammel Hall, the center can tap into the university’s student body and faculty. “There’s a nice little symbiotic relationship between the academic world and the business world,” said UNO economics professor Christopher Decker.
Bernier deserves a lion’s share of the credit for the success of the graduate assistant program, Lang contends.
At any given time, Ru juggles a dozen clients on the innovation and technology side of the operation, helping them identify which grants to pursue. Olaore works with the small-business development center to help companies flesh out business plans, construct financial projections and apply for loans.
“They hire a lot of international students in the office,” Ru said, mentioning that three continents are currently represented by graduate assistants. “We have great diversity.”
When the pandemic arrived, NBDC was prepared.
“We had to be ready,” Lang said. “Businesses all over the state are contacting us for help — clients who are trying to navigate this whole CARES act, SBA loans, unemployment insurance, IRS rules.”
The inspired work has left an impact on those providing it.
“These people are so passionate,” Ru said. “You learn a lot from them.”
Lang loves how interconnected the NBDC is, that resources are available no matter where a company sprouts from. And indeed, there is an irony almost poetic about salt-of-the-earth Nebraskans turning to students born thousands of miles away for guidance through the all-encompassing storm.
“I know we’re just a sliver of the entire ecosystem of Nebraska,” Lang said. “But I’m so very proud. We are always going to do the best we can.”
UNO students team with UNMC, Apple Inc. to develop COVID-19 app
It starts with an email notification.
An interesting opportunity. Care to hop on a conference call to discuss?
The three University of Nebraska at Omaha students are intrigued.
On the phone, the pitch goes like this:
Would you like to build a groundbreaking mobile application with considerable value as a public health tool? It’ll involve collaborating with two teams.
The first is the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Global Center for Health Security, which is rapidly working to quell an unprecedented global health crisis and is also home to the nation’s only federal quarantine unit. The other is Apple Inc.
With the COVID-19 pandemic having recently arrived in Nebraska, spring break has come early.
No need to juggle coursework.
The students quickly agree.
Work begins immediately. Prototyping and wireframing and coding. Analysis and dialogue and refinement. Daily meetings stretch into the pre-dawn hours as each team navigates hunger — the UNMC team subsisted on takeout curry — exhaustion and multiple time zones.
As news segments turn some of their peers infamous during imprudent trips to warmer regions, Keegan Brown, Grayson Stanton and Carly Cameron spend their spring break tucked away in a design studio, maintaining 6 feet of separation and working in conjunction with experts in the fields of medicine and technology.
Less than three weeks later, 1-Check COVID was available in the Apple App Store and was downloaded more than 10,000 times in the first 10 days. The app is now also available on Google Play for Android phone users.
1-Check COVID is a risk-assessment tool that asks the user a series of questions ranging from biographical to geographical before inquiring about symptoms. All are computed in an effort to assess the likelihood of someone having contracted COVID-19. Once the questions are completed, users learn their risk levels: low, urgent or emergent. From there, they are guided toward subsequent steps, whether to continue to monitor their symptoms or contact the public health department. If users agree, they can share their risk profiles with health care professionals, employers and family members, among others.
“This will hopefully be lifesaving,” UNO and UNMC Chancellor Jeffrey P. Gold, M.D., said in a news release, which names the three Scott Scholars, who are all Nebraska natives, computer science majors and underclassmen. Cameron, the oldest of the trio, was 2 years old when the SARS outbreak occurred. She doesn’t remember it.
In a time of crisis, both UNMC and Apple have bet on youth. And youth has delivered.
“What these students did is nothing short of extraordinary,” said Harnoor Singh, director of student development for the Walter Scott, Jr. Scholarship Program (Scott Scholars), which was launched in 1997, thanks to the generous support of the Suzanne & Walter Scott Foundation. The program challenges high-achieving engineering and information science and technology students to develop their technical, creative and leadership skills.
“These are the students we’ve been waiting for,” Singh added.
As a Ph.D. candidate at UNMC, Thang Nguyen is researching and developing decision-support tools. An innovator at heart, Nguyen had built one such tool focused on strep throat analysis “as a launching-off point,” he said.
Then came a pandemic. And an opportunity.
With an understanding of how to parse the literature, decode and translate information into a language that coders can comprehend, Nguyen pivoted to the issue at hand, using the same logic that was already built.
“A lot of what we do is identify problems as they come up and try to just solve in a rapid manner,” said Michael Wadman, M.D., chair of the UNMC Department of Emergency Medicine, “so I think that’s kind of our mindset when we approach any problem.”
A relationship between Scott Scholars and Apple Inc. formed after UNO students took part in a summerlong workshop called AppJam, which included a trip to the tech giant’s California campus. Gold reached out to Singh to see if a partnership could be struck between the three teams.
After the Scott Scholars, UNMC and Apple began working together, Nguyen said the students’ focus and attention to detail stuck out.
“When you cross from the clinical side to the technical, there’s a lot of language that gets lost,” he said. “There was none of that with this team. Those are special students in a very high-functioning program. I don’t know if you see that in too many places.”
Apple representatives helped the teams troubleshoot bugs and fast-track the app for development.
“Sometimes it takes several weeks just to get approval through the App Store,” Singh said, noting that his team needed all of two weeks and five days to bring the project to the public.
“It has the potential to save so many lives,” he said, “to not only allow folks to assess their risk, but also decrease the pressure on emergency rooms and urgent care clinics.
“Sometimes the universe brings people together. Personally, I couldn’t be more proud of our students. I don’t know how many times I heard Apple executives say, ‘This has never been done before.’
“A public health crisis like this has the ability to leverage human talent to create radically innovative solutions. We took a group of high achievers and placed them in a learning environment that emphasizes human-centered design and were very intentional with teaching them how to navigate ambiguity and how to become comfortable with failure. These are all elements that they’ve learned in the Scott Scholars program.”
UNO Professor Examines Loneliness
In 2019, researchers and the media began sounding alarm bells about a “loneliness epidemic” — a rise in people reporting feelings of isolation that could become a health crisis, leading to increases in heart disease or even shorter life spans.
And that was before COVID-19. Before the world shut itself indoors and government leaders mandated, and pleaded, for everyone to stay at least 6 feet apart.
Isolation and social distancing are terms the world is all too familiar with now.
“I have, for years, been trying to come up with ways to make people more aware,” said Todd Richardson, Ph.D., an associate professor in the University of Nebraska at Omaha Goodrich Scholarship Program who is researching loneliness. “And then this comes around and does it for me.”
What researchers like Richardson have warned of — fraying social connections and the ways people arrange their lives to perpetuate isolation — rocketed to the world’s collective consciousness as COVID-19 spread rapidly across the globe. As cities, states and countries shut down, everyone felt the pain of isolation. People kept friends and family members at bay. They missed play dates, barbecues, birthday parties and graduation ceremonies. They missed the rush and roar of live music, the shared excitement of home runs and 3-pointers. They wondered if the “sea of red” would ever wash over Memorial Stadium in quite the same way.
And everyone felt those things, together.
“It’s ironic that the experience of loneliness unites us, but I think it can in this moment,” said Richardson. “We’re all under threat from something that doesn’t discriminate between human beings. This is an extra-human threat. So we can bond as humans and realize we’re working together in order to resist this. And I think there’s something really, really beautiful in that.”
But there’s a flip side to that potential beauty. The longer people stay apart, the harder it becomes to return to one another.
“There is a period where you acknowledge the loss in your life, and you lament it, and you try and fill it in whatever way you can,” Richardson said. “But the longer you’re away from other people, the less trust you have for other people, so the harder it gets to break out and to reach out. And at that point, loneliness starts feeding in on itself. It becomes a self-perpetuating kind of cycle.”
Richardson said social interaction influences people in ways they’re not even aware of. Seeing another person express emotions, such as joy and pain, sparks a mirror response in the brain.
“The mere fact of making eye contact with them, or being in the same physical space as them, connects us to them in important ways,” he said. “It makes us acknowledge them as people, as fellow humans, as entities worthy of respect and autonomy.”
Fundamentally, Richardson said, it teaches people empathy.
“The longer we retreat from one another,” he said, “the longer we don’t share that physical space, the less empathetic we get, and the less we care about other people.”
There is also risk in social interaction, and humans are inherently risk-averse, Richardson said. People may want to avoid not just the risk of disease, but the risk of shame, embarrassment or rejection that comes with putting themselves out there in the world. The longer people stay protected, the more comfortable they may become.
“I think that when this abates, we’re going to have a lot of work ahead of us reacclimating and coming to terms with the fact that we need one another,” he said, “and that is worth the risks that we take.”
Last updated March 20, 2020
This is information about how the University of Nebraska Foundation is responding to the coronavirus (COVID-19) public health crisis as we continue our commitment to serving each of our valued stakeholders.
Given the challenges our state, country and world face now, the foundation remains more committed than ever to our extremely relevant mission to grow relationships and resources that enable the University of Nebraska to change lives and save lives.
“We are a team, and in times like this, teams rally,” said Brian Hastings, president and CEO. “I have every confidence that we will come through this situation as a stronger organization and with an even greater commitment and appreciation for our mission.”
Our top priority is the health, safety and well-being of our team members, supporters, alumni and friends. While most foundation employees have been directed to work remotely, our offices — located in Kearney, Lincoln and Omaha — remain open. As we continue to receive and acknowledge all gifts made through the mail or online here at nufoundation.org, our commitment to our mission has become more important than ever.
For the safety of all involved, the foundation has suspended all travel by our team members outside Nebraska and has canceled or postponed gatherings and events, including those held in partnership with the University of Nebraska. In addition, meetings and direct interactions with donors, alumni, university personnel or other stakeholders will be held via video or phone or postponed to a later date.
The NU Foundation is monitoring the latest public health advisements and following updates from the World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control, local health departments and our own experts at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and Nebraska Medicine. We will continue to closely monitor the situation and evaluate additional measures as needs arise.
Each campus — UNL, UNMC, UNO and UNK — has information available for students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends to help navigate this situation as best as possible. We’re especially proud of the important role that the University of Nebraska Medical Center and its clinical partner, Nebraska Medicine, are taking in the battle against the coronavirus.
The University of Nebraska continues to be an information resource for the news media, including Esquire, CNN, Time, The New York Times and others.
A national emergency declaration in response to a pandemic virus is new to all of us, and as a fundraising organization, we want to be sensitive to the unique situation of every single student, every alumnus and every friend of the University of Nebraska.
With economic uncertainty a reality for many, we ask for financial support with extreme hesitation and prudence. At the same time, some in our university family have asked us how they can help. We’ve highlighted some funds on our website that allow you to help our students, patients and communities during this public health crisis.
From all of us at the foundation, our thoughts are with those around the world who are affected by the coronavirus and the challenges it brings. We encourage you to please take precautions to be safe, and, as always, thank you for all that you do for the University of Nebraska.
We remain available to help and serve you. If you need information or assistance, please use any of these ways to reach us:
While there are many scholarships at UNO, the UNO Fund for Student Scholarships is the only one that sees hundreds of alumni and community members come together and make gifts – last year as low as $5 and as high as $5,000 – to give directly back to students.
We’d like you to meet four of this year’s UNO Fund scholarship recipients:
Jesi Gibbs came to UNO to study biology and psychology after discovering a passion for animal cognition research. However, working 35 hours a week to support herself and pay tuition, she’s found it challenging to balance her job with her studies. She said she cried when she learned she would receive a UNO Fund scholarship. “It has literally changed my life,” Jesi said. “You’ve made it so I can pursue something I feel has meaning in the world. I am so invested in this. I am going to see this through to the end.”
Kevin Ware joined the U.S. Air Force in 2013 partly because he didn’t have the funds to go to college. In his work in environmental inspection at Offutt Air Force Base, he discovered an interest in the human body. Now a full-time student, he has dreams of becoming a physical therapist and owning his own business. He’s using his UNO Fund scholarship to finish his bachelor’s degree and apply to PT programs. “I was excited because I’ve never gotten any other scholarship before,” Kevin said. “I’m grateful for the opportunity. I’ll be the first one in my immediate family with a four-year degree.”
Reggie Croom, Jr., recalled teetering on homelessness after high school before connecting with people and organizations that helped him get back on his feet. These experiences have him pursuing a bachelor’s degree in social work, and the UNO Fund scholarship is making that dream a reality. “I am so grateful that someone saw the potential in me, because I’m determined to make a difference in people’s lives for the better,” Reggie said. “With this funding, I am able to focus on school and making a difference, and by giving to the scholarship, you are contributing to the work I plan on doing.”
David Festner has spent the last 24 years sharpening his skills – and his blades – as a competitive figure skater. Perhaps this helped spark his interests in athletics and creativity, as he now hopes to become a sports broadcast journalist through the UNO College of Communications, Fine Art and Media. UNO offers one of the best programs in the region for this field, and existing partnerships made the process of transferring credits from community college to achieve a four-year degree a smooth transition. “I just want to say thank you very much,” David said, speaking to UNO Fund donors. “You’re helping the students that need it the most avoid loans and debts and those things that make school harder for us.”
Thanks to UNO Fund donors, UNO was able to offer renewable scholarships to these students to cover much of their tuition through graduation. The more people who give, the more scholarships we can award to students who need and deserve them. Make your gift of $25, $50 or $100 to the UNO Fund today.
UNO students make advances in cancer research, discover their career passions along the way.
Jacob Robinson’s dream of being a major league pitcher didn’t pan out. Something better did: He teamed up with fellow University of Nebraska at Omaha biology graduate student Nik Stevenson and together, this past year, made a breakthrough in cancer research — one that could make a major impact in the lives of people around the world who are fighting a rare type of lymphoma. And along the way, the two say, they discovered passions that could make a major impact in their own lives and careers.
They credit the supportive culture at UNO.
Says Robinson: “People here, especially the science faculty, are so willing to help students that I really felt like my education here was great. Because I was willing to put in the effort, people were always willing to provide opportunities for me to go as far as I wanted to go.”
Says Stevenson: “You can fail 10, 20, 100 times, and the faculty here will help you succeed. It’s an environment where you feel confident that even if you fail, you’re ultimately going to succeed, and that’s pretty important to help you flourish.”
The cancer they’re studying is called splenic marginal zone lymphoma, or SMZL. It’s a type of white blood cell cancer that hasn’t been studied a lot because it’s so rare. SMZL cases have an overall survival prognosis after diagnosis of eight to 11 years, so it’s a rather slow-progressing cancer.
But anywhere from 10% to 15% of those cases progress to a much more aggressive form in which the overall survival prognosis drops to three to five years. Their research has shown promise in predicting how aggressive a person’s cancer will be based on specific genetic markers, a breakthrough that could lead to a way to more easily diagnose this cancer.
Stevenson did the “wet bench” side of their research — the hands-on work with the cancer cells themselves. Robinson did the big-data side, studying the genetic profiles of patients with SMZL and looking for patterns for this specific blood cancer vs. other similar lymphomas.
“It’s not a terribly lethal (cancer), unless it transforms,” Robinson says. “What my research did is, I found a grouping of markers that is pretty highly predictive for the basis of diagnosis for this SMZL patient.
“Instead of having to go through a bunch of different tests, ideally you would be able to just have this panel of genetic markers from a biopsy, and you’d say yes or no, this is the lymphoma that they’re afflicted with.”
If patients have the slow-growing type, they wouldn’t have their lives disrupted as much with frequent biopsies, along with the waiting around for results, which can be scary. It also would provide more accurate diagnosis and information on the outcome of the disease’s progression.
Says Stevenson: “It would allow them to pretty much have a better quality of life for the time being.”
The two conducted their research in Allwine Hall in the lab of Christine Cutucache, Ph.D., a rock star professor who holds the Dr. George Haddix Community Chair in Science at UNO. They call her “Dr. C.”
Dr. C, they say, gave amazing guidance and support (and coffee and doughnuts and a box overflowing with healthy snacks, which sits in the corner of the lab’s small conference room).
She served as the liaison between them and physicians and other medical professionals at the University of Nebraska Medical Center as they tried to determine the real-world usefulness of their research.
“It’s been sort of the perfect mix to have UNO as a home base but still be able to access a world-renowned med center right down the street,” Robinson says.
UNO, they say, helped them make major breakthroughs in their own lives, too.
Back in high school at Omaha North, Robinson says, he was mainly just interested in baseball, not school work. He struggled in chemistry. His dad connected him with a friend who was a retired UNO chemistry professor, James Wood, who became his tutor.
“He basically showed me how cool chemistry could be,” Robinson says.
That ignited his love for learning. (It also helped, Robinson says, smiling, that he fell in love with a great student his senior year — a young woman who is now his wife.)
At a UNO chemistry department awards night a few years back, Dr. Wood was given an envelope with a name inside. He was asked to open it and announce the chemistry student who’d be named the latest recipient of the James K. and Kathleen Wood Scholarship.
Dr. Wood didn’t know who it’d be.
It was Robinson, then a UNO junior.
Stevenson’s original dream for his career – to be a brain surgeon — also didn’t pan out.
He was a military brat, he says, born in Germany. He lived in Texas and South Dakota. He was only 8 years old and his family was living in Papillion, Nebraska, when his young mother was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer.
“It was everywhere when they first saw it,” he says. “It just socks you in the gut when you find out something like that.”
The cancer eventually spread to her brain, and she had brain surgery. Stevenson spent a lot of time in the hospital with her until she died when he was 12. He’d wanted to go to medical school, he says, but not getting in his first try made him reflect on that path, and he realized it wasn’t actually his main interest or career aim.
“That was a blessing in disguise because, through a little reflection, I realized I didn’t want to do that,” Stevenson says.
He met with Dr. C a year before applying to UNO and came to the university for his master’s degree because of the opportunity to join her lab.
Dr. C also runs a community outreach program called NE STEM 4U in which UNO students work to inspire middle school students in the community to consider careers in STEM fields down the road. (STEM is an acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.)
Stevenson loves to coach soccer, too.
“Developing them as people, not just as athletes but just as people who can contribute to society, is a big thing I enjoy,” he says.
Dr. C noticed Stevenson’s strengths as a mentor and connected him to NE STEM 4U. He loved it.
He was its graduate adviser this past year and recently accepted a full-time job at UNO, where he will be doing science education research, continuing his role in the NE STEM 4U program and leading professional development opportunities for undergraduates and others.
“Developing people to excel in science so that one day they may pave the way for great development in the cancer research realm or in a plethora of other STEM fields,” Stevenson says, “is really my passion and my goal.”
He hopes to keep coaching soccer on the side.
This August, Robinson will start pharmacy school at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
Stevenson thinks he’ll stay in Nebraska.
“My fiancée is a farm girl from southeast Nebraska,” he says, “so I think we’re going to end up calling somewhere around Nebraska home.”
“Nebraska is pretty good.”