The novel, “One of Ours,” won the Pulitzer Prize in 1923.

Willa Cather: A Pandemic, a Novel and a Pulitzer Prize

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Jennifer Overkamp

Assistant Director of Development Communications
Contact: jennifer.overkamp@nufoundation.org

UNL alumna Willa Cather survived a pandemic from 1918-1920

University of Nebraska–Lincoln alumna Willa Cather was not only a famous writer, she also survived a pandemic. The so-called Spanish flu ripped across the globe from 1918 to 1920, its spread accelerated by the troop movements and combat conditions of World War I. At that time, Cather was in her 40s and living in New York City, having left teaching and magazine editing behind to be a full-time writer.

Cather’s letters describe some things that sound familiar today. She wrote to her mother that she needed to spend some time in the hospital, but her doctors suggested waiting until the flu had died down (Letter No. 2414). In the same letter, she added that her friend Ethel Litchfield was exhausted from caring for her sick children, so Cather had her over for a respite, complete with a good meal and a little time to rest by the fire. In a note to her Aunt Frances Smith Cather in November 1919, Cather said that she couldn’t write too much, as she had so many letters of condolence to write “to friends who have been bereaved by this terrible scourge of Influenza” (Letter No. 440).

Cather knew how brutal the flu could be — she caught it herself in September 1919 and had a bad time of it. She wrote to a friend, “I have been in bed with Influenza for two weeks, and it has ended in a stubborn bronchitis which refuses to quit me and keeps hovering on the edge of pneumonia. … I am simply unable to make any plans at present — I’ve had to call off ever so many engagements on account of this stupid illness” (Letter No. 474).

In an odd twist of literary fate, Cather’s bout with the flu ended up strongly influencing the novel she was writing at the time, the story of a Nebraska farm boy serving in what was then called the Great War. The doctor who treated her during her illness had previously been a physician on a troop transport ship that was struck with influenza. Cather borrowed the doctor’s journal and used it extensively when writing her novel.

That novel, “One of Ours,” won the Pulitzer Prize in 1923.

Please visit the Willa Cather Archive at cather.unl.edu to explore more of Cather’s life and letters.  Thanks to the support of donors and UNL’s Center for Digital Research in the Humanities and University Libraries, this free online archive shares a vast collection of Cather material with the world. The collection includes not only Cather’s writing but also photos, letters, interviews and biographies.

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The Big Blue Cupboard at the University of Nebraska at Kearney is helping students in need.

Stocking Up On Essentials And Empathy

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Josh Planos

Assistant Director of Communications
Contact: josh.planos@nufoundation.org

UNK’s Big Blue Cupboard helps students in need. 

Luis Olivas knows the contours of Grand Central Apple Market well.

He’s learned who the quickest baggers are and who will point out active markdowns.

Rolling through checkout with 45 TV dinners or enough produce to comfortably feed a residence hall typically elicits a second glance, a probing question or two.

Olivas has grown accustomed to the attention. One of his responsibilities as diversity coordinator in the Office of Student Diversity and Inclusion at the University of Nebraska at Kearney is to keep the Big Blue Cupboard stocked. So as the coronavirus emptied businesses throughout the country, Olivas was still making biweekly speed-runs through the grocery store, filling his cart with peculiar quantities of food.

Hundreds of students rely on the Big Blue Cupboard — and, in turn, Olivas — whether learning is remote or not. To keep the cupboard operational during the spring, Olivas alternated shifts with Juan Guzman, director of the Office of Student Diversity and Inclusion.

Both were first-generation, Latino college students who earned associate degrees at Central Community College before attending and serving UNK.

“We have many immigrant and international students as well as refugee and asylum-seeking students,” Olivas said. “Thus, it’s super important for them to be able to see somebody that has been in their shoes to not only create empathy but also to be able to relate on a personal level.”

It’s super important for them to be able to see somebody that has been in their shoes to not only create empathy but also to be able to relate on a personal level.

- Luis Olivas, diversity coordinator in the UNK Office of Student Diversity and Inclusion

As an undergraduate student, when Guzman returned to Kearney from weekend trips home to Grand Island, he made sure to have meals in tow.

He vividly remembers the hunger that comes from prioritizing tuition or rent as a month winds to a close. And he remembers the strength of a community that lifts each member in times of need.

“Juan is a big inspiration to UNK students and the UNK community,” said Sergio Ceja, a Loper graduate who’s currently studying at the University of Alabama.

Olivas said, “He’s one of the university’s biggest assets. If it wasn’t for him, dozens if not hundreds of students wouldn’t have been able to come to college or realize their full potential.”

Nineteen years after Guzman arrived at UNK, his most indelible marks can be found in a quiet corner on the first floor of the student union.

After watching a conference presentation on food insecurity, Guzman vowed to bring a food pantry to his alma mater. The Big Blue Cupboard opened in April 2012 and has since served thousands of students, staff and community members, with an average of 1,200 food and hygiene items distributed each month.

“We have many students from different backgrounds, so we always make sure to have certain ingredients, to make sure we meet those cultural needs,” Guzman said.

Students can use a mobile app to shop for items, which in turn helps employees learn the diet of the student body. And understanding that audience is paramount.

“We can have 5,000 creamed corn cans in there,” Olivas said, “but that doesn’t mean students are going to take them.”

That the cupboard is tucked away from the hustle and bustle of campus isn’t by accident. Stigmas can turn hungry students away, so Guzman was careful in the planning phase to mitigate this issue.

We have many students from different backgrounds, so we always make sure to have certain ingredients, to make sure we meet those cultural needs.

- Juan Guzman, director of the UNK Office of Student Diversity and Inclusion

Even as students left campus during the COVID-19 pandemic, Guzman and Olivas saw an immediate uptick in demand, with more than 1,000 items leaving the shelves over a single week. Frozen meals went especially fast, as daily food trips were suddenly questionable. So Guzman and Olivas submitted a request for a second deep freezer.

Approval was granted within five minutes.

“We can’t say enough about the leadership here,” Guzman said.

Shortly after Chancellor Doug Kristensen announced that in-person classes would be suspended, he raised an additional $10,000 for the cupboard in private donations.

“Putting food on the tables of students is the most fundamental thing I can do to help,” Kristensen said.

Kristensen has led UNK for nearly two decades. Campus support for The Big Blue Cupboard is on the short list of what makes him most proud.  

“When you watch our students give their own time and money to go out and serve those meals, I’ll remember that for a very long time,” he said.

Stepping into the unknown was an on-the-fly exercise for everyone, Guzman said, but it was deftly navigated, from the top down.

Speaking on the phone at the cupboard, Olivas said, “Even though most of our students may not physically be here, they know that we as staff and faculty are 100 percent there for them. That connection has not been lost.”

The cupboard is home to a thousand ingredients and two eternal vows:

No student should go hungry.

What’s mine is yours.

“I feel like that sets UNK and the University of Nebraska system apart: Even though our buildings may be closed, the learning is still happening,” Olivas said. “Those students are still being provided for. They are still safe.”

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University of Nebraska-Lincoln researchers at the Nebraska Center for Virology want to stop the next pandemic before it starts.

Getting A Head Start On The Next Pandemic

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Jennifer Overkamp

Assistant Director of Development Communications
Contact: jennifer.overkamp@nufoundation.org

University of Nebraska-Lincoln researchers at the Nebraska Center for Virology want to stop the next pandemic before it starts. Here are three people who want to keep another virus from upending society: a scientist, a graduate student and the founder of NCV.

Eric Weaver, Ph.D., Scientist

Meet someone who is absolutely certain he knows what the next epidemic or pandemic will be. His name is Eric Weaver, Ph.D., and he is a UNL biology professor who does research at NCV.

“I know what’s next,” Weaver said. “It’s influenza. There hasn’t been a year on record where we don’t have it. There are hundreds of thousands of deaths worldwide. On average, 30,000 people in the United States die from influenza on a normal year. That’s just something that we have for some reason found OK.”

Weaver has decided that it’s not OK, and he has devoted his career to battling viruses. His current research is based on one key idea: Delve back into the flu’s genetic past to avoid the matching game. Every year, epidemiologists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization pick a strain of the flu to inoculate people with, hoping that they correctly guess which strain is going to be particularly virulent that year. Sometimes they guess wrong, like they did last year. Flu shots help, but Weaver puts their effectiveness at about 74%.

Everyone knows that part of the problem is that the flu mutates constantly. Weaver’s research aims to address that.

“The idea is to design a vaccine through an analysis of the genetic code of influenza,” Weaver said. “We analyze and string together short stretches of the flu virus proteins, termed epitopes. By selecting and stringing together the most common epitopes, we are likely recreating ancestral forms of the flu, and these ancestral sequences can be used to create broadly protective vaccines. So far, our studies indicate that these vaccines do, indeed, induce protection against a wide array of divergent flu viruses.”

The goal: a vaccine that protects against multiple, if not all, strains of the flu and lasts a lifetime. Initial tests in mice and swine show that the idea works, and Weaver and his team are now waiting for funding to take the testing to the next level.

Diseases don’t always receive funding proportional to the number of people they impact, Weaver noted. Every year, a flu epidemic or pandemic has a significant impact in terms of lost working hours and burden on the health care system, in addition to thousands of deaths, primarily among the older population.

“When you’re talking about someone who’s elderly dying from the flu, they shouldn’t be dismissed,” Weaver said. “Why is a day in the life of someone who’s older less valuable than any other day for any other person?”

While he had hoped never to see a pandemic like COVID-19, Weaver knows what he wants people to learn from this experience.

“The main message that I want people to take away from this pandemic is: Let’s not forget,” said Weaver. “Let’s not brush this aside once we get through it. Future pandemics are inevitable, so it’s important to fund the science and do really comprehensive research now, so that in a future pandemic, we have a head start.” 

The main message that I want people to take away from this pandemic is: Let's not forget. Let's not brush this aside once we get through it.

- Eric Weaver, Ph.D.

Brianna Bullard, Graduate Student 

What did you do with your summer vacation?

Four years ago, before she had even earned her bachelor’s degree, Brianna Bullard was able to answer: “Develop a vaccine for the Zika virus.”

In 2016, Bullard was one of two undergraduate students selected out of 500 for a summer immersion experience at NCV. Zika was raging at the time, and she wanted to help fight it. After her work to develop the vaccine, Bullard was hooked. She had found what she wanted to do.

While the Zika vaccine worked splendidly in mice, it never received the funding needed to test it in humans. Undaunted, Bullard returned to UNL, this time for graduate school. She’s back at the NCV working with Weaver to create a better flu vaccine. In May 2021, she plans to graduate with a Ph.D. in virology and find a job where she can continue doing research to produce better vaccines.

So what’s it like studying viruses during the COVID-19 pandemic?

“It’s definitely made me appreciate my decision to go into virology,” said Bullard. “I originally wanted to do science that in the end would help people. I got lucky that I ended up in a lab that works on vaccine development. What can get more applied than that? I want my research to help people, to help the world.”

It's definitely made me appreciate my decision to go into virology. I originally wanted to do science that in the end would help people. I got lucky that I ended up in a lab that works on vaccine development. What can get more applied than that? I want my research to help people, to help the world.

- Brianna Bullard

Charles Wood, Ph.D., Founder and Director of NCV 

“The story of the Nebraska Center for Virology is really about donors. Donors made this happen.”

Charles Wood, Ph.D., is a UNL biology and biochemistry professor and NCV researcher who holds the Lewis Lehr/3M University Professorship. He helped found the NCV in 2000, bringing together scientists from Creighton University and the University of Nebraska Medical Center to study viruses in humans, plants and animals.

The NCV story begins with UNL alumnus and businessman Lewis “Lew” Lehr. In 1986, Lehr had endowed a chair in molecular genetics and biology, hoping to attract a top-notch scientist to the University of Nebraska. It worked. In 1996, Wood came to UNL, in part because the fund supported by Lehr through the University of Nebraska Foundation would enable him to take the first steps toward starting the NCV and also to continue his work fighting HIV in Africa.

“I came here with the goal of building a program that Lew had envisioned, focused on human genetics, more biomedical,” Wood said. “I was able to use the initial support to recruit a couple of researchers in virology, expanding and supporting the work that I do.”

The fellowship money enabled Wood to lay the groundwork for a strong research program, which then meant he was able to successfully apply for a $10 million grant from the National Institutes of Health. The NCV was off to a great start, but Wood knew it needed a building of its own. He wanted to bring together the UNL scientists who were scattered all over campus in different buildings because they were affiliated with different departments.

Another donor stepped forward to make that happen. Thanks to Hastings, Nebraska, businessman Ken Morrison (1921-2015), the NCV brought together all of the UNL scientists in 2008 in the new Ken Morrison Life Sciences Research Center, which was expanded in 2014.

“We were able to build a cluster strength in plant, animal and human virus research and to build a very strong training environment for the next generation of researchers and scientists,” said Wood. “We are known as one of the strongest virology programs in the country.”

The NCV’s projects are varied and include everything from plant defensive systems to viruses that attack swine, cows and other animals. One lab has developed a vaccine for porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus which has been licensed to a pharmaceutical company for commercialization. Another team is studying a smallpox-like virus and how it evades the host’s immune system. Human diseases under the microscope at NCV include HIV, herpes, many strains of influenza, human cancer viruses like the papillomavirus that causes cervical cancer, and emerging diseases such as Zika.

“The environment is wonderful for the research,” Wood said of the Ken Morrison Life Sciences Research Center. “And I think that plays a big part in our successes.”

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A UNL business professor studies pandemics, applying the science of data and supply chain management to difficult questions like school closings and the availability of ventilators. 

When Theory Becomes Reality

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Jennifer Overkamp

Assistant Director of Development Communications
Contact: jennifer.overkamp@nufoundation.org

UNL Professor At the Center Of COVID-19 And Supply Chain Management

Most researchers love to see their work impact the real world. They are thrilled when their theories are tested or their papers widely read.

Özgür Araz, Ph.D., is not so thrilled. He is a business professor at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, and he studies pandemics, applying the science of data and supply chain management to difficult questions like school closings and the availability of ventilators. While he is glad his research is useful, he never wanted to see it in action.

Araz’s background is in industrial engineering. However, he said he “finds the social side of technical problems very interesting,” an interest which led him to supply chain management. He first studied pandemics as a dissertation topic for his Ph.D. and taught complex systems thinking at the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s College of Public Health before being recruited to UNL’s College of Business to teach supply chain management and analytics.

Supply chain management education is a strength at the university, with programs at UNL, UNK and UNO. Supply Chain Management and Analytics is the newest department in the UNL College of Business. Araz describes the ultimate goal of SCM as creating systems which produce “the right quantity of items, in the right place, at the right time.” Students study logistics, production, procurement and distribution, leading to jobs in fields as diverse as manufacturing, health care, global sourcing and inventory control. Currently, around 140 students major or minor in SCM at UNL, in addition to about 45 graduate students in the department’s online master’s degree in business analytics.

The battle against COVID-19 rages on many fronts: hospitals, labs and even private homes as people carefully wash their hands and practice social distancing. But Araz argues that, in many ways, fighting the virus is fundamentally a supply chain and capacity management problem. Are there enough masks, ventilators, test kits, hospital beds and other supplies? Are there sufficient health care personnel? SCM is also about timing. It’s not only a question of whether the needed ventilators are available; they are needed at a certain time and in a certain place. Next week may mean they are too late to save lives. If they are in a warehouse three states away, that’s not much good either.

Araz’s most recent article, published in Decision Sciences in November, studies capacity optimization under resource shortages. Previously, he looked at the challenges of stockpiling ventilators for influenza pandemics and school closure policies for cost-effective pandemic decision-making.

A pandemic is also a living math problem, and Araz is a numbers guy. How many people does one infected person generally infect? How quickly does the disease spread? What are the fatality rates? Araz explained that economic impacts are taken into consideration when modeling effective decision-making.

“We want to answer whether school closings and social distancing policies are cost-effective,” Araz said. “Both questions, of when to close schools and when to reopen, are equally important. We take information about how fast the virus is spreading, using a basic reproductive number, and estimate the number of secondary cases generated in a completely susceptible population. In the case of the coronavirus, it’s spreading fast.”

 

We can solve complex systems problems using complex models, but it doesn't have to always be profit maximization. We also solve problems and design systems to improve the quality of life for everyone.

- Özgür Araz, Ph.D., UNL business professor

The data also shows a high fatality rate among older population groups, according to Araz. He sees health officials using predictive analytics to ensure that public safety is optimized through modeling tools developed through research like his own.

“People say closing schools costs a lot, but if we save more lives, it makes it cost-effective,” Araz said. “Optimizing social distancing intervention depends on this research modeling. We take a societal perspective regarding life lost, parents staying home with children impacting the workforce and all the other factors we are dealing with today. In severe cases, we might need prolonged closures, and even 24 weeks of closings can be still a cost-effective result.” 

Jennifer Ryan, Ph.D., chair and Ron and Carol Cope Professor of Supply Chain Management and Analytics at UNL, explained that in addition to informing the social distancing response, Araz’s research helps Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials prepare for situations in which hospitals and clinics are overwhelmed.

“We’ve all heard the discussions of ‘flattening the curve,’” Ryan said. “The modeling tools Özgür developed can provide critical insights into how we best allocate scarce resources during a pandemic. If we don’t control the rate of infection, experts expect our hospitals and clinics to be overwhelmed and to lack the necessary beds and equipment to treat the influx of patients.”

This aspect of benefiting society is a key part of why Araz continues his research at the intersection of SCM and pandemics.

“We can solve complex systems problems using complex models, but it doesn’t have to always be profit maximization,” Araz said. “We also solve problems and design systems to improve the quality of life for everyone.”

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