NIU Voices: Commitment to research continues in times of crisis

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this has been a semester unlike any other in the history of Northern Illinois University. However, two things have remained constant.

First has been our commitment to supporting our students and finding ways to help them succeed – even if that means an almost overnight conversion to remote teaching. Our faculty rightly deserve admiration for the feat. Similarly, their commitment to research has been unwavering.

That should come as no surprise as, along with teaching and artistry, research is one of the primary missions of our institution.

Times like these bring the importance of that mission into focus. As unsettling as this pandemic has been, it presents opportunities for discoveries that will benefit lives in the future, and our faculty members have really risen to the challenge by launching dozens of research initiatives related to COVID-19. Across the university, in fields ranging from psychology and business to chemistry and engineering, NIU researchers are ramping up studies and proposals. Some already are at work on projects that could potentially have an impact on the current crisis.

For instance, professor Sachit Butail, from the College of Engineering and Engineering Technology, is part of a team led by New York University researchers whose work has received an NSF Rapid Response Research (RAPID) grant. They are working to establish a predictive modeling framework that could inform decision-making about testing and active surveillance policies.

A team of faculty in the Department of Communication are also working on a project to help track the disease. Specifically, professors Andrea Guzman, David Gunkel and Shupei Yuan are preparing a proposal to investigate the opportunities and challenges of using cellphones to aid in the task of contact tracing, which will be a key to managing the disease in the months ahead.

Faculty also are working on improving testing and treatments for COVID-19. In the NIU department of chemistry and biochemistry, professor Oliver Hofstetter, is working with the NIU Technology Transfer Office to find an industrial partner interested in developing and manufacturing his concept for a test that rapidly detects the virus that causes COVID-19. His test would not require any type of expensive instrumentation, should yield results in as little as 10 minutes, could be performed by anyone and is designed as a point-of-care and at-home test.

Hofstetter’s fellow faculty member Douglas Klumpp is developing new chemistry that will prepare chloroquine derivatives – some of the only pharmaceutical agents approved for treating the COVID-19 infection – in a way that will eliminate chemical waste and lead to a more environmentally friendly process. It also could lower the cost of such drugs.

Professor Michael Papka, from the NIU department of computer science, also is contributing to the search for drugs to battle the virus. He is part of a team drawn from across the nation that is working to link supercomputers across America so their combined might can be used to power simulations of how billions of different molecules from drug libraries might be brought to bear against the virus.

These are just a few of the more than two dozen COVID-19-related research projects underway at NIU, and just a fraction of the hundreds of research projects always underway at NIU as part of our research mission. Our pursuit of new knowledge benefits our region, the state and the world.

• Gerald (Jerry) C. Blazey is the vice president for research an innovation partnerships at Northern Illinois University.