Nebraska shines in national media during 2017

Nebraska shines in national media during 2017

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln shone with a bright light and produced a big boom in the national media during 2017.

Literally and figuratively.

More than 400 news stories gained national attention for the university, its faculty, students and programs during the year. They included topics as profound as the climate impacts of nuclear war, and the search for vaccines or cures for influenza, HIV and Zika virus.

The New Yorker interviewed Nebraska researchers Melissa Homestead, English, and Andrew Jewell, English and university libraries, for a long piece on Willa Cather’s legacy, published in early October. The New York Times published a series of insightful op-eds by Jennine Capó Crucet, English and ethnic studies, about the experiences of first-generation students, among other topics. And student journalists’ depth-reporting project on the human devastation caused by beer sales in reservation border town Whiteclay, Nebraska, received kudos from The Atlantic and The New York Times in March – before being tapped for the Kennedy grand prize for human rights journalism in May.

Nebraska U’s literal bright light made the news in June and July, when researchers reported they had used the Diocles laser system in the Extreme Light Laboratory to produce light one billion times as bright as the sun. The project, led by physics and astronomy professor Donald Umstadter, allowed Nebraska scientists to observe changes in the very behavior of photons and electrons. Articles appeared in nearly two dozen science and news outlets from around the globe, such as The Week, Wired, and Motherboard.

The year ended with the simultaneous implosion of the Cather and Pound high-rise residence halls. An Associated Press report on the demolition was carried by outlets nationwide, including ABC News, Washington Post and U.S. News & World Report.

Inventors, innovators and trailblazers

Newsweek and Live Science were among the outlets that reported in November on a study led by Eric Weaver, biological sciences, that found a promising avenue toward a universal flu shot.

Assit Patnaik, biological sciences, and other virologists gained clues why Zika virus became more lethal during outbreaks that sicked tens of thousands of people in the Caribbean, South America and the United States in 2015 and 2016. Their findings were reported in ScienceDaily and other outlets.

The Daily Mail and others reported on HIV research by Wei Niu, chemical and biomolecular engineering, and Qingsheng Li, biological sciences, that created an “on/off switch” in a weakened form of the virus, which could lead to a safe and effective vaccine.

Adam Liska, biological systems engineering, Tyler White, political science, Robert Oglesby, Earth and atmospheric sciences, and Eric Holley, natural resources, teamed up in July to examine how the world’s nuclear arsenal could trigger climate change. Their study was covered by the Daily Mail in the United Kingdom and Gizmodo, among others.

A patent for making and using transgenic dicamba-degrading organisms, by Donald Weeks, biochemistry, and colleagues was listed as the second-most cited patent in the December issue of Nature Biotechnology.

Kristi Montooth, biological studies, was part of a multi-institution research effort that investigated how fruit flies evolved their impressive tolerance for alcohol. The innovative study was covered by several science news sites in January.

BBC News and dozens of other outlets around the world reported in August on a study by Alyssa Bischmann and Chrissy Richardson, educational psychology, that found the age at which boys first view pornography influences their attitutdes toward women.

Studies investigating wildfire in the Great Plains, led by Dirac Twidwell, agronomy and horticulture, received coverage in June in The Washington Post and in November and December in the High Plains Journal and The Associated Press. Others involved in the research included Victoria Donovan, Carissa Wonkka and Jack Arterburn.

Conductive concrete — a paving method developed by Christopher Tuan, engineering, that would allow roadways, driveways and sidewalks to de-ice themselves — was covered by CBS’s Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation with Mo Rocca in January. National Public Radio did a piece on Tuan’s innovation in October.

Some other inventions and innovations by Nebraska faculty that captured 2017’s imagination:

  • Bandages that can be connected to smartphones and other devices to deliver precise and customized medication dosages. Ali Tamayol, mechanical and materials engineering, is part of a multi-institution team developing the bandage, which was covered by Futurism on Oct. 5, Huffington Post and TechCrunch on Oct. 6, and Forbes on Oct. 8.

  • Highway guardrails that could be made much safer just by adding 5 inches to their height, according to research by Mojdeh Asadollahi Pajouh at the Midwest Roadside Safety Facility. Popular Mechanics, Road and Track and The Drive were among the automotive news sites that reported on the study in July.

  • Virtual Incision, a university spin-off company that is developing remotely operated surgical robots, is attracting more investors, CNBC reported in December. The company was co-founded by Shane Farritor, engineering.

Trusted experts and recognized authorities

Journalists across the country often turned to the National Drought Mitigation Center for their 2017 reports on drought and climate in the United States. For example, the center was cited by Politifact in June when it checked out a statement by former Vice President Al Gore that most of Florida was in drought because of climate change. Mark Svoboda was quoted by a Texas newspaper in December about encroaching drought conditions in that state, Deborah Bathke was quoted in August by The Associated Press about flash drought in the Northern Plains, and Denise Gutzmer was quoted by The Associated Press in March on how weather conditions contributed to fatal wildfires in the Southern Plains.

NBC Nightly News interviewed Adam Houston, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, about the dangers of storm chasing after three weather observers were killed in a Texas traffic accident in March.

Max Perry Mueller, classics and religious studies, was quoted multiple times for stories about politics and the Mormon Church. The New York Times called upon him in late October to discuss the religious overtones in the resignation speech of U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake, a descendant of Mormon pioneers. In January, Mueller wrote in Slate about the controversy over the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing for President Trump’s inauguration.

After Google honored Susan La Flesche Picotte, the first American Indian to get a medical degree, with a Google Doodle on its search engine home page on June 17, Time magazine and told her story with the help of Joe Starita, journalism, who authored a 2016 La Flesche biography. quoted Starita in a March story about La Flesche. In a December article, Starita discussed an ongoing effort by the Omaha Tribe, the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs and others to restore the hospital La Flesche opened outside Walthill, Nebraska, in 1913.

A sampling of other university experts quoted in 2017:

Toni Anaya and Charlene Maxey-Harris, university libraries, August in Inside Higher Ed, diversity among research librarians.

University Communication tracks faculty, administration, student and staff appearancesin the national media and reports upon them month by month. If you have additions to this list or suggestions for national news stories, contact Leslie Reed, the university's interim news director and national news editor, at or 402-472-2059.