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Q&A with Dr. Judy Burnfield
Judy Burnfield directs NAPL, which partners with the private sector and academic colleagues.
Photo Courtesy Scott Bruhn/NU Media Relations
Courtesy: NU Media Relations
09/17/2013
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With a 4-6 p.m. Tuesday tour open to UNL faculty and staff and a 5-7 p.m. Wednesday tour open to the public, it’s time to update Nebraska fans about the more than 52,000 square feet of research facilities housed in the East Memorial Stadium Expansion Project. The Center for Brain, Biology and Behavior (CB3) includes 28,200 square feet dedicated to traumatic brain injury research collaboration, and the Nebraska Athletic Performance Laboratory (NAPL) includes 24,191 square feet dedicated to innovative health, safety and performance research.

Dennis Molfese directs the academic facility’s study of brain development that includes concussion research, and Judy Burnfield directs the athletic facility’s lab that will partner with private sector and academic colleagues on health, safety, performance and research. It’s important for Husker fans to understand that one major NAPL goal is to use science and research to improve student-athlete performance. The new brain center and performance lab are connected by a 100-foot skywalk, which is called “The Bridge” to collaboration. To help those who plan to take a self-guided walking tour of NAPL, The N-Sider asked Burnfield 10 questions. Her answers can serve as a primer for what is believed to be the nation’s only joint on-campus athletic/academic research facility – a shared vision of UNL Chancellor Harvey Perlman and Nebraska Athletic Director Emeritus Tom Osborne.

The eastside expansion creates a historical timeline to celebrate the 90th anniversary of Memorial Stadium. Check out the East Memorial Stadium at a Glance PDF in the related links at the top of this column. You'll see some interesting numbers and learn more about Burnfield and Molfese, plus the expansion’s project coordinators. The link includes research facts and explains what’s inside NAPL and CB3 to enable collaboration and produce world-leading capabilities. Last, but certainly not least, see the donors whose vision puts UNL and Nebraska Athletics at the forefront of technology under the leadership of Perlman, Osborne and Director of Athletics Shawn Eichorst. The CB3 lab reports to Prem Paul, UNL’s Vice Chancellor for Research and Economic Development, and the NAPL reports to Steve Waterfield, Senior Associate Athletic Director in charge of Performance and Strategic Research. With that big picture in mind, please join our conversation with Dr. Burnfield, who earned her Ph.D. in biokinesiology from the University of Southern California and is a registered physical therapist and a certified kinesiologic electromyographer.  

Q-1: How would you describe the Nebraska Athletic Performance Laboratory?

A-1: The Nebraska Athletic Performance Laboratory will be a world-leading research and educational facility committed to enhancing the performance, safety, health and well-being of student athletes and others of varying physical abilities.

Q-2: What will be your fundamental mission and top priorities?

A-2: Our fundamental mission will be to achieve those enhancements for our student athletes through research, development and educational activities. The model we are advancing is very translational in nature – we are driving our research by the needs of those served in the environment. Our team is thinking broadly about the issues that impact human performance, safety and well-being of athletes, not only while they are in college but also as they age. Students are collegiate athletes for a relatively short period of their lives, yet what happens to them during this time can have a profound impact on the quality of their lives and their contributions to society for many years to come. Our goals are to help athletes perform optimally while reducing their risks of injuries and complications throughout their lives. Some of the work will focus on technology development and testing. Other work will aim to understand what factors may predict injuries or chronic conditions later in life. We expect our breakthroughs in athletic human performance and safety will have lasting impacts on the lives of individuals with physical disabilities and chronic conditions --perhaps preventing someone from experiencing orthopedic or neurologic injuries that would lead to a physical disability or helping refine training parameters that could be used during rehabilitation. This broader conception of human performance serves, in part, as the basis for the collaboration with the Institute for Rehabilitation Science and Engineering at Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital. My goal is to bridge the agendas across between the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Madonna so that we make a difference in the lives of people of all abilities and ages.  

Q-3: What will be the biggest factor to ensure NAPL’s success and why?

A-3: At this point, the most critical factor is building the right team to advance a meaningful research agenda. Human performance and safety are very broad areas, particularly when considering the needs of 24 university sports programs and about 600 student athletes. The research team will need a broad skill set, including expertise in anatomy, biomechanics, cardiopulmonary, cognition, computer sciences, endocrinology, engineering, epidemiology, exercise science, informatics, kinesiology, learning, motivational psychology, motor control, motor learning, neurosciences, nutrition, physiology, rehabilitation. There isn’t a model for how to staff this type of research environment. In many ways we are combining eight to 12 labs in many institutions under a shared umbrella for clinical, research and development activities. We are also capitalizing on strengths of industry partners to augment the capacity of our team. Clearly, this is a broad and evolving scope. I envision creating a diverse clinical research network that extends beyond the core research team to include athletes, coaches, clinicians and industry partners. In addition, we are looking forward to building bridges to researchers and departments across UNL and to other leading academic and clinical centers, ensuring the capacity to extend the scope of the research well beyond NAPL’s walls.

Q-4: What was the impetus that forged your aggressive global vision?

A-4: I believe strongly that we have an opportunity to not only influence the outcomes, safety and wellbeing of athletes at a local level, but also have a responsibility to influence well-being internationally. Many of the issues experienced by our athletes – whether injury or risk for orthopedic or neurologic complications later in life –  also are experienced by athletes, recreational and elite, across the world. Our unique inter-professional and inter-institutional approach eliminates the silos that often emerge between researchers and encourages the collaboration required to answer some of the more challenging, yet inter-related, questions that influence human performance. We will build strong relationships with industry partners to ensure technology and treatment innovations are translated into use across the country/world. These collaborations are expected to spur economic growth through the creation of new jobs.

Q-5: Can you pretend you’re an artist ready to paint your lifetime masterpiece and tell us what NAPL will look like in its most glorious and productive stages?

A-5: Great question! Unfortunately, I’m not much of an artist and I don’t always stay within the lines. Likely, my masterpiece should include some sport for this analogy. I can, however, envision us growing into a dynamic symphony orchestra – visionary, passionate artists with diverse instruments, capable of creating beautiful solos, yet electing instead to weave and blend their instruments’ voices into a masterpiece more impactful than any individual could achieved on his/her own. My hope is that we will truly be making a lot of music that people enjoy hearing.

Q-6: Joining NAPL in Memorial Stadium is the Center for Brain, Biology and Behavior. How collaborative will your research group be with CB3 and can you provide a specific example?

A-6: I’m looking forward to collaborating with (CB3 Director) Dennis Molfese and his team. The brain is an exquisite control center capable of processing an incredible diversity of signals, formulating a plan and then sending the messages to the periphery to allow execution of the desired response – passing a football before being tackled, interpreting a blocker’s body motions prior to a spiking a volleyball. If an athlete experiences a concussion, what are the optimal rehabilitation strategies to help the brain recover? If we knew this, what an impact we could have not only for UNL athletes, but also high school and middle school athletes and weekend warriors. I also envision that aspects of our work will focus on interventions aimed at enhancing performance. One of our goals will be to determine whether the changes following an intervention emerge primarily from peripheral changes – for example, larger muscles -- or whether the processing of information in the brain is also more efficient. How much repetition is required to maximize the outcomes? What are the optimal training parameters – time, intensity, duration, task specificity – that maximize outcomes? How does nutrition impact performance and speed of information processing?

Q-7: The bridge between research groups will be real. Has anyone come up with a name to describe that “neutral ground” in between two important areas?

A-7: Perhaps The Bridge to Collaboration? Or The Bridge to Enlightenment (and it is a two-way bridge)? I’m guessing Dennis is usually clever with these ideas.

Q-8: What part of your background will you incorporate most into directing the Nebraska Athletic Performance Laboratory and what kind of culture do you want to create?

A-8: The capacity to synthesize information and ideas, think outside the box, build synergies across individuals and groups and the capacity to align research and development efforts around the needs of the environment or individuals being served. This is a natural extension of the work I’ve been doing at Madonna. My goal is to create a culture that emphasizes high expectations, excellence, innovation, collaboration, respect, honesty, integrity, continuous growth, self-directedness and commitment to the greater good.

Q-9: What size staff will you have, what functional roles will they play and what’s the fuel for launching your first rocket of high expectations?

A-9: A dedicated and sustainable core research team within NAPL will execute the research. The initial team will include four postdoctoral fellows, sometimes referred to as research scientists, who have multifaceted areas of expertise. The postdoctoral fellows will engage in collaborative writing -- grants and manuscripts for journals, for example – and conduct research. The team will also include research analysts to record and process data and clinical staff to assist with the Biomarkers lab. This team will complement research expertise within the Institute for Rehabilitation Science and Engineering at Madonna. As director of both NAPL and Madonna’s Research Institute, my goal is to rapidly integrate these two teams and capitalize on its collective expertise. I expect both teams will grow as successful research agendas emerge.

Q-10: What makes Tom Osborne’s vision so special, Shawn Eichorst’s leadership so important and Prem Paul’s collaboration so vital?

A-10: Dr. Osborne’s vision focused on bridging UNL’s athletics and academics with private enterprise to improve the performance, health and welfare of individuals of all abilities, including student-athletes. He created a vision for this partnership and built the infrastructure well before others across the country even started to think about the need. It is clear from his unwavering advocacy and support for the project that he is incredibly invested in the outcomes. Shawn clearly understands the big picture and the long-term value of NAPL and the East Memorial Stadium project to student-athletes. Yet, in reality, this is an investment of time, money and human resources at a point when there are already many key initiatives underway. Shawn’s support for integration of NAPL within the athletic department is essential for the success of this mission. Prem is committed to research and economic development. He shares Tom’s vision of merging athletics, academics and the private sector to make a difference in the safety and wellbeing of not only athletes, but all members of society. Dr. Paul’s research acumen and insights into federal funding will be invaluable as we generate a sustainable and relevant collaborative research agenda.

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