Yes, this “lab” is inside East Memorial Stadium. Ben Huenemann Photo.
By Randy York
The Nebraska Athletic Performance Laboratory (NAPL) is a bit of a misnomer because it is designed to become 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. “We’re driving our research by the needs of those served in the environment,” said Dr. Judy Burnfield, the NAPL director who works closely with Dr. Dennis Molfese, the director of the new academic research lab down the hall from Burnfield’s athletic-side office in the East Stadium.
The expanded East Memorial Stadium is the new home for what is believed to be the first on-campus jointly shared academic/athletic research facility in college athletics, and Burnfield’s team is thinking broadly about the issues that impact human performance, safety and well-being of athletes. “We’ll be doing research not only while student-athletes are in our academic program, but also as they age,” she said. “We recognize that students are collegiate athletes for a relatively short period of their lives, yet what happens to them during this period 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 not only during their collegiate careers, but also later in life.”
Some of NAPL’s work focuses on technology development, using tools to automate objective analysis of an athlete’s performance so that the impact of different training interventions can be determined. “Examples might be testing helmets or footwear to maximize safety and performance,” Burnfield said. “Other aspects will be more long-term with a goal of understanding what factors may predict injuries or chronic conditions later in life. We fully expect that our breakthroughs in athletic human performance and safety will also have lasting impacts on the lives of individuals with physical disabilities and chronic conditions, so that we might prevent some individuals from experiencing orthopedic or neurologic injuries that would lead to a physical disability.”
NAPL and Madonna Rehab: Strong, Unique Partners
Such research is vital to Burnfield, who believes training parameters can be refined and used during the rehabilitation process. This broader conception of human performance serves, in part, as the basis for NAPL’s strong collaboration with the Institute for Rehabilitation Science and Engineering at Lincoln’s Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital. Burnfield is the director of that process at Madonna and continues in that role at the same time she directs NAPL.
The goal is to bridge researchers and agendas across and between UNL and Madonna. “We truly want to make a difference in the lives of individuals of all abilities and ages,” Burnfield said. “We have a very solid foundation from a facilities and technology perspective, and we just received a significant grant to purchase state-of-the-art technology because our work will benefit the wellbeing of individuals living in the community at large as well as athletes.”
There is no model for how to staff this type of research. “Our goal is to build strong relationships with industry partners to ensure technology and treatment innovations are translated into use across the country and around the world,” Burnfield said. She envisions collaborations spurring economic growth through the creation of new jobs in all kinds of areas that need research. NAPL is combining 12 labs in many institutions under a single umbrella for clinical, research and development activities.
Lab Has Football Turf and Basketball/Volleyball Court
NAPL is a unique research lab waiting to launch into action. Its lower level, for instance, has football turf, a running surface and a basketball/volleyball court. It also has motion analysis and force plates to measure performance as well as a batting cage, a golf cage and a “throws” cage.
The upper research level houses the performance lab and affiliate companies which lease office space. The seven offices include four single private offices and two conference rooms that include a kitchenette/lounge and a collaborative working area. This level also features a biomarkers lab and testing rooms with a bone density scanning machine. The area includes blood and saliva testing for student-athlete physicals, and a bridge connecting NAPL with the Center for Brain, Biology and Behavior research area. In other words, NAPL will do what every other Nebraska academic/athletic support program aspires to do – put the well being of our student-athletes as the primary focal point – every day and in every way humanly possible.
“It’s important when recruits and families see us dedicating our efforts to their sons’ health and their safety with the latest in technology,” said Ross Els, Nebraska’s linebacker coach and recruiting coordinator. “It’s more proof that we are not a program that sits on our laurels. We’re always trying to get better and constantly striving for new ways to show our leadership.”
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