Innovative UNMC, UNO Programs Improve Health Care in Different Ways

June 13, 2019, 6:45 a.m. ·

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Innovation comes in lots of shapes and sizes in Nebraska, including on Nebraska’s college and university campuses. Programs at UNO and UNMC that in different ways are working to improve our health are featured in NET Television’s new series on innovation and creativity, “What If…” produced and hosted by Mike Tobias.

This story is part of the new NET Television series on innovation and creativity in Nebraska, "What If..." It premieres Thursday, June 13 at 8 and 8:30 pm CT on NET. You can watch stories and learn more about the project at

Watch the "What If..." story on UNO's Biomechanics program on the NET web site or NET YouTube channel.

Watch the "What If..." story UNMC's iEXCEL program on the NET web site or NET YouTube channel

UNMC Nursing Associate Professor Cheryl Thompson using the iWall at UNMC iEXCEL (Photo by Mike Tobias, NET)

UNMC Neurological Sciences Associate Professor Sachin Kedar (right) helps a student use a virtual reality pupil simulator (Image by Chris Flanery, NET)

UNMC Associate Vice Chancellor for Clinical Simulation Pam Boyers (Image by Justin Cheney, NET)

UNMC Assistant Vice Chancellor for Clinical Simulation Ben Stobbe (Image by Justin Cheney, NET)

Nick Stergiou, UNO Biomechanics director/professor, assists with a virtual reality treadmill demonstration (Image by Justin Cheney, NET)

UNO Biomechanics Assistant Professor Nate Hunt demonstrates his cockroach research. (Image by Chris Flanery, NET)

Part of a prosthetic hand made using 3-D printing technology (Photo by Mike Tobias, NET)

Cheryl Thompson teaches a University of Nebraska Medical Center night class about the management and use of patient information. It’s for nurses pursuing graduate degrees and leadership roles. They use a digital, interactive iWall that fills the room, watching videos, pulling up information, writing notes and more on the 12 touch screens. Thompson’s taught this class for years. It’s the second time she’s used the iWall.

“This way, I think, it's easier for me to get ideas across, because number one, they're involved with it,” Thompson said. “They are on the board drawing, and laughing, and they weren't getting bored by me talking about it. It also can really show movement of data, and I can integrate multiple sources.”

“Instead of having a bunch of pieces of paper out that's hard to track, being able to use that technology to have it all on one screen, I think that's really innovative and groundbreaking, and can definitely save a lot of time and help with the big picture,” said Annie Newton, Nebraska Medicine Nurse and one of the students in Thompson’s class.

It’s one of many tools at UNMC’s Interprofessional Experiential Center for Enduring Learning, iEXCEL for short. There are 3-D display walls, human patient simulators and mock surgical suites.

Sachin Kedar, associate professor of neurological sciences at UNMC, demonstrated a virtual reality pupil simulator that can be programmed with rare conditions and mimic a real patient. “If you wait for about three or four minutes the patient gets bored and he'll start looking everywhere and starts to blink,” he said. “So you have to reinstruct them, ‘please look straight ahead.'

“This is better because now they actually get the experience of sitting in front of a patient, a virtual reality patient, and do the same thing that they would have otherwise done in a patient’s room,” Kedar added.

“The technology is absolutely stunning,” said UNMC associate vice chancellor for clinical simulation Pam Boyers. “Whether it's visualization technology or whether it's the human patient simulators. It helps us recreate real-life situations before the students or the practitioners have to go into those real-life situations. So it's a rehearsal time.”

Boyers helped create iEXCEL, from scratch, with UNMC assistant vice chancellor Ben Stobbe. “Combining all those components together is very unique because it gives the learner that ability to learn in multiple different ways,” Stobbe said. “Some people may use some 3D virtual reality, some may use surgical training, some may use simulation. Combining all those components all together is very unique because it gives the learner that ability to learn in multiple different ways.”

Just a couple miles away on the University of Nebraska at Omaha campus is a biomechanics facility and program putting movement under a microscope. In a lot of different ways. One is a metal, four-step instrument staircase. As research intern Lindsey Remski gives a demonstration, the steps she takes have force plates that capture information as she walks up and down. So do the handrails and sensors on her body.

“We can look at things like different strategies for using the handrails, different strategies for coordinating your limbs as you ascend the stairs,” said Brian Knarr, an assistant professor in the UNO biomechanics program. “We're kind of spoiled with goodies at this point for doing research.”

“My dream was to create some type of like a playground where you can have every tool possible in biomechanics,” UNO Biomechanics assistant dean, professor and director Nick Stergiou explained. Two decades ago they had a small room and what he calls some “archaic” equipment.

Now there are rooms full of researchers and equipment. A huge virtual reality treadmill allows researchers to simulate things like a rope bridge across an imaginary canyon, moving up and down, side to side, matching what the person on the treadmill sees on a wraparound screen. “It allows you to be immersed into an environment that produces more risk and that's exactly what we want to see. We want to see actually how you will respond in a more difficult type of situation,” Stergiou explained.

A room full of 3-D printers churns out prosthetics. Mostly hands, wrists, arms. Mostly for children. “The main goal with what we do is to improve the prosthetic designs, make them more kid-friendly, make them more appealing, and just to help the kids,” explained UNO Biomechanics graduate student James Pierce.

There is even a lab where cockroaches running on wooden poles, sometimes upside down, are recorded with high-speed cameras. This is research that UNO assistant professor Nate Hunt said is helping develop better robots. “If you have robots that have advanced mobility, you can do lots of things like search and rescue, things like national security, environmental monitoring,” Hunt said.

Stergiou calls all this pioneering, like nothing else in the country because of its scope. “Our research can touch a lot of individuals, and it's simply wonderful. It's simply wonderful to help people.”

Both the UNMC iEXCEL and UNO Biomechanics programs are still growing, getting new and improved spaces in the near future. They share something else in common. They’re driven by passionate visionaries. Nick Stergiou and Pam Boyers, who said blowing up tradition is risky, but sometimes necessary.

“The biggest lesson perhaps is that you can't tweak a change, especially in traditional environments,” Boyers said. If you tweak, and I have tweaked a lot, you turn into something else and because the tradition is so powerful, it goes back to the status quo again. So I have become absolutely convinced that the way to bring about change and the way to prepare for the future is just take a quantum leap.”