Grawemeyer is lit green to honor COVID-19 victims in 2020.
Grawemeyer is lit green to honor COVID-19 victims in 2020.

If we could describe 2020 in one word for posterity, it’d no doubt be “memorable.”

Hopefully it will also be anomalous.

This year was largely defined by the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to global disruption, ripped milestones from our routines and created a justifiable (and lingering) amount of concern and anxiety.

At the University of Louisville, however, things kept moving along – albeit mostly online (including our first virtual commencement campaign).

That’s not to say it wasn’t hard at times (it was), but our faculty, staff and students stepped up to the challenge – and then some.

Consider UofL’s response to this extraordinary virus as an example. From the onset, our nationally networked lab enabled researchers to safely study coronavirus, our engineering students produced 3D printed face shields for healthcare professionals, our business students started a company to meet demand for reusable face masks, 3D printed swabs developed at UofL filled a gap in test kits and we launched a decontamination program to alleviate a mask shortage for health care workers.

Infectious disease researchers at UofL worked with all 10 Louisville hospitals and two in southern Indiana to process tests and study the illness in order to gather information needed to prevent transmission of COVID-19 – a critical step toward understanding what we were up against in the early days.

Then there was the Co-Immunity Project – a groundbreaking collaboration to track and curb COVID-19 in Kentucky. Through its numerous phases since launch, researchers have been able to glean a reliable estimate of the breadth and spread of coronavirus infection in different parts of the city.

We also tapped into our diverse areas of expertise to deepen understanding of the virus. For example, our researchers used thousands of computers in K-12 classrooms to identify drugs to treat COVID-19, while another UofL team developed a robot to disinfect areas with coronavirus risk.

One UofL researcher used internet searches to map the spread of COVID-19, while another discovered a biomarker that predicts a crisis in COVID-19 patients. We had a team of researchers working with MSD to test Louisville wastewater to track COVID-19 – a method since adopted elsewhere and lauded in the New York Times, while another team developed a more effective, reusable N95 mask.

We made sure critical social networks didn’t dissipate for seniors, students and the general public as lockdowns went into place. The Trager Institute, for example, launched a virtual information session about COVID-19, while the SRC created a number of virtual events for students and our music faculty performed their world-class music virtually.

And, we conjured up plenty of optimism in the fight against the virus, from the beginning to where we are now. In April, UofL researchers developed a technology believed to block the coronavirus from infecting human cells. This breakthrough technology is now in development with California biomedical company Qualigen Therapeutics. In July, UofL began a clinical trial on a new treatment for critically ill COVID-19 patients meant to lessen some of the most severe respiratory effects. In early December, UofL received funding from the U.S. Department of Defense to develop and test a nasal spray to prevent COVID-19. And, on December 15, UofL Health became the first hospital in Kentucky, and one of the first in the U.S., to begin administering Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccinations to frontline health care workers.

Astonishingly, this is not a complete list of UofL’s all-hands-on-deck work against the COVID-19 pandemic. Expect more to come as our researchers continue their around-the-clock efforts, our faculty members search for effective solutions, our health care workers continue their selfless cause and our students aspire to change the future.

Beyond the COVID-19 pandemic

That’s not to say COVID-19 was all we focused on this year, however. In fact, quite the opposite. The University of Louisville earned a bevy of 2020 wins autonomous from the fight against the pandemic.

We solidified our position as a research and innovation powerhouse, securing $170 million this year – our most successful year ever for competitively-funded research. This funding marks an increase of nearly $18 million over the previous record year, fiscal 2018-19.

Among our highlights this year, our researchers trained students for the technology-backed “jobs of tomorrow,” developed next-generation manufacturing technology, rehydrated blood in space, used dance to treat veterans with PTSD, examined the effects of vaping and nicotine on youth and advanced carbon dioxide reduction.

We also described a possible mechanism for a link between obesity and breast cancer, discovered a key driver behind the bacteria that causes Legionnaire’s disease, unveiled that Group B Strep infections are more common than previously recognized and began testing a new gene therapy for heart attacks.

In the community, we began studying how to better serve moms in recovery, how to aid homeless Louisvillians, how school resource officers approach students of different races and more.

Our research efforts have certainly turned heads, which is why we’ve received millions in funding to launch health care cybersecurity curriculum and advance cancer immunotherapies, why partners have signed up to bring our technologies to market, and why Pfizer Inc. designated UofL as its the first Center of Excellence.

Outside of the lab, we also spent the year redefining student success, an important focus as our enrollment reached more than 23,000 students – our highest number in 23 years. For starters, our experiential learning opportunities, including internships and co-ops, increased by a staggering 72% year-over-year, despite the pandemic.

Moreover, for the sixth time, UofL was included on the list of U.S. colleges and universities producing the most Fulbright scholars. Twenty-one UofL students and alumni won prestigious international fellowship offers this year.

raiseRED, our students’ annual 18-hour dance marathon to raise money in the fight against pediatric cancer, set a fundraising record, while our student-athletes collectively won the 2019-20 NCAA Team Works Award Competition for outstanding community service. UofL also placed a school-record 413 student-athletes on ACC Honor Roll.

Four UofL students became part of the CPE’s first student cohort to help bring change to higher education. The Brandeis School of Law’s mock trial team advanced to nationals. A handful of UofL students invented a new test for water pollution, while several other students launched an undergraduate research journal. Also worth mentioning, when COVID pushed schools to go online, a couple of UofL students teamed up to ensure area students continued to be fed at lunch.

As if that’s not enough, our students had a major hand in erecting 10 markers on campus representing historically Black fraternities and sororities, as well as in designing UofL’s new residence halls and a homeless veterans project in the community.

As UofL President Neeli Bendapudi said about our students, “2020 was not a year of simply watching and waiting. It was a year of Cardinals doing what they do best – stepping up to help others.”

We also proved our status as a premier metropolitan university this year, an institution dynamically connected to both the local and global community.

In a year filled with racial justice protests, many of which centered on the death of Louisville’s Breonna Taylor, President Bendapudi declared UofL’s objective of becoming the nation’s premier anti-racist university. She also joined other area higher ed presidents in pledging to end racial inequality in the city and created a scholarship in memory of Taylor. Further, the School of Medicine established an endowed fund to combat racial inequality, while the UofL College of Business and the Kentucky Distillers’ Association teamed up to increase diversity in the industry.

This year, UofL was identified as one of only three universities in the U.S. that provides equal access to Black and Latinx students, as well as a top school for Black students pursuing a criminal justice degree.

The community connection runs deeper still. Consider, for example, a new collaboration between UofL and West Kentucky Community and Technical College, expanding dental care in western Kentucky. Or, that UofL and JCPS launched a residency program to increase the pool of diverse teachers.

UofL became one of just 28 public/private partnerships funded by the Department of Labor to build a program that will prepare students for jobs of the future.

Also this year, Norton Healthcare and UofL finalized their pediatric integration and UofL CEHD started offering free counseling to the West End community.

This is just the tip of a very large iceberg. We’d be remiss to not acknowledge the following accomplishments from this year:

If we can achieve this extensive, impressive list of accomplishments in a challenging, unusual, crisis-laden year, imagine what we’ll do next – here and beyond. We’re looking forward to it!

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Alicia Kelso
Alicia Kelso is the director of social media and digital content. She joined UofL in 2015 as director of communications at the Brandeis School of Law. She also serves as a senior contributor at Forbes.com, writing about the restaurant industry, which she has covered since 2010. Her work has been featured in publications around the world, including NPR, Bloomberg, The Seattle Times, Good Morning America and Franchise Asia Magazine.