NCCU to Help Develop Detection System for Biological Threats at the Border

Posted March 13, 2020, 3:32PM
BBRI Director Deepak Kumar, left, with members of his faculty and staff. The team will work toward better detection methods for biohazards entering the country.

North Carolina Central University (NCCU) has received a $330,000 grant from the Minority Serving Institutions STEM Research and Development Consortium (MSRDC) to assist in developing new risk-assessment tools for the Department of Homeland Security.

NCCU Biological and Biomedical Sciences Associate Professor TinChung Leung will lead the project, joined by a multi-departmental team that includes faculty from Biological and Biomedical Sciences, Business, Mathematics and Physics. The work is also being supported by the university’s Julius L. Chambers Biomedical Biotechnology Research Institute (JLC-BBRI) and will include research opportunities for students.

“This project will enhance the research and educational capability at NCCU and provide opportunities for our students and faculty to gain experiences in national security areas such as data-science and border security,” said Deepak Kumar, Ph.D., director of JLC-BBRI. “Students will obtain balanced mentorship from both industry and academia, with the goal of gaining hands on experience of complex data analysis used to solve real life problems.” 

The grant was awarded in January 2020 by MSRDC, a national consortium of minority serving higher education institutions. It calls for development of new state-of-the-art forecasting and alerting capabilities to help the U.S. Customs and Border Protection unit of Homeland Security safeguard against entry by pests and diseases that could have a detrimental impact on the nation’s environment or economy. The goal is to identify and prioritize containment of any threats that may be present in passenger luggage, cargo or mail shipments at U.S. Ports of Entries. 

In the project, artificial intelligence and statistics based on historic data will be used to develop algorithms that can perform forecasting functions. Trade and travel patterns will be analyzed to determine how agricultural pests are most likely to enter the United States. This information will be integrated into Customs and Border Protection surveillance of biothreats and hazards.

Additionally, the project is anticipated to increased participation of minority students in the Homeland Security workforce.

Another major collaborator is Orion Integrated Biosciences (www.orionbio.com), a specialized biodefense company based in Kansas with locations in North Carolina. 

Orion chief executive officer Willy Valdivia said the work extends ongoing efforts by Orion to use genomic bio-surveillance systems in assessment of potential threats.

“More importantly, teaming up with researchers from the NCCU will open new directions and collaborations and will strengthen our presence in North Carolina,” Valdivia said.

Dr. TinChung Leung will lead research into developing a more effective biohazard detection system.

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