Answering the call

September 8, 2011

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The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks presented unprecedented challenges to our country.

Chief among the tasks facing the United States after the attacks: innovation to meet those challenges. In fields from textiles to foreign-language training, NC State has been at the forefront, yielding better fabrics for firefighters and technology for detecting improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in combat zones.

Michael Steer discusses research data with a graduate student in his Monteith Hall lab.

Dr. Michael Steer, Lampe Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, has worked to develop a portable detector that uses sound waves to detect IEDs. Steer’s research earned him the U.S. Army Commander’s Award for Public Service.

“This is a game-changer in modern warfare. It changed the way the enemy behaves,” Army Maj. Gen. Nick Justice said at the March 2010 ceremony where Steer received the award.

Led by Dr. Roger Barker, director of the Textile Protection and Comfort Center (T-PACC), researchers in the College of Textiles have launched several projects to improve the garments that firefighters and first responders wear into disaster zones.

Barker and his team have worked to develop uniforms that protect first responders from chemical and biological agents. Barker’s team has also sought to create a next-generation hazardous materials boot that marries comfort and protection.

T-PACC researchers have worked on developing more comfortable firefighters’ gloves and new systems for measuring the amount of heat stored by firefighters’ protective uniforms. Stored heat can cause burns, even when a firefighter’s skin isn’t directly exposed to flames.

A firefighter tests new boots designed at the NC State College of Textiles.

With funding from the military, researchers at the Nonwovens Cooperative Research Center at NC State created a lighter, stronger, less expensive fabric for tents used by American soldiers.

“A lot of these projects would have never happened if it wasn’t for the events of that tragic day,” said Emily Parker, director of college relations for the College of Textiles. “The College of Textiles is working hard to protect our military and first responders.”

In 2004, J. Mark Scearce, composer and director of the NC State music department, premiered “This Thread,” a composition based on Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison’s poem, “The Dead of September 11.” Scearce intended for “This Thread” to be “a soothing balm, to heal our wounds in perhaps the only way they can be – through music.”

The North Carolina Symphony will perform Scearce’s piece on Sunday as part of its Sept. 11 memorial, “North Carolina Remembers 9/11.”

The events of Sept. 11, 2001, also influenced instruction at NC State. The College of Humanities and Social Sciences has launched a program to offer accelerated training in critical languages to the future military leaders in the university’s Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC).

To increase the number of trained first responders in North Carolina, the College of Veterinary Medicine now requires disaster training for all its graduates.

NC State has also maintained its place as a leading destination for international students. In the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, admissions applications fell sharply as the federal government revamped student visa rules, according to Michael Bustle, director of the NC State Office of International Services.

After two years, international enrollment rebounded and has continued growing. More than 2,600 international students are enrolled at NC State. That growth is a sign of one of Sept. 11’s greatest lessons, Bustle said.

“Rather than allow a few deluded radical extremists to define who we are and what we will do as a nation, we need to focus again on what has made America great,” he said. “The hopes and desires of bright, enterprising youth from around the world are on us and our educational system.”