UL Lafayette Reveals its Role in the COVID-19 Vaccine Development

The University of Louisiana at Lafayette has had a hand in the development, effectiveness, and success of the world’s first fully tested COVID-19 immunization approved for emergency use, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, according to a press release from the school.

The effectiveness of the vaccine was determined through nonhuman trials that involved primates at UL Lafayette’s New Iberia Research Center. Jane Fontenot, NIRC’s director of Contract Research commented on the opportunity saying, “We are so privileged to have been on the front lines of the fight against the pandemic. It’s very rewarding.”

Studies have shown that the vaccine is 95 percent effective at preventing COVID-19 after the administration of two doses. The United Kingdom was the first nation to issue an emergency authorization for the use of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in December, with the United States, the European Union, and other countries following suit soon after.

Up until now, UL Lafayette has been unable to discuss their historic role in the vaccine’s development due to confidentiality agreements with Pfzier. A publication in the peer-reviewed journal Nature is the first public confirmation of the University’s participation in this astounding effort. Fontenot co-authored the publication announcing the involvement.

Rhesus Macaques at NIRC were immunized as early as last spring as part of nonhuman primate clinical trials of the vaccine. The process involved staff administering vaccines, collecting samples, and observing the animals “for any signs of problems,” Fontenot noted. “That included evidence of pain, elevated temperatures, loss of appetite – any symptoms that may have raised concern about tolerability.”

Afterwards, the NIRC staff helped to facilitate the transfer of the vaccinated animals to the Southwest National Primate Center, which is affiliated with the Texas Biomedical Research Institute. The San Antonio-located center includes abiosafety level 3 facility, meaning that it can securely handle love, airborne infectious august such as COVID-19. The New Iberia Research Center is a biosafety level 2 facility, though UL Lafayette is seeking funding to raise it up to level 3 status.

A month after first receiving the vaccinations at NIRA, the rhesus macaques underwent the challenge phase of the trial which involved them being exposed to COVID-19, and results showed that the vaccine offered protection from the virus. Then, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was authorized by the federal Food and Drug Administration for emergency use in mid-December 2020, about one year after COVID-19 first emerged in the world.

The rapid pace with which the vaccine was developed had depended on pre-existing relationships that the biopharmaceutical giant had with research facilities such as NIRC. This was said by Dr. Ramesh Kolluru, UL Lafayette’s vice-president for Research, Innovation, and Economic development. 

Dr. Kolluru reportedly said, ““We were instrumental in Pfizer being able to work as quickly as they did.” He went on to cite both the vaccine’s development and the role that the University played as an “example of the power of public-private partnerships. NIRC’s long history of collaborations with biomedical research companies and others provided a baseline of expertise on which the center could rely on its role in the vaccine’s development. The relationships we’ve nurtured over the decades enabled us to be a part of this historic answer to a global challenge.”

UL Lafayette’s president, Dr. Joseph Savoie said that both the University and its researchers “were prepared to meet this moment. Few areas of life have escaped the pandemic’s effects, so to contribute to something that brings hope to the world is truly extraordinary.”

The New Iberia Research Center is the nation’s largest academically-affiliated, nonhuman primate research center, and it’s home to over 8,500 nonhuman primates.

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UL Lafayette Business Majors to Lead NASCAR Driver’s U.S. Sales Team

Soon, professional driver Michel Disdier will be adding students from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette to his NASCAR racing team, according to a press release from the school.

Disdier will be adding the brainpower of select members from the B.I. Moody III College of Business Administration’s sales program to his team to lead his 2021 efforts in U.S. sales, marketing, and corporate sponsorship management.

Professional driver Michel Disdier, who is originally from France, has established himself as a top, formidable competitor on several NASCAR racing circuits. This includes notable racing events such as the Camping World Truck Series and the NASCAR Pinty’s Series’ Canadian Tire Series. Disdier will be starting his 2021 season on February 12 when he races in NASCAR’s NextEra Energy 250 event at the notorious Daytona International Speedway.

Bizarrely enough, the name of Disdier’s racing business, which originated in France, is “Lafayette Racing,” so the partnership between his racing team and UL Lafayette’s Business students is seemingly preordained by fate itself. While speaking to ULL Press, Disdier said of the coincidence, “maybe this is just our destiny to work together.”

A Marketing instructor and interim director of the Moody College of Business’ Northwestern Mutual Sales and Research Lab, Dr. Valerie McGehee, will be mentoring the team of UL Lafayette students coordinating with Disdier’s racing team. On the monumental partnership, McGehee said, “I am so proud of these students. They never hesitated or questioned their ability to take on this work, and they continue to impress me. We have weekly Zoom meetings with Michel to update him on our progress and he has been wonderful to collaborate with.”

Members of Disdier’s sales team from UL Lafayette are Allison Gaubert, a management major with a concentration in professional sales, and Morgan Boggs, Megan DeJean, and Mackenzie Marze, who each are marketing majors minoring in professional sales. As the UL Lafayette Sales Team is still in their degree program, they see the lending of their sales and marketing efforts for the race car drivers as invaluable real world experience. Not to mention, they are also anxious and motivated to do whatever they can to ensure Disdier succeeds.

One student in particular, Mackenzie Marze, who loves sports, particularly NASCAR, will be overseeing the corporate sponsorships Disdier takes on for his 2021 racing season. Marze said of the unique chance, “I have an opportunity to learn how to market, strategize, present, and adapt to a whole new culture and brand.”

Team member Megan DeJean, who will direct sales and social media efforts, is reportedly looking forward to “taking everything we have been learning throughout college and putting it into practice for a real client.” Similarly, Allison Gaubert, who will be directing logistics and media is elated by the idea of collaborating with her academic cohorts and fellow sales team members to assist Disdier however they can. She remarked on the collaborative nature of the team by saying, “we all work so well together and are dedicated to this project.”

Lastly, Morgan Boggs’s role will be directing the promotional marketing efforts and managing the branding of Disdier and his total racing team. Boggs reportedly won’t allow things to be “all business,” as she is “ most excited to get the chance to see him race. I’ve never been to NASCAR but I always watch it on TV with my dad.”

Real-world application, experiences, and internships are cornerstones of every business major’s education, making this rare opportunity of UL Lafayette undergraduates managing the U.S. Sales and Marketing efforts of a professional NASCAR driver a once in a lifetime opportunity.

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UL Lafayette President Announces Record R&D Milestone

A remarkable milestone was announced this year by UL Lafayette President Joseph Savoie during his annual State of the University address; the milestone being that the university had broken records with $144 million spent towards expenditures in research and development last year, as reported by KATC.

As reported, 2019 was the third year in a row in which UL Lafayette spent more than $100 million on Research and Development (R&D), according to the conducted Higher Education Research and Development (HERD) Survey. This survey is the National Science Foundation’s annual indexing of United States colleges and university’s research spending.

Each year the University of Louisiana at Lafayette competes against other universities for both federal and state government grants as well as private sector contracts with the university acting as steward or the funds awarded to faculty and staff researchers.

The goal of increasing UL Lafayette R&D expenditures was set back seven years prior in 2013 with the accredited learning institution setting the goal of attaining $100 million in expenditures by 2020, though this might have been an undersight as the school had surpassed that expectation, achieving the goals three years sooner than expected- in 2017.

The record was broken yet again in the following year, 2018 with spending increasing to 124.7 million in the matter of a single year. This remarkable figure increase had placed UL Lafayette among the top 23 percent of the total 647 research universities included in the HERD survey.

Though this most recently announced $144 million figure has not yet been released by the National Science Foundation, the amount is the highest attained by ULL R&D to date, and it signifies an astounding achievement of the goal set in 2013.

President Savoie aptly referred to this achievement as “astonishing” when the milestone was communicated to faculty, staff, and students at the annual beginning of the semester address, which in previous years is delivered to nearly a thousand members of the University’s community in the Angelle Hall auditorium, but this year it was presented virtually as a result on the state of Louisiana’s restrictions on larger indoor gatherings.

As KATC reported from Savoie’s address, he had stated being that UL Lafayette is a public university, “in good times and in trying moments, the work we do should benefit the public. The research being done here does not stay here,” Savoie continued to say, “it is consequential and valuable to our society.”

The annual address serves as a way for the university president to set a tone for the start of the fall semester and new academic year, as classes at the four-year university officially began Thursday, August 17th. During the presentation, Savoie also reaffirmed UL Lafayette’s commitment to building a more diverse community on its campus, meeting the goals established in the Strategic Plan for Inclusive Excellence, a national framework adopted by multiple higher education learning institutions.

The Strategic Plan for Inclusive Excellence serves as a framework for enhancing equity, diversity, and inclusion across the school’s course offerings, hiring practices, student services and recruitment, and broader community outreach. Savoie also noted that the university’s increased efforts over the past decade to recruit and retain women and students of color are paying off.

In the 2019-2020 academic school year alone, the University awarded a record 3,610 degrees, and among those recipients receiving awards, there was a historic number of women, Black, Hispanic, and Asian graduates with the Spring 2020 graduation class being the largest and most diverse in the University’s 122-year legacy.

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Apple Recognizes UL Lafayette Student

A press release by the University of Louisiana at Lafayette outlines that 2020 student Joesph Kokenge has caught the eye of tech giant, Apple.  Kokenge noted that he continually gave his high school computer science assignments considerably more attention than other subjects, by his own admission. In the article, Kokenge remarks, ““I found myself wanting to do more computer science homework, and trying to find ways to get around doing social studies, science and math homework. So, I told myself, ‘You know what, I enjoy doing this so much I should probably pursue this in college.”

The UL Lafayette senior is 21 years old and majoring in computer science, with a specific concentration in big data and cloud computing, and according to acclaimed technology titan Apple, Inc, he evidently made the right choice. The technology company has named Kokenge alongside 350 students from 41 countries as winners of its “Swift Student Challenge,” which is held in conjunction with the Apple 2020 Worldwide Developers conference.

The program requires its tens of thousands of student participants who enter to develop a virtual environment on Apple’s Swift Playground App, which teaches its users how to code, the process of creating instructions for computers using programming languages.

Kokenge created the “Secure Hashing Algorithm Crash Course,” which is a virtual playground that is focused on cybersecurity. The concept of Hashing involves using algorithms to convert passwords into a “hash,” or a string of characters helping to keep passwords secure.

Apple’s playground app offers another feature for an additional security measure, says Kokenge, “it basically walks someone through how to go from just having a password that’s hashed, to what’s called ‘salting the password.’”

He explained, “You basically add few random letters at the end, and that makes the password a lot harder to crack.”

The Swift Student Challenge isn’t the first time Kokenge’s prowess and technological acumen has earned national attention, as at just the age of 18, he was featured in a Wall Street Journal article about entrepreneurial teenagers making big bucks by repairing iPhones. Kokenge, who watched YouTube videos in order to learn the process, charged anywhere from $50 to $200 to repair cracked phone screens.

Additionally, he developed several applications that have since been published by Apple’s official App Store, their digital distribution platform. One app enables people to submit prayer requests and get matched with another person with whom they will pray for 24 hours.

His latest app, which was only published this summer, is called “Dinner Decider;” it enables a group of people to generate a data-driven, anonymous consensus as to where the majority wants to dine, solving the frequent supper-time stresser.

“People are often reluctant to share their preferences verbally, so the app is designed to provide a way around that,” he explained.

Kokenge, who anticipates graduating in Spring 2021, plans to work for a small computer company to “get experience and learn,” then would like to move on to a larger one such as “Apple, Google, or Microsoft.”

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