Joshua Santarpia, PhD, grew up watching a lot of science fiction films with his dad, an engineer. He was dazzled by concepts such as warp speed and time travel.
"That was a time of life for me when I began to realize those things aren’t real," he said. "Then I wondered how I would make them real, if it were even possible.
"You start to ask questions and find that many times the answer is no, this wouldn’t work. But maybe in certain weird circumstances, it might work if you studied something no one else has studied."
That inquisitiveness — the search for seemingly impossible technologies and the joy of discovering new things — has led Dr. Santarpia to a notable scientific career, though his path has been somewhat irregular and complex.
As an undergraduate student, he studied elementary particle physics and expected to continue in that field. But, at the time, fundamental physics research in the United States was suffering significant funding setbacks. He believed that was largely due to scientists’ lack of ability to communicate the importance of the work to the public and to the government.
"If scientists weren’t successfully explaining the need for that physics-based technology to the nation, I didn’t want to go into physics as a graduate student," he said. "It’s critical for science that the public understand why a particular project or field of study is important to them — and why we should be allowed to spend tax dollars doing it."
A belief in the practical need for science is something he’s carried with him throughout his career. And practicality is one reason he enjoys his defense work for the National Strategic Research Institute (NSRI) at the University of Nebraska.
"Through NSRI, I’ve had the opportunity to work directly with people who use the projects that I’m working on," he said. "And those people are providing an incredible service to the country, making it even more meaningful to me."
Dr. Santarpia, an associate professor of pathology and microbiology with UNMC and science and technology advisor with NSRI, has studied a wide variety of subjects over the years, from physics to extreme weather and now infectious diseases. Almost by accident and thanks to opportunities that presented themselves, he narrowed his focus to infectious biological aerosols, becoming one of the world’s leading experts.
Before he came to Nebraska, Dr. Santarpia worked at the U.S. Army's Edgewood Chemical Biological Center as well as Sandia National Laboratories. In addition to research, he has supported several U.S. government operational units in the interdiction and disablement of biological hazards through training and technology development.
That complex background, including extensive work with sensors to detect biological hazards for the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security, has made Dr. Santarpia a perfect fit to help lead NSRI as science and technology advisor.
Yongle Pan, PhD, of the U.S. Army Research Lab has partnered with Dr. Santarpia on various projects for 14 years. He said Dr. Santarpia is an outstanding, charming VIP-level leader with a sharp mind and wide connections.
"It’s always a great pleasure to work with him to solve interesting problems," Dr. Pan said. "He has the ability to foresee key problems, persuade clients such as the DOD and DTRA to set up research topics and bring in scientists from all over the world to carry out projects."
Along with many scientific researchers during the pandemic, Dr. Santarpia shifted his priorities when he focused his expertise, along with his UNMC colleagues, to help the world understand and mitigate transmission of COVID-19. He had experience working with infectious diseases at Sandia labs, partnering with UNMC to study non-contact transmission of Ebola, which made him and his team invaluable during the recent COVID crisis.
"No single event has influenced my career as much as this pandemic," he said. "I’ve had lots of bumps in my road and changes in trajectory based on things that happened around me. But in my professional career, this is the single most significant shift."
Dr. Santarpia was involved in everything from testing hospital rooms of the first COVID patients to evaluating transmission risk in numerous environments, including cruise ships, meatpacking plants and public schools. He was on a team that studied the environment around some of the first U.S. COVID patients from the cruise ship Diamond Princess.
Because of the need for quick answers in the pandemic, Dr. Santarpia pointed out, the research reached a point it never could have before due to past limitations on funding and interest.
"I hope we’ll look back on this and see it as a paradigm shift to looking at things in a more interrelated way with the public having a better view of scientists," he said. "Science communication has been extraordinarily key through this time. We can use what we have learned to dramatically improve how people live and work and stay healthy in general. It’s like a Manhattan Project for public health."
Today, Dr. Santarpia, his projects and his laboratories are pivotal to NSRI and NU’s collaboration in support of U.S. defense.
He recently launched the Collaborative Biosecurity Laboratory at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and he serves as principal investigator on several projects, including investigating chemical, biological threats and countermeasures for the Defense Threat Reduction Agency.
He also leads the biological defense and health security program at UNMC, training scientists for careers in national security and global health. He sees that educational work and his position with NSRI as a great opportunity to fill worrisome gaps in national security research.
"The old guard is almost gone," he said. "A lot of the institutional knowledge is retiring. There is a big gap in knowledge with the new generation, and we need to start better preparing them, or as a country we will lose the bubble of being on the cutting edge."
Dr. Santarpia believes the University of Nebraska may be one of the best places in the nation to introduce a new generation of cutting-edge defense research, specifically because of NSRI’s close ties with the university and U.S. Strategic Command — stronger ties he says than with most other University Associated Research Centers in the country.
"NSRI’s work in national security benefits the safety of all people," he said. "Every person in the world can relate to the pandemic, but the rest of it has the same mission and focus. It protects all of us by keeping our world safer."
One of Dr. Santarpia’s greatest strengths — his ability to think outside the box — stems from his irregular path, his willingness to step into new challenges and the resulting broad expertise.
Who knows? Maybe the knowledge, nerve and passion he passes on to his students will bring new technologies that were once thought impossible.