Reporting from West Lafayette, Ind.—A few weeks ago, 24-year-old Amanda Stirrat completed her master's degree in public health at Purdue University. Most of her peers struggled to find work. As for Stirrat?
"The job market seemed easy," she said with a shrug.
She credited her studies in Purdue's extensive homeland security program for quickly landing her a job to help coordinate Indiana's response to large-scale public emergencies. Purdue gave her the chance to work with retired military officers and other security specialists to write a thesis on disaster preparedness. The expertise set her apart, she said.
The 2001 terrorist attacks ushered in a major shift on American college campuses — tragedy giving way, 10 years later, to innovation and opportunity.
Today, domestic security has become, by some measures, the fastest-growing area of study, fueled largely by an explosion in federal money. Scores of programs have popped up, from community colleges to graduate schools. Thousands of students across the country are enrolled in courses that didn't exist a few years ago — delving into the psychology of terrorists and rogue regimes, and here in Indiana, studying emergency response by simulating mass-casualty disasters at the site of the Indianapolis 500.
Entire disciplines that had lost relevance have been resurrected. Some microbiology programs were folding before Sept. 11. Overnight, studying once-obscure germs like anthrax and Ebola became vital; National Institutes of Health funding soared by a factor of 30, and students have been pouring into the field ever since.
Some of the programs have already produced novel advances. At Texas A&M University, federally funded researchers have affixed radiation sensors to cockroaches — on tiny backpacks — that could be deployed to search for a "dirty" bomb.
Thousands of young people now view going to college as being part of "a mission," said Dr. Tara O'Toole, the Department of Homeland Security's undersecretary for science and technology. The department has spent nearly $4 billion on scientific research in the last five years, with hundreds of millions more pouring into colleges from other state and federal agencies, including the NIH and the Defense Department.
"This is a generation that is looking for work that is bigger than themselves," O'Toole said.
The new focus at Purdue is largely the result of its Homeland Security Institute, established after the 2001 attacks to use campus resources to confront national security threats.
The institute has developed courses set in "living laboratories," such as large dairy operations, to study ways to prepare for, respond to and recover from terrorist attacks. New courses are being added and officials are weighing the possibility of creating a stand-alone homeland security major.
The institute — run by two retired Army lieutenant colonels — also scours announcements of national security initiatives and partners them with campus researchers. The result is a new emphasis on collaboration among the university and government and corporate financiers interested in security research.
Interest in national security "is beginning to influence the way we look at research in general," said Alan H. Rebar, executive director of Discovery Park, a Purdue think tank that leads interdisciplinary research initiatives. "It invades every area of our research today."
The investment is paying dividends for the colleges themselves — at a time when they need infusions of cash.
Purdue food scientist Arun K. Bhunia had long been developing nanotechnology to detect naturally occurring pathogens in food. After Sept. 11, Bhunia applied this technology in new ways to guard against terrorism.
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Chemistry professor R. Graham Cooks has spent decades perfecting a mass spectrometer, a machine that calculates molecular weight and chemical structure. Before Sept. 11, he used it to analyze the molecular framework of strawberry jam and cacti. He said he felt as if he had a fascinating piece of technology in search of a practical application.
Today, Cooks' science has never been hotter. He and his students have helped refine a hulking machine that once filled a room into a hand-held device that Purdue is preparing to license. The technology can be used to detect traces of explosives on suitcases and clothing or biological agents sent through the mail. The next generation will fit inside a smart phone.
"Everything is moving faster and faster," Cooks said.