Rocket men

Paul Paulman, M.D., professor of family medicine and part-time rocket man. (Photos by Kevin Trojanowski, The Heartland Organization of Rocketry)

Paul Paulman, M.D., professor of family medicine and part-time rocket man. (Photos by Kevin Trojanowski, The Heartland Organization of Rocketry)

Theirs is a dangerous hobby, in more ways than one.

They’ve survived some close calls. Don Johnson, Ph.D., associate professor of pathology and microbiology, once noticed a highway patrolman driving alongside him for 10 miles, down I-80, trying to decide whether Dr. Johnson had an armored missile in the back of his pickup.

Paul Paulman, M.D., professor of family medicine, realized, too late, that he probably shouldn’t be picking up someone at the airport with a bed full of rockets under his truck’s camper top.

“I thought, What if they decide to look in the back?” Dr. Paulman said. “I’m going to be going to that little room.”

It’s a dangerous hobby.

They launch rockets. Real rockets.

OK, not manned rockets. But real rockets, just the same. With explosives, and little computers and airspace clearance from the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration).

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Don’t worry, they stress safety. Drs. Johnson and Paulman are members of national organizations and are part of a rocket club, THOR (The Heartland Organization of Rocketry), that includes aerospace engineers who work at Offutt Air Force Base.

You know, rocket scientists.

So, who is smarter? UNMC scientists or rocket scientists? Well, in this instance …

“They advise us a lot,” Dr. Paulman said.

“They kind of look down on us as biologists,” Dr. Johnson said with a laugh.

Don Johnson, Ph.D.

Don Johnson, Ph.D.

Their expertise is more black-and-white: “With physics and rocketry,” Dr. Paulman said, “you know when you are successful. In biology and medicine, you may not see results.”

Drs. Johnson and Paulman design and build their own rockets. They launch them when the weather is nice, but they work on them all year long.

They use the same explosives that were used with the space shuttles. They’re licensed to launch them as high as 20,000 feet.

They were both interested in rockets as boys, but then years went by. And then …

“I got back into it when my kids were a little younger,” Dr. Paulman said.

“Me, too,” Dr. Johnson said.

“It was a cool thing to do together. Now I launch with my grandkids,” Dr. Paulman said.

“For me, it’s something my son and I can do together,” Dr. Johnson said.

“His son is the best rocket tracker in the club,” Dr. Paulman said.

Søren Johnson, 15, the best rocket tracker in the club, with his National Association of Rocketry Level 1-approved test rocket.

Søren Johnson, 15, the best rocket tracker in the club, with his National Association of Rocketry Level 1-approved test rocket.

“He’s got good eyes,” Dr. Johnson said.

“And he’s determined,” Dr. Paulman said.

Good thing. Losing a rocket isn’t like losing a golf ball.

“Oh my gosh,” Dr. Paulman said. It’s a little more expensive than that.

But, oh, it’s fun.

“It combines engineering and propulsion and aerodynamics, recovery, electronics. Things have to work right,” Dr. Paulman said.

“They say, when the space shuttle goes up there are 50,000 things that can go wrong,” Dr. Johnson said.

“We’ve found a number of them,” Dr. Paulman said.

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So, how are their families about how much time and money they spend on rockets?

“Tolerant,” Dr. Paulman said.

“It’s better than going to the bars,” Dr. Johnson said.

“There are worse hobbies,” Dr. Paulman said.

“There’s never been an accident,” Dr. Johnson said.

Launches are open to the public. If you are interested in joining the club or attending a launch, contact Dr. Johnson or Dr. Paulman.

Another unusual patient at UNMC

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UNMC is not just an academic health science center. It strives to be a vital resource to all Nebraskans. So it makes perfect sense that the radiation science technology education department in the School of Allied Health Professions recently lent its expertise in order to X-ray … a 19th century masterpiece from the Joslyn Art Museum?

The Nebraska State Historical Society’s Gerald Ford Conservation Center and the Joslyn are partnering with UNMC on radiographic imaging to assist with a full technical study, then the conservation of the painting. The process and results will be on display at the museum as part of a special exhibit.

This intersection of medical science and art also has inspired tonight’s Science Café featuring presenters Kenneth Bé and Jim Temme.

Science Cafe tonight

Kenneth Be, head of paintings conservation at the Gerald R. Ford Conservation Center and James Temme, associate professor and director of the radiation science technology division in UNMC’s School of Allied Health Professions, present tonight on “The Pearl of Venice” and the intersection of art and science at an Omaha Science Cafe at 7 p.m.  at the Slowdown, 729 N. 14th St.

On the day of the imaging, Bé, head of paintings conservation at the Ford Center, and the Joslyn’s Kay Johnson carried the painting into the med center’s radiography department and set it down gently. Tim Stack, radiology technologist for The Nebraska Medical Center, Justin Williams, a senior radiography student, and Temme, the Charles R. O’Malley Endowed Chair in Radiation Science Technology Education, started setting up.

Williams, Stack, Jolene Horihan, radiography and mamography technologist at The Nebraska Medical Center, and Temme pose with "The Pearl of Venice."

Williams, Stack, Jolene Horihan, radiography and mammography technologist at The Nebraska Medical Center, and Temme pose with the patient, “The Pearl of Venice,” after a successful radiography. (Photos by Fran Higgins, School of Allied Health Professions)

“The Pearl of Venice,” dated 1899, has long been a favorite of Joslyn visitors. Its painter, Thomas Moran, is best known for his paintings and watercolors of the American West. But this, one of his finest cityscape paintings, shows he also spent time, “as we all should,” Bé said, “in Venice.”

Yes. We all should spend time in Venice! (Moran himself wrote of the city’s “dreamy beauty.”)

And this is the way Bé speaks – elegantly. Maybe it’s being around all of these masterpieces day in and day out.

And it is only with this kind of imaging that one can truly know a painting, Bé said. “The history of this canvas,” he said. “We are looking not only for condition problems but also some clues to the painting’s studio technique, things we could only find in a radiograph. Things I couldn’t see with my naked eye.”

Some large museums have their own in-house radiography set-ups, Bé said, but this partnership works just fine.

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A great look at the X-ray.

“These radiographic images look great,” Temme said, as the team imaged another section of the painting.

Temme beamed proudly. “I think I’d like to have a print of these radiographs in my office,” he said.

The exhibit will run June 7-Sept. 7 at the Joslyn Art Museum, and will include the painting undergoing its cleaning and conservation treatment in the galleries, with Bé working as visitors watch.

The Science Café is set for 7 p.m. tonight at the Slowdown. Please click the link for details.

Be, Johnson and Temme posed with "The Pearl of Venice." Be and Temme will present at a June 3 Science Cafe.

Be, Johnson and Temme posed with “The Pearl of Venice.” Be and Temme will present tonight at the Science Cafe.

The scientist and his chicken soup

Oh. So that’s what we’ve come to talk to him about.

Chicken soup.

Dr. Rennard exhaled, and leaned back in his chair so his voice would carry into the open office door across the hall: “How do I feel about the chicken soup story, Lillian?”

After a knowing laugh, the answer: “It’s just been unbelievable,” Lillian said.

Dr. Rennard watches his wife, Barbara Rennard, the study’s first author, make her famous chicken soup.

Dr. Rennard is Stephen Rennard, M.D., Larson Professor of pulmonary and critical care medicine at UNMC. Lillian is Lillian Richards, office associate I, internal medicine pulmonary, charged with wrangling Dr. Rennard, and sometimes (OK, often) also all this stuff about chicken soup.

And this chicken soup stuff never stops. It happened again, just the other day. This time it was Martha Stewart mentioning it in a syndicated “Ask Martha” column. Yes, Martha said. According to a “recent” University of Nebraska Medical Center study, chicken soup, while not a cure, could help alleviate symptoms of the common cold.

It never stops.

Go ahead, Google the words Rennard chicken soup and the search engine comes up with about 5,330 results in .21 seconds. None of them, as far as we can tell, are about any other Rennard or any other chicken or any other soup.

People love it that a scientist actually has studied whether chicken soup might be good for you, when you have a cold, just like your mom says.

Dr. Rennard, UNMC’s inaugural scientist laureate, is a world-renowned chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) researcher. Well, he’s world renowned for his COPD research within scientific circles. To the rest of us, thanks to a 1993 study that’s proven to have gone not viral, but retroviral, he’s world renowned as Mr. Chicken Soup.

“It’s been 20 years,” Dr. Rennard said.

“That’s the funny part,” came Lillian’s voice, from across the hall.

Barbara Rennard’s chicken soup comes from her grandmother’s recipe.

It’s like a musician, who has done great work for decades. But we, the public, can’t get that one, long-ago hit song out of our heads.

Right?

Well, no, Dr. Rennard said. It’s not like that at all. “It would be kind of like,” he said, and then paused for a good 10 seconds, trying to think of what it would be like.

“OK, so Charles Dodgson,” Dr. Rennard finally said. (Charles Dodgson? Pen name: Lewis Carroll.) “It’s kind of arrogant to compare yourself to somebody like that. But, he got to be really famous for ‘Alice in Wonderland.’

“He was actually a serious mathematician,” Dr. Rennard said.

“But nobody cares about that other stuff.”

This all happened because Dr. Rennard had also always heard the folk wisdom, from cultures all over the world, that chicken soup helps colds, and he loves that kind of stuff – he studied folklore and mythology at Harvard. But he also is a scientist. He lives to find the truth of things, to figure things out.

And, his wife makes chicken soup. Wonderful chicken soup. Magical chicken soup. It is Barbara Rennard’s grandmother’s recipe, and if any chicken soup could cure colds, it would be this one.

TV stations across the country have shown Barbara Rennard making chicken soup, and a station in Cincinnati even uses some of the footage as “B-roll” on Mother’s Day. How do we know? A childhood friend called her: “Barbara! I just saw you on TV!”

Why not look into it?

What we did in the laboratory was actually very rigorous,” Dr. Rennard said. “Admittedly, we did it for the fun of it. Because we were amused by it like everybody else.”

And?

“What ourwork shows is that there are ingedients in common foodstuffs that might have anti-inflammatory actions. That old adage, that if it helps you, it might not be wrong.”

And so it is that Dr. Rennard, renowned COPD scientist, will be forever cited for his research on chicken soup.

Barbara Rennard and Dr. Rennard go over some of the research inspired by her chicken soup.

How does he feel about that? Well, when the subject is first broached, his body language did not scream enthusiasm. But, the longer Dr. Rennard talked, it was clear chicken soup is like that rascal uncle you can’t help but love. With every memory, he couldn’t help but smile. It’s been a fun ride. Besides, he may as well roll with it. It’s never going away.

Leaning: “Do you think people will finally stop calling about the chicken soup story, Lillian?”

“No,” Lillian said.

“I think when you finally retire we’ll give them your home phone number,” Dr. Rennard said.

Chicken soup has given Dr. Rennard three great career highlights, the kind few scientists are lucky to get:

• His wife Barbara, the study’s first author and head soup chef, always loved listening to Bob Edwards on National Public Radio (NPR). Guess who was interviewed by Edwards about chicken soup and managed to get his wife in on the call? “He talked to me for 10 minutes. He talked to her for the whole rest of the hour!” Dr. Rennard said. “And my wife’s friends were listening to NPR radio and said, ‘That’s Barbara Rennard!’ ”

• When Dr. Rennard’s hometown paper, the St. Louis Sun, was doing a chicken soup story for its Sunday magazine, it asked him for a photo. Well, it is his wife’s grandmother’s recipe, he said, and she was from St. Louis. How about a photo of her? It ended up being an old photo of Barbara Rennard’s grandmother cooking with her two young daughters, Barbara’s mother and aunt. Heartwarming stuff. “I got my mother-in-law’s picture in the newspaper,” Dr. Rennard said. A man can’t do much better than that.

• Dr. Rennard and chicken soup were a question in Trivial Pursuit. Every parent can relate: of all the work he has done, it was nice to finally have something his kids thought was pretty cool.

And so, Dr. Rennard will continue to work tirelessly on COPD (“It’s the third-leading cause of death in the United States and it’s not a household word,” he said). And he will continue to take phone calls about chicken soup.

Dr. Rennard adds carrots under his wife’s watchful eye.

Because those calls keep coming. Lillian used to try to keep track of a stack of news clippings, but it grew too much. This year alone Dr. Rennard and his chicken-soup study have been cited nationally by Martha Stewart, Men’s Fitness and the Huffington Post, among others.

It’s the media-exposure equivalent of a golden goose. It just keeps giving, year after year.

Few have done as much to put UNMC in the public consciousness as has Dr. Rennard’s research on his wife’s wonderful chicken soup. And, while he said he isn’t quite sure of all the logic behind why, Dr. Rennard does know that any time national media mentions UNMC, it is, as Martha herself might say, a good thing.

“It doesn’t show up in my annual productivity, things I’m responsible for,” he said.

What? How can that be? That’s a huge contribution to the university. How is all this not noted in his file?

“Lillian!” Dr. Rennard said. “So, Kalani thinks that we need to record in ADIS all the chicken soup interviews.”

“I quit,” Lillian said.