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IDEA recipient Dr. Vennerstrom combines his past with his passion

To Jonathan Vennerstrom, Ph.D., his childhood was unremarkable. It was a good childhood: The days were wide open, and the nights came too quickly -- without twilight, it seemed. He hiked and hunted and fished.

He lived in the mountains: "Pretty country," he said.

Watch a video about Dr. Vennerstrom.
He played pick-up sports with his friends.

"It was a great place to grow up," he said.

On one of those fishing trips his dad hooked a crocodile.

Illness on the home front

From the ages of about 7 to 16, Dr. Vennerstrom lived in Africa, in Ethiopia, in the highlands outside of Addis Ababa. But it was no big deal, of course. Except for the crocodile.

And except for the time some schoolmates got sick, very, very sick. "They were flat on their backs," Dr. Vennerstrom said.

It was malaria.

Fortunate ones

His friends recovered. The highlands are not malaria's stomping grounds.

But years later, Dr. Vennerstrom's parents, who were teachers at mission schools, would know two children in Cameroon, West Africa, who came down with the disease. They died in two days.

About 1 million people a year die from malaria. And most of them are children younger than 5.

Flanking malaria

In college, the soon-to-be Dr. Vennerstrom fell in love with chemistry. As a post-doc at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, he started to research malaria -- which also is considered a soldier's disease.

And somehow, that made sense.

Dr. Vennerstrom is a quiet man. He doesn't tend to wax poetic. He'd rather get back to work.

But, using his chemistry prowess to combat malaria? That's Africa in him.

So close, so far

Now one of his vaccines is on the verge of being accepted, and approved, in India. (Dr. Vennerstrom has another potential vaccine, a single-dose cure, still in clinical trials as well.)

This work has helped him earn the University of Nebraska's Innovation, Development and Engagement Award (IDEA).

It's exciting, of course, but difficult too. He's handed it off, and all he can do is watch from afar.

The long run

That's the way it is, with discovery: "You have so many people involved along the way, no one person stays with it all the way through."

You just hope it keeps on running.

"It's passed on," Dr. Vennerstrom said, "like a baton."

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