University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins named Brian Cunningham an Arizona Champion for his work on the university’s COVID-19 Test, Trace and Treat (TTT) program. Cunningham, who is an alum of systems and industrial engineering (SIE), serves as director of logistics in the Office of Strategic Initiatives and an adjunct lecturer in SIE. Arizona Champions are faculty and staff members who go above and beyond. During his time combating COVID-19 on campus, Cunningham helped lead a diverse team that kept up with changing demands.
“We were very agile and had the latitude to make decisions and collaborate with our campus colleagues on solutions. We reconfigured spaces frequently until we found the sweet spot,” Cunningham said. “I always said that the people from the last pandemic didn’t leave us a playbook. And I think if we were to leave a playbook on what we learned from this pandemic, it would say, ‘Be ready to pivot.’ There were so many times we would switch from doing antibody testing to COVID-19 virus testing, and then we’d need another site to do both. We just had to be ready to move at a moment’s notice.”
When he first became involved with the TTT team in March 2020, Cunningham helped supply COVID-19 tests to the community and state. As the pandemic shifted, so did his work. He next began working with antibody research and supplied dozens of state testing sites for a statewide research study approved by the Institutional Review Board.
Cunningham previously helped run the college’s first-year engineering program and still teaches a manufacturing class in SIE. He says his experience in industrial engineering helped prepare him for the demands of the TTT program.
“For COVID-19 testing, I was the point person from a supply chain and logistics role,” Cunningham said. “A lot of the skills we focus on in industrial engineering, like queuing theory, are about how to move things efficiently through a system, and generally developing those systems. If you think of these test sites as systems with their own challenges, my training as an industrial engineer was very beneficial.”
As the pandemic progressed, the team began focusing on campus reentry, and Cunningham helped coordinate efforts for the university’s vaccine point of distribution, It was a pivot, but Cunningham said the team was able to apply what they learned from testing to the vaccination efforts.
“Brian consistently applied his engineering skills to tackle the tremendous challenge of designing and implementing an innovative COVID-19 testing program under extreme time constraints and a great deal of uncertainty. We are immensely appreciative of Brian's outstanding leadership and his contagious can-do attitude,” said Jane Hunter, vice President for Strategic Initiatives. “Thanks to the efforts of Brian and the rest of the team, the program has been recognized as one of the finest Higher Education COVID-19 testing programs in the nation.”
Now, the TTT team is working on Cats TakeAway Testing, through which students and employees can take free, convenient tests from a dozen campus locations and additional locations statewide. In total, Cunningham estimates the campus conducted nearly 300,000 tests. While working to fight COVID-19 on campus has been difficult, Cunningham also describes it as one of the most rewarding times in his career.
“I’m extremely honored to get this award. It really does mean a lot to me. I’m appreciative and I know the feeling is mutual,” Cunningham said. “I think the University of Arizona hit it out of the park. We have some great senior leaders, having two doctors that led this. It’s easy to do great things when you have leaders that give you the support you need, and let you make things happen.”