Northern Illinois University

NIU Office of Public Affairs

News Release

Contact: Joe King, NIU Office of Public Affairs
(815) 899-9447

December 13, 2006

Caterpillar awards homeland security scholarships to NIU students

DeKalb, Ill. — Matthew Knott is a firefighter with special expertise in hazardous materials and Kellen Hunter is a biochemist. Both men understand all too well the havoc that could be unleashed by a chemical spill – whether accidental or intentional.

That is one reason both men are currently enrolled in homeland security certificate programs at Northern Illinois University, where both were recently selected to receive $1,000 scholarships from Caterpillar Corporation to support their homeland security studies.

This is the first semester that students at NIU are eligible to earn certificates in homeland security. Students earning the certificates learn skills that will enable them to work in roles assisting companies and government in planning for, reacting to and recovering from all sorts of disasters, natural and manmade. Certificates are available in biochemical sciences, environmental and hazards risk assessment, health sciences, and manufacturing and industrial technology. NIU is the first university in the state to offer such certificates.

Knott, 33, is pursuing a certificate in health sciences while earning a master’s degree in safety through NIU’s College of Engineering and Engineering Technology. He comes to the program with an extensive resume. In addition to his work as a firefighter/paramedic in Rockford, he is also a member of the Illinois Terrorism Task Force Urban Search and Rescue Team and serves as domestic preparedness specialist for Rockford Health Systems. While those jobs have made him an expert in handling hazardous materials he has learned much from his homeland security coursework at NIU.

“My professional experience has given me a solid practical understanding of issues relating to hazardous materials,” says Knott, who was part of a contingent of Illinois firefighters who traveled to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina where he created a city-wide decontamination facility. “However, the certificate courses have provided me with a better understanding and the logic behind those issues. It’s a more academic understanding of the subject matter that provides valuable context.”

Hunter, 22, recently earned his bachelor’s degree in biochemistry at NIU and is pursuing a master’s in that field while concurrently working toward a homeland security certificate in biochemical sciences, which he hopes will open up new career opportunities. 

“I got interested in safety issues after the 9-11 attacks,” explains Hunter, whose research specialty in trace chemical analysis could be useful in bomb detection and other areas important to homeland security.

“I’m interested in developing ways to protect ourselves from potential problems, stopping things before they happen,” says Hunter, whose potential career goals include working for insurance companies doing risk management, or helping corporations develop disaster policies and plans. The certificate programs have been good preparation for such fields, he says.

“The disaster preparedness class was particularly useful. It covered all types of emergencies that could happen at any time, discussing how to deal with the chaos that occurs immediately, as well as mitigating the problem. After completing this certificate, I think I would be well prepared to step into a professional position and handle some of those responsibilities.”

This is the first semester that students can earn the certificates. While no formal device for tracking registration is currently in place, instructors have noticed a surge in interest in classes that are part of the certificates.
“I have more than 40 people in my Disaster Preparedness class, which in the past usually drew about 30 students,” says Dennis Cesarotti, an engineering professor who is helping to craft the certificate programs and who is creating an online “foundations” course that all students will be required to take. The online course will also be made available for use by other universities around the state.

“I’m still getting six to 10 calls a week from people interested in the certificate programs,” says Cesarotti. “And most of those calls are coming from non-NIU students – either students at other schools or people already working in related fields who are interested in earning some accreditation.”

For more information on NIU’s certificates in homeland security visit the Web at

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