Last March, Osie V. Combs Jr., OE 77, SM 77, called a meeting with his colleagues at Pacific Engineering Inc. (PEI), a small defense contractor based in Nebraska. “We asked how we might use our knowledge and abilities to help wage the war on covid-19,” says Combs, the president of the company, who retired from the US Navy as a counter- admiral. “Because it’s a war. And you cannot fight the war of today with the weapons of yesterday.
Seven months later, Prince Edward Island delivered the first of 10 independent covid testing sites to the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. Constructed from lightweight yet strong composite materials, similar to the materials Prince Edward Island used to make military components, the company’s on-demand portable rapid medical platforms have enabled the government to State of Nebraska continue to offer rapid testing during the freezing winter months, including at the University of Nebraska Lincoln Campus. They were also deployed by the Winnebago Tribal Nation. The pods are heated, configured to protect against viral contagion, and designed to withstand winds of up to 120 miles per hour. Each stand-alone unit can test up to 320 people per day. At a site with multiple drive-thru units, the state of Nebraska served up to 1,200 cars per day.
“We knew there were a lot of places without hospitals or clinics that needed this service,” Combs says. “It was the weapon we could give to the people on the front lines.”
Born in Longview, Texas, Combs received his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Prairie View A&M University as part of his Naval Reserve Officer Training Corp. His father and uncle had served in World War II. “I entered the army standing on the shoulders of these two giants,” he says. After graduating in 1971, Combs served in the United States Navy for a period that included two tours on an aircraft carrier in the combat waters off Vietnam. One day aboard the ship, he received a phone call from an officer in the Naval Assignment Office, directing him to apply to the Department of Oceanic Engineering at MIT (originally established as the Department of Naval Architecture in 1893 and now part of the Department of Mechanical Engineering). “I clicked on my heels and said, ‘Yes sir,’ he said.
Combs was stunned when he arrived on the MIT campus in 1974. “I almost fell to my knees when I realized the quality of what I was offered there,” he recalls. “I was a little late at the start. But I am someone who made his way through college digging ditches in the hot summer sun. In my second year, I was even shooting. And in my third year, I started sailing.
After graduating, Combs quickly rose through the ranks of the United States Navy. He led the team that designed the Seawolf-class submarine and built and delivered the Large Scale Vehicle (LSV), the Navy’s first autonomous / unmanned submarine. He was also the chief architect of “Information Technology for the 21st Century”, the document that directs the Navy’s strategy for computer development and applications. In his last posting, he oversaw the overall construction and repairs of Navy ships. In 1999, he retired from the military and entered the private sector.
Combs, who promoted STEM education throughout his career, was a member of the MIT Corporation from 1997 to 2002. He is active as a founding member of Generation Redirect, which has sponsored more than 50 high school students. minority-owned to attend mentoring sessions at top STEM schools, including MIT, and runs another program that mentors fifth-graders through college and beyond.
While Combs never imagined he would lead the construction of mobile virus testing labs when he moved to Prince Edward Island in 2017, “I was trained not to be afraid to take on a challenge, ”he says. “Most people look at a coin and see both sides, face or face. But there is also the advantage. And it is in these spaces along the edge that real innovations and inventions occur. That’s what I took away from MIT: the freedom to dare to work in spaces most people don’t think they are looking at.