Category Archives: Policy

Technology at Fort Bliss

If you read my last post “Chemical weapons and clay,” you’ll know that I enjoyed a brief stint as a policy fellow at the National Academy of Sciences. Twelve weeks serving on the Board on Army Science and Technology (BAST) did wonders for my knowledge of the U.S. Army. Granted, the bar was, ahem, low.

Further into the fellowship (I believe we’re in week 5 here) I traveled with two other BAST staff members to Fort Bliss. One might imagine that Fort Bliss is in an exotic location, perhaps a beautiful island in the Pacific Ocean. Nope. Fort Bliss is in El Paso, Texas.

El Paso sits on Texas’ western border, less than 20 miles from Juarez, Mexico. Juarez…it sounded familiar to me but I couldn’t place it. A quick call to my mother went something like this:

    Sarah: “Hey Mom, what’s Juarez all about?”
    Mom: “JUAREZ MEXICO? Oh my God, Sarah, do NOT cross that border. Do you even have your passport? It doesn’t matter. I don’t care. Do NOT leave Texas while you’re at that army conference.”

Juarez, as it turns out, is infamous for crime, violence and drugs. Hmmmm…let’s put an army base beside it and name the base Fort Bliss! I give the U.S. Army a gold star sticker for nomenclature (this means “naming”) humor here.

One aim of the Fort Bliss BAST meeting focused on learning about new technology. A significant portion of the money annually dolled out to the Department of Defense funds army research and development, i.e. army science and technology. Just like in a university or at a private company, scores of scientists and engineers conduct basic and applied research under the auspices of the Department of Defense.

At Fort Bliss I watched soldiers plow through computer-based training modules, fighting virtual enemies of all shapes and sizes. Soldiers spend several weeks on a team, sitting together in one room, gazing up at a huge screen that depicts their battlefield. The soldiers advance their skills and knowledge, stage by stage, until their virtual training is complete.

Besides time spent on the main army base, we visited soldiers in the field at their training site, located an hour away near the base of the mountains. At the training site I had a crash course in unmanned aerial and ground systems, robots, monitoring devices, and practice attack strategies.

After one morning out in the field we broke for lunch. One dozen soldiers had just finished a practice attack, complete with green smoke bombs as diversions. Let’s just say that if I had a do-over, I would spend less time watching the green smoke spread slowly across my field of vision and more time tracking the attacking soldiers.

Where did those pesky attackers go? Oooooo pretty green smoke....

For lunch we ate soldier food: Meals, Ready-to-Eat, or MREs. An MRE comes in a thick, brown plastic wrapping that you open with your army knife or whatever weapon(s) you have on hand. I met a soldier from my hometown of Cary, North Carolina, who opened my MRE and gave me an extra for the road. I love Southern hospitality.

Decked out in a parka, I pose with my new friend from Cary, NC.

An MRE is calorie-rich to keep a soldier well-nourished for battle. The calories, however, do not come from tasty food, but rather from strange food-like substances only identifiable from their labels. After eating one such meal, I was less excited by the Southern hospitality than I had initially been. Below is some of the “food” I got:

    Mushy greenish puree = pears
    Brown chunky liquid = beef stew
    Purple powder = grape juice
    Little white disc = gum

I was impressed by the army’s technological progress to integrate information for its soldiers. Theoretically, better technology leads to better-equipped soldiers, which, in turn, should result in more successful missions.

Soldiers will soon have (if they don’t already) a smart phone with databases of friendly and enemy faces, locations of safe and unsafe places, and GPS-style navigation capabilities. Imagine a map of the Afghani desert, complete with information on where to go, and, more importantly, where not to go.

The most enjoyable part of my trip was chatting with the BAST experts. These experts included retired military generals and majors, engineers of several types (no, not clay) and physicists. Those folks were chock full of information about military technology, so I networked my way through the group. Besides scoring business cards I reveled in the free drinks.

After returning to D.C. I wrote my new contacts thank-you notes, beefing up my D.C.-based contacts list to include DARPA (the Department of Defense’s innovative technology research arm) and the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation. Will I ever work at DARPA or The Heritage Foundation? Likely not. But one can never have too many contacts. Mark my words!

Chemical weapons and clay

My first foray into science policy led me to the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C. At this non-profit advisory organization I spent three months as a science and technology policy fellow, assigned to the Board on Army Science and Technology (BAST). To this day I’m not sure why the army board selected me, but I imagine the simple fact that I have a chemistry Ph.D. played a large role.

During my twelve-week fellowship I wrote weekly updates for my friends and family as they tried to wrap their heads around the fact that I was hanging out at army bases. Well, I was. And, lo and behold, I learned a lot.

Within my first week at BAST I had begun research into the U.S. Army’s chemical weapons disposal project. We call this long-term project “chemical demilitarization” because we’re destroying, rather than building, chemical weapons. Who is “we”? That would be the U.S. of A.

Here’s what I learned during week two: Until recently, the U.S. had nine stockpiles of chemical weapons. The stockpiles resulted from our recent chemical-weapons-building phase, also known as the 1920s through the 1960s. Several years ago the U.S. joined an international consortium called the Chemical Weapons Convention, which mandates that we destroy all chemical weapons.

Based on a 1969 executive order from President Nixon the stockpiles aren’t moveable. So, we built nine chemical demilitarization facilities, one per stockpile, to destroy our weapons. As of today, two of the chemical demilitarization facilities have completed their missions and five are chugging along nicely. The last two sites, in Blue Grass, Kentucky and Pueblo, Colorado, need to kick it up a notch. They’re behind schedule.

By “weapon” I’m talking M55 rockets, bombs, missiles, mortars, projectiles and mines. Each of these delightful weapons is filled with a chemical agent. And by “agent” I’m talking the blister agents mustard gas and Lewisite, and the nerve agents VX, GA (Tabun) and GB (Sarin).

The experts responsible for draining the agents out of the weapons wear $300, disposable, vacuum-sealed suits, complete with booties, gloves, masks and a 2-hour-maximum oxygen tank. Although not explicitly stated, I’m guessing that mustard gas is nothing like the mustard I’d put on my sandwich.

Although fairly engrossed in the chemical weapons project I broadened my scope to include other BAST studies. One such project involved finding suitable body armor for our soldiers.

Here’s a snippet of activity related to the Body Armor study, my focus during week four of the fellowship: In a couple of weeks I’m attending a meeting for the Body Armor study in Edgewood, Md. This past week I sat in on two conference calls, in which I and other BAST staff members talked with body armor experts about clay. To be clear, I didn’t talk…I sat quietly for several hours, writing furiously.

As it turns out, clay engineers have a lot to say about clay. Growing up in North Carolina I knew clay to be the mucky red stuff you avoided at all costs else you’d find it embedded in your carpet. Clay engineers know clay to be a fantastic medium…to evaluate body armor safety.

Although the term body armor encompasses several distinct pieces, this study focused on chest plates. Before chest plates are distributed to soldiers for battle, they are subjected to quality control testing.

Each batch of newly manufactured chest plates arrives at the army’s testing facility. A soldier removes a chest plate from the batch and embeds it in a wall of clay. A designated marksman targets the chest plate, firing one bullet across the room. The bullet penetrates the chest plate, denting the armor, and subsequently denting the clay.

A laser scans the clay to measure the size of the indentation. From what I gleaned the dent size averages 46 millimeters. To me, this means nothing. But to experts, a 46-mm hit is acceptable, i.e. no harm is done to your vital organs at this depth. Good. I like my vital organs intact.

A few more chest plates are tested, and if the depth of the clay dent is within the acceptable range, the chest plates are ready for the troops. When I visited the army base I saw this process from start to finish. The statisticians had a field day with the error rate of these measurements (currently greater than 10 %, which is way too high), and the clay engineers had a field day with the heating and cooling procedures for the clay. As for me, after several futile attempts to convince the marksman to let me try, I resigned myself to simply watching and learning. Apparently it was “safer this way.”

Fellowships 101

I’m reposting a career advice column I wrote for the monthly magazine ASBMB Today. This article first appeared in February 2011 here.

For those of you who crave a career outside of the lab, you are in luck – there are loads of fellowship opportunities for scientists who want to work in the policy realm.

Whether pre- or post-doctoral degree, you can help translate science into policy for executive and legislative branch leaders. A policy fellowship provides you with the opportunity to communicate science to nonscientists, conceivably shaping legislation at the state or federal levels.

Life as a National Academies fellow
I recently completed one of these fellowships: the Christine Mirzayan Science and Technology Policy Graduate Fellowship at the National Academies in Washington, D.C. The fellowship appealed to me, and likely to my 25 fellow fellows, because it’s a quick and dirty introduction to federal science policy in our nation’s capital.

My class of National Academies Fellows, sitting on a statue of physics genius Einstein.

The fellowship began with an intensive one-week orientation. Former fellows told us about their current positions in the departments of State, Energy, Agriculture and Defense; in the House and Senate science committees; and at think tanks or private firms. We also met the director of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, who works in the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy. A bowl of alphabet soup, anyone?

During orientation we delved into the workings of the National Academies (this includes engineering, medicine and science). The National Academy of Sciences was the first of the academies, chartered by President Abraham Lincoln as an independent organization to provide the nation’s leaders with scientifically sound advice. The twelve-week fellowship program places fellows in a variety of departments within the National Academies, from science education to astronomy to climate change.

My home department at the National Academy of Sciences was the Board on Army Science and Technology. Here, my doctorate degree in chemistry finally came in handy as I immersed myself in the U.S. Army’s chemical weapons disposal project. The U.S. has stockpiles of the blister agent mustard gas, several nerve agents and the arsenic-containing Lewisite left over from the cold war era and before. To increase our safety a few notches, the U.S. has ratified an international treaty to destroy all of these stockpiles. I learned this as I traveled to army bases, met with BAST committee members from academia and industry, and talked to experts about the army’s chemical demilitarization progress.

D.C. has a ready supply of governmental and nongovernmental policy organizations, so I met with program directors at the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the American Chemical Society, and the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. On Capitol Hill, I observed House and Senate hearings on science policy from advancing STEM education to finding solutions for global warming. I attended lectures at think tanks like the Brookings Institution and the Potomac Institute, and I visited the Smithsonian museums carpeting the National Mall.

The twelve weeks flew by, and after the fellowship ended, I took a Duke University job in science administration. My fellow fellows returned to academia to finish graduate school or begin professorships, entered or returned to the business world, went to teach high school, stayed at the National Academies, or started new jobs or fellowships in the policy world. The National Academies is one of the few places you can jump into policy before finishing your doctorate, but post-doctorate, you have your choice of opportunities.

Fellowship offerings
In the realm of public policy, but not specifically science policy, the Presidential Management Fellowship is a two-year fellowship open to science doctorate holders as well as nonscientists holding advanced degrees. This fellowship program seeks future federal leaders, and PMFs are placed in a variety of federal agencies. Two of my National Academies classmates accepted positions within the NIH at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. NIH fellows can rotate every three to six months, a key attribute of this fellowship. Current fellow Mengfei Huang says, “As a Presidential Management Fellow, I have an unparalleled opportunity to shape my fellowship experience across different content areas and functionalities within my institute, across the NIH as well as other federal agencies. Talk about being a kid in a candy store!”

The most prominent fellowship in science and technology policy is the American Association for the Advancement of Science policy fellowship in Washington, D.C. This program hosts more than 100 new fellows annually in a variety of federal agencies. The three main fellowship divisions are diplomacy, security and development; energy, environment, agriculture and natural resources; and health, education and human services. One or two AAAS fellows can score a congressional fellowship – working as committee staff or personal staff for a senator or representative – but the more common route for this fellowship is through a scientific professional society. The American Chemical Society, the American Geological Institute, the American Physical Society and many others sponsor a fellow each year for the AAAS Congressional program.

PMF Mengfei, AAAS Fellow Hadas and AAAS Fellow David

Of the three AAAS fellows who were my National Academies classmates, two chose the diplomacy, security and development fellowship with placements at the U.S. Agency for International Development and the third works on the Hill. Current AAAS fellow Hadas Kushnir says, “At USAID, I am learning how science can best inform policies, strategies, and program implementation both in Washington and in the field across a number of different countries in Africa.”

Another AAAS, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, offers their Hellman Fellowship in science and technology policy. The academy, a policy think tank in Cambridge, Mass., selects one or two fellows with science doctorates to work on the social implications of current science research questions. This one-year fellowship program currently is in its third year.

ASBMB offers a fellowship similar to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences one. It also is geared toward science doctoral degree holders but has a few extra perks: It can last up to 18 months and offers a more personal exploration of federal science policy. The selected ASBMB science policy fellow works directly with ASBMB Director of Public Affairs Benjamin Corb, in Bethesda, Md.

California offers a state version of the American Association for the Advancement of Science federal science and technology policy fellowship through the California Council of Science and Technology. In this program, 10 fellows (all with science doctorates) work in Sacramento for the state legislature on policy issues important to California. This one-year fellowship is in its second year, and my National Academies classmate Tony Marino is a current fellow. According to Marino, “California has been a bellwether for science policy, being the first state to pass an e-waste recycling program, green chemistry and a carbon cap-and-trade. It’s a great place to learn about where the country is headed.”

For those of you interested in global science policy and further along in your careers, the Franklin Fellows Program in Washington, D.C. offers a one-year placement in the Department of State or USAID. I met a Franklin fellow at a congressional hearing on science education; she was on a one-year sabbatical from her university and likely will be an invaluable resource on science education policy once she returns to her post.

If you are interested in broadcasting or publishing, the American Association for the Advancement of Science offers a program where fellows spend ten weeks at a major media outlet within the U.S. This Mass Media Science and Engineering summer program is a non-policy fellowship where you can learn how to communicate science to the general public. This program is open to pre- and post-doctoral degree holders, and each fellow has the option to work behind the scenes in research, as a production assistant or editor, or even in front of the camera as a reporter.

Besides these programs, other smaller and subject-specific fellowships abound – check with your professional organizations, the policy office at your local university, a local think tank or a career center at your workplace. Think broadly and apply for any program that strikes your interest.