January 2012

Learning military lingo

Emily Heuring reflects on her career
at the Institute for Defense Analyses



Emily Heuring left the bench for a career that would help policymakers understand scientific concepts. Her work at the Institute for Defense Analyses is usually an office job, but it has taken her to operational test events in the field. Above, adventure-seeking. Heuring is shown in Ecuador last year with her now-husband, Terry. 

Seven years ago, I took a giant leap from the comfort and routine of an academic environment at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine to the realm of military acquisition. My Ph.D. thesis work was in understanding the molecular mechanisms of how the simian version of HIV-AIDS affected the primate central nervous system. But it quickly became apparent that bench work was not for me.

As a person who likes instant gratification for hard work, I knew working for months on a single experiment just wasn’t my cup of tea. So I decided to take a nontraditional career path shortly after starting graduate school. I wanted to use my training in molecular biology and virology to help nonspecialists, particularly government policymakers, understand difficult scientific concepts. I looked for positions in the Washington, D.C., area. After replying to a job posting in the Washington Post, I got a call from the Institute for Defense Analyses in Alexandria, Va.

IDA is a nonprofit that provides the government, mainly the U.S. Department of Defense, with unbiased and not financially motivated technical analyses of a variety of subjects. To do this, IDA employs people from a wide range of backgrounds, including physical, life and computer scientists and former members of the military.

At IDA, I provide technical expertise for the evaluation of chemical and biological defense programs within the DOD. Over the years, I have analyzed data and written reports about a variety of chemical and biological defense systems, including detectors for biological agent aerosols and chemical vapors, polymerase chain-reaction machines for medical diagnostics, and systems mounted on armored vehicles.

For the most part, my job is a desk job, and I spend most of my time reading and writing reports, listening to teleconferences and attending meetings. However, one of the perks is attending operational test events in the field. These events are held at military test ranges all over the country and are intended to test systems in the most realistic environments possible. Because testing of chemical and biological defense systems with actual agents, such as nerve gas or anthrax, is restricted to laboratory environments, we evaluate the performance of detectors during operational test events using benign stimulants that present the detectors with as realistic a challenge as possible without harming the environment or the system operators.

During operational testing, military personnel operate the systems in the same way they would operate them in the field. By observing the operational test and evaluating the data from the test, I can discern whether these detection systems actually work the way they should and how easily military personnel can use them.


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One of the chief benefits of Dr. Heuring's work is the ability to take military operational concerns into the scientific community. That new widget for detecting nerve agent is not going to be operated in a laboratory. It's going to be operated in an incredibly contaminated environment of vehicle exhaust, burning tires, explosive residue, and toxic wastes - typical of war zones. The reverse is also true,she helps the military understand the capabilities and limitations of new and very sophisticated systems. Keep up the good work and getting your boots muddy. You are keeping our sons and daughters, soldiers all, alive on future battlefields. RB



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