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Bioscientists, Bioterrorism, and National Security


During the summer of 2000, I began asking myself the two questions that graduate students dread: When am I going to graduate, and what am I going to do next? I was in the midst of the 6th year of my Ph.D. research in the department of biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and I was starting to think seriously about my future. My research into the molecular mechanisms of DNA repair in bacteria had begun to bear fruit, and I needed a plan.

I loved science, biology in particular, but I had begun to doubt that a career at the lab bench was right for me. I took stock of my interests and found that three broad themes were clear: biology, politics, and national security. Perhaps melding those themes together could yield a promising career path. Where was the intersection? It was in biological weapons and bioterrorism.

This was long before 11 September and the anthrax letters of October 2001 had brought the specter of catastrophic terrorism to broad public attention. So, although my friends and colleagues at MIT were very supportive, there were no readily available resources in the department to assist me in my job search. After hours of research on the Internet, I began to read everything I could on the topic: historical accounts of state-sponsored biological-weapons programs, strategic analyses of the current security environment, and scientific papers about the various bioterrorist agents.

The more I read, the more I understood the seriousness of the threat posed by bioterrorism and the opportunities for bioscientists to contribute to the issue. The fantastic rate at which the power of biology was advancing was reshaping the security equation, as new enabling technologies put the ability to produce bioweapons into the hands of people worldwide. However, these same technologies were going to be central to the development of the new drugs, vaccines, diagnostics, and other countermeasures needed to defend against bioterrorist attacks. It was clear that policy-makers in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere were going to need the expertise of people with a deep understanding of molecular biology and other biotechnologies.

In spite of my conviction that biologists had an important role to play in shaping policies to reduce the threat of bioterrorism, I had no idea if anyone in the policy world would be interested in hiring someone straight out of the lab. I knew that I wanted to move away from the lab bench and work to shape science and security policies. But during my time at MIT, I had focused on my research and had not explored any policy-oriented "extracurricular activities." I began investigating a broad spectrum of career options, from traditional bench-science postdoctoral fellowships in infectious disease to policy analyst positions in think tanks and the federal government.

In academic science, the transition from one career phase to the next is regimented: applications, deadlines, and decision cycles are fairly uniform. However, finding the right job outside of traditional academic circles is a messy, confusing process. Although it is something of a cliché, the primary tool in my job search was the "network" that I developed as a result of hard work and numerous phone calls in late 2000 and early 2001.

From another graduate student at MIT, who had similar interests, I had gotten the e-mail addresses of two senior people in the federal government who were involved in developing and implementing policies to counter the threat of biological weapons. I somewhat nervously contacted them; to my surprise, they were very interested in talking with me and were happy to give me the names of other people whom I should contact. As I slowly expanded the circle of my network, I began learning about an array of job openings.

The job that I ultimately accepted at the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies ( CCBS) was the result of my network taking on a life of its own. CCBS, an academic think tank, was looking for bioscientists to supplement its considerable medical and public health expertise. Founded in 1998, the primary mission of CCBS is to promote policies that reduce the threat of bioterrorism and, if prevention fails, to minimize the consequences of an attack. In its search for candidates, CCBS happened to talk to someone whom I had spoken with a few weeks earlier. He remembered our conversation and suggested that I might be just the person whom CCBS was seeking. As a result, I got a call out of the blue from Johns Hopkins. After a very engaging phone conversation, I was asked to fly down to Baltimore for an official interview.

During the interview, I stated frankly that I had no biodefense policy experience. The response was that no one starts out with such experience. The center was looking for someone with considerable expertise in molecular biology; the policy-analysis skills could be learned on the job. After a few months, in which a number of other candidates were interviewed, I was offered a position as a fellow at CCBS and as an assistant scientist on the faculty of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

I accepted the offer in May of 2001, while I was still finishing my Ph.D. thesis. The plan was for me to start at Johns Hopkins on 22 October 2001. Then came 11 September and the subsequent anthrax mailings. My future colleagues at CCBS were working 12- to 16-hour days talking with government officials, the media, and medical and public health professionals across the country. It was clear that CCBS needed more hands on deck, so I redoubled my efforts to ensure that I would finish my thesis and get my papers published before 22 October. A clean break between MIT and Johns Hopkins was critical, and fortunately I was able to send in both of my papers for publication during the week of 15 October. I packed up the last of my belongings, drove down to Baltimore, walked into the CCBS offices on the 22nd, and found myself standing in the eye of the storm.

That particular crisis has passed, but the recognition of bioterrorism as a major national security threat continues. The need for individuals with biological expertise to become engaged in policy and security debates has become clear to all. Opportunities for bench scientists to transition to the policy world will continue to increase as senior policy-makers throughout the U.S. government begin to fully understand the impact that biology will have on key policy issues facing the nation in the areas of health, energy, and national security, among others. It is important to recognize that policy-makers may not always know where to find the right people. It is up to you, the scientist, to start making phone calls. It isn't easy, and it requires a significant investment of time; for me, it was like working a second job. Nevertheless, once you work to build your network, it can start working for you.