Tuesday, May 27, 2014

ECBC Employee Spotlight: Julie Renner, JUPITR Scientist


Julie Renner, an analytical toxicologist at the U.S. Army Edgewood Chemical Biological Center, has always enjoyed traveling and experiencing new cultures. Her most recent developmental assignment in the Republic of Korea (ROK) supporting the Joint United States Forces Korea (USFK) Portal and Integrated Threat Recognition advanced technology demonstration (JUPITR ATD), allowed her to expand her chemical and biological defense knowledge while learning about a different country. JUPITR ATD is a program led by the Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical and Biological Defense (JPEO) and supported by ECBC, to establish biological surveillance capabilities to the Korean Peninsula through four thrust areas.

JUPITR is unique in that it sends ECBC and Public Health Command (PHC) researchers to South Korea to work alongside USFK representatives to improve their laboratory capabilities. Renner was one of ten ECBC scientists who made the journey so far, and one of two who have completed more than one rotation. Now, Renner shares some of her experiences in this role and how this assignment will shape her future at ECBC and with the Department of Defense in general..


What is your educational background, and how did you get started at ECBC?

I graduated from West Virginia Wesleyan College in 2003 with Bachelor’s Degrees in biology and chemistry. After graduation, I really didn’t know exactly what type of work I wanted to pursue. While I was in college, I worked a seasonal job at the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, Environmental Remediation, following graduation I returned there. One day, I came across a Monster.com job posting for a contractor position with ECBC’s analytical toxicology team. It sounded intriguing and after doing a little research, I realized how important ECBC’s work is to the nation, so I applied. The interview went well and in November 2003, I was offered a position by Geo-Centers, Inc. as a Scientist 1. I’ve worked with ECBC ever since eventually making the move from contractor to government employee. Over the years I have had the opportunity to work for both the analytical toxicology and operational toxicology teams in different facets. I completed University of Florida’s online masters program in forensic toxicology in 2007, with the help of my previous company.

How did you initially get involved with JUPITR?

I first heard about JUPITR when Peter Emanuel [JUPITR Program lead] sent out a mass invitation to an informational meeting about the JUPITR ATD in Korea. I love traveling and am always looking for opportunities to learn so, it piqued my interest. Initially, I simply planned to attend the meeting to learn more information, but at the end of the meeting, Peter asked for volunteers to go to Korea, and I found myself signing up. I realized what an amazing developmental assignment this was and what an amazing opportunity this program would give me, so I did not hesitate to participate.

Why did you participate in two rotations? How did your first time there differ from the second?

I originally volunteered to go to ROK for two months, but my first rotation was only a month long. In that month, I had fallen in love with the job and Korea itself, so when I returned to the U.S., I had made sure to let everyone know that I was available to go back if they needed me. As it turned out, they did need me to return and I gladly accepted the opportunity. Returning to Korea gave me an opportunity to re-engage with some of the projects I started during my first rotation. My first rotation went by quickly and much of that time in the beginning was spent acclimating to my surroundings, learning local policies/procedures, and forming relationships with our contacts and lab/military personnel. On my second rotation with all of the adjustments out of the way, I could focus on the primary goal of the project: to improve the capability of USFK to respond to biological events.
Additionally, I think the Army and Air Force appreciated the continuity in personnel. Since it does take a while for scientists to get acclimated and build relationships, I think it provided them with relief to have someone who could jump in and be dedicated to the actual project work.

What were you responsible for while you were in Korea?

I worked with Michelle Ziemski, an ECBC scientist, to upgrade the Biological Identification Capability Laboratory at the Yongsan Airbase lab to Biological Safety level-2 (BSL-2) standards. BSL-2 allows the lab to safely accommodate the receipt and analysis of biologically hazardous environmental samples. This process included physical upgrades as well as policy and procedural changes, such as a concept of operations. In addition to establishing a BSL-2, we also demonstrated new laboratory instrumentation to both USFK and ROK personnel. These new laboratory capabilities will give the USFK/8th Army Surgeon the power to make informed decisions based on results obtained locally as opposed to depending entirely on CONUS support. In the past the lab would have to send samples back to the US for analysis which takes a lot of time and resources. By setting up the instrumentation there in Korea, the soldiers can analyze these samples on their own and in a timely manner.

How has your experience with JUPITR differed from your experience with other projects while at ECBC or elsewhere?

ECBC really has done and continues to do outstanding work. Recently, ECBC and JPEO have made history by assisting with destroying Syria’s chemical stockpile by creating the Field Deployable Hydrolysis System, placing it on the Cape Ray and sending personnel on the Cape Ray to operate the machinery. Our role in supporting JUPITR through developing subject-matter experts and sending them to Korea to fulfill a critical biological surveillance mission is no less significant. This project will have a huge impact on the Korean peninsula and within the biosurveillance world. For all of my years at ECBC, I have always recognized ECBC’s significance to the Department of Defense, but I have never had the opportunity to be a part of something so large-scale or highly visible until now. The JUPITR ATD has a tangible and impactful end-result: an improved bio-surveillance capability on the peninsula. I am honored to be a part of it all.

How have you seen the USFK positively affected by the work done with JUPITR?

Each day, we are significantly improving the capability of the USFK to respond to biological events. By bringing these new laboratory capabilities and our subject-matter expertise to the ROK, the USFK/8th Army Surgeon can rely on local USFK analyses rather than depending entirely on continental United States support. We have already successfully analyzed samples in the BICS laboratories as part of peninsula - wide exercises. We have also been able to bring USFK assets together by coordinating with Army and Air Force personnel.

What was the biggest highlight of working with JUPITR?

I have experienced so many amazing things working with JUPITR. A big highlight for me was when we gave an instrument demonstration to two groups of ROK soldiers and civilians. They did not understand English, so we worked with a translator to give our presentation, which was challenging. Despite the language barrier, they were wonderful to work with. It was neat to pause, let the translator translate what we had just explained, and then see all of the participants’ faces excitedly nod as they understood. Michelle and I received a commander’s coin from one of the ROK colonels for our efforts. Overall, my biggest highlight was just getting to experience all that Korea has to offer. It is truly an amazing place.

What has your day-to-day been like since returning to the States?

Currently, I am back to my previous job, with the operational toxicology team. I write tech reports and work on a team that utilizes a large-scale glove box for toxicological studies. I also assist other members of the operational toxicology team who are working on personal protection equipment (PPE) studies and human estimate studies for chemical agents. Even though I technically do not work for JUPITR currently, I still participate in weekly telecons for JUPITR’s Biological Identification Capability Sets working group and keep in touch with team members who are still in Korea.

How will you incorporate what you’ve learned in Korea to your work at Edgewood?

While the job I performed in Korea is very different from my job in Edgewood, there are many things I have learned that can be incorporated into my current position. I now have a better understanding of the world of biological threats and toxins; the more I understand about any CBRNE threats, the better. I’ve learned that ECBC is so much more than just the chemical warfare agents I happen to study. Aside from science skills, I feel like this rotation has helped me become a more effective communicator (especially when there is a language barrier), learn how to overcome unforeseen challenges, and how to work with new people.

What are your hobbies?

My passion is playing volleyball. I also have an interest in photography. I was able to sharpen my skills a bit while in Korea, I’m still a novice, but I think I got some pretty good shots.

1 comment:

  1. Great interview! I've known Julie for years and it's no surprise that she is so successful in her career. She's a great asset and leader

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