Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Tiffany Sutton is Proud to be an ECBC Scientist

When Tiffany Sutton arrived at ECBC as a student contractor, one of her early assignments was assessing commercial detection systems for the U.S. Postal Service during the 2001 anthrax attacks. She immediately decided that she was doing very interesting and important work, and that she wanted to make ECBC her career.

“I had worked for ECBC for two summers as part of Drexel University’s Coop Program while working on my physics degree. I liked the work, but it wasn’t until that assignment that I saw how my role figured in to the big picture of keeping the nation safe. So I transferred from Drexel to Towson University to be closer to ECBC,” she said.

For the next four years she worked at ECBC as a physicist full-time while taking classes at night. “I got lucky; I had a good job doing something I really enjoyed. I really liked my colleagues and my supervisor was very supportive, so I was willing to work days and study nights so I could stay,” she added. She continued burning her candle at both ends until she graduated in 2006 with a B.S. in general physics.

Her next big assignment, as a physicist in the Sensor, Signatures and Aerosol Branch, was the Department of Homeland Security’s BioWatch Program. It was a federally managed, locally operated, nationwide bio-surveillance framework designed for the early detection of intentional releases of aerosolized biological agents. “We assessed the performance of the next generation (Gen3) of commercial biological agent detection systems intended to replace the currently fielded systems” she said. “My supervisors gave me more responsibility and I felt myself growing in the job,” she added.

She kept proving herself and the big assignments kept coming. For the past two years she has been supporting Leg 3 of the Project JUPITR Advanced Technology Demonstration, an assessment of ten different biological agent detection technologies to determine their detection limits and suitability for a field environment.

“We had a pair of biohazard detection systems from each of ten vendors to assess in the Ambient Breeze Tunnel. We challenged each of them simultaneously with a set of aerosol threat agents at different concentrations for them to collect, detect, and identify,” she said. “That way, we could establish their respective detection limits against four different biological agent-like organisms” she added.

Her role was to make sure that the six ECBC scientists performing the trials inside the Ambient Breeze Tunnel (ABT) and another three in the laboratory performing sample analysis had everything they needed to do their jobs when they needed it. “It started with the assessment plan, which I helped to develop, and continued with upgrades to the ABT and supporting laboratories to perform Bio-Safety level 2 aerosol operations. I had to justify the experimental design and the surrogates to be used to replicate real-world conditions, and I had to confirm that our laboratory practices conform to all the expected standards,” she said.

It was a long, iterative process with the customer, the Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical and Biological Defense (JPEO-CBD). And, developing and getting the plan approved was just the start. “I had to make sure that those nine people had all the materiel they would need to execute the trials, I had to plan for contingencies such as equipment maintenance and the inevitable malfunction, and I had to manage their work schedules so that the project deadline would be met,” she said.

“It was the most stressful, yet the most professionally satisfying work I’ve done in my 14 years at ECBC. So many things could have gone wrong, but by the middle of the trial execution I realized that things were going right. We completed the project’s goals on time and on budget,” she said.

Having met that challenge, Sutton is now establishing new challenges for herself. She is seven months pregnant with her first child and will deliver in late May. Then in September she will start a master’s degree program in pharmacometrics, a highly specialized study of pharmacologic and toxicological responses to substances introduced into the human body at different concentrations. “I have a very supportive mentor in my branch chief, Aime Goad, and I have a terrific husband helping me to make this possible,” she said.

Asked where she got the grit to take on so much and do so well, she answered, “My mother always told me that the days when she was growing up, in which women were often held back, are over. She told me not to limit myself in any way, and to go out and do what I want. That’s exactly what I did and what I would tell any young female scientist to do. I would add that being a scientist at a federal laboratory provides women with all kinds of professional possibilities and lots of mentoring from very talented colleagues. I really made the right choice in coming here and staying here,” she concluded.

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