Army's longest serving senior research scientist retires
March 12, 2014
ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. (March 12, 2014) -- After 32 years of civil service, James J. Valdes, Ph.D., stepped down in January from his role as the U.S. Army Edgewood Chemical Biological Center's Scientific Advisor for Biotechnology, a position that he has held since 1990, making him the longest serving ST in the Army.
The ST position belongs to a unique and select category of federal jobs that covers non-executive positions classified above the highest general service level, and involves performance of world class research and development in the physical, biological, medical, or engineering sciences, or a closely-related field. Many of the federal government's most renowned scientists and engineers serve in ST positions.
During his career, Valdes has won many top awards and honors. He twice won the Department of the Army Research and Development Achievement Award which highlights the best in Army science and technology. Just one percent of the Army's scientists and engineers receive this award.
He has also been awarded the U.S. Army Materiel Command's Ten Best Personnel Award; the Baltimore Federal Executive Award for Excellence in Federal Career, Outstanding Professional Award; the Bronze Award for best paper at the U.S. Army Science Conference; and the Presidential Rank Award from both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, which honors high-performing senior career employees for sustained extraordinary accomplishment.
Raised in a Navy family, Valdes attended 10 schools in 12 years, including three years in Panama. During his early childhood, Valdes discovered his love of science with a chemistry set.
"I would read through the manual over and over and conduct experiments with chemicals that they would never let a six year old kid have today. It was great," Valdes shared with a chuckle. "I never had career counseling when I was in high school, and just followed my natural interest in science."
Valdes continued to excel throughout school graduating in 1968 from Altoona Area High School in Pennsylvania, and went on to receive his bachelor?'s of science from Loyola University of Chicago and his master's of science from Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas.
After considering his options, he headed Texas Christian University to complete his Ph.D. in neuroscience.
"I picked up a brochure for Texas Christian University's Chemistry of Behavior program, and it caught my attention," Valdes said. "It was the first program of its kind, combining three areas that were of interest to me: chemistry, biology and psychology."
Once he received his Ph.D., he made his way to Maryland's Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health for his postdoctoral fellowship and studied the effects of heavy metals on brain function. During his work at Johns Hopkins, Valdes became aware of an opportunity on the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground through one of his graduate students. After interviewing for the position, he was promised something that, according to Valdes, no young scientist could turn down -- building his own laboratory and program from scratch.
"I had never even heard of Aberdeen Proving Ground," Valdes explains of his path, "but I was told they were looking for someone with my background that could come in and bring new ideas to the table. That person was me."
Being in the laboratory and conducting innovative, dynamic science was what drove him. His first research project with the Center focused on what happened to people exposed to chemical agents who became ill but did not die. Pesticides that crop dusters use to control insects are similar to military nerve agents in their basic mechanism of action, and people who handle these chemicals often develop cognitive and physical problems later in life.
"One of the main questions we wanted to answer was how did people's brains change and what were the long-term health issues after their exposure?" Valdes explained. "Our research addressing this question led to the discovery that several neurotransmitter systems in the brain were involved, rather than the unitary mechanism previously believed."
In 1983, Valdes began to develop biosensors, which are devices that couple biological molecules with electronic or optical sensors to detect the presence of chemicals. During the Cold War, each side knew what the other had in the way of weapons, but developments in biotechnology and other emerging disciplines would change all that. Valdes wanted to know how to detect and ultimately treat a threat agent if we didn?'t know what the agent was.
"I didn?'t want to be focused so much on what the agent was or might be," he explained. "Instead let's look at the target -- the human body -- which is the best biosensor extant."
There are an infinite number of threats, he reasoned, but there are a limited number of receptors in the human body, so this is where Valdes turned his research. He started coupling receptors with sensors, thus creating a new field of study and becoming one of the world's top experts in biosensor technology, chairing the first four International Conferences on Biosensors.
There was a problem, however. Biological molecules are fragile and making a sensor that was rugged enough to be useful was tricky because the tools of biotechnology and molecular biology weren't quite advanced enough yet. The sensors worked in the lab but not in the field, so in 1990 the Army decided that this was an area that would be deferred to the future.
Valdes continued to climb the ranks and was promoted to ST in 1990, becoming the youngest scientist to ever attain that rank. He served as the senior biological scientist and advisor to the U.S. Army Soldier Biological and Chemical Command, which is now known as the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, ECBC's higher headquarters.
In his role, Valdes decided that the practical application of biotechnology would require a large-scale bioprocess capability. Bioprocessing is the production of biological materials from either naturally occurring or genetically modified microorganisms.
Stating his case, Valdes briefed Darold Griffin, the Principal Deputy of the U.S. Army Material Command (AMC) on the military's need to make biotechnology products, and was given the green light and funding to begin converting one of ECBC's current chemical facilities into a building with bioprocessing capabilities.
"It was my best presentation ever, but also a testament to the vision of AMC's senior leaders!" Valdes grinned.
The result was a state-of-the-art laboratory called the Process Engineering Facility, now renamed the Bioengineering Laboratory, and the ability to mass produce biological products at an economically viable scale. This allowed ECBC the opportunity work with small biotechology companies across the country which needed this capability but lacked the capital to build it, provided a steady stream of research funding, and allowed Army researchers opportunities for professional development by interacting with their industry partners.
In 2005, Valdes began working on a new project that would be his focus for the next few years. The Tactical Garbage to Energy Refinery, known as TGER, is a tactically deployable machine designed to convert military waste into usable energy for forward operating bases. Transporting fuel and removing trash are enormous logistics and security burdens, and converting trash to energy was an excellent way to solve two militarily critical problems. Through an Army Small Business Technology Research Transfer program, Valdes was able to get funding for the program and get his first prototype built, and subsequent funding was then provided by the Army's Rapid Equipping Force. To test the TGER prototypes, he then took them to a forward operating base in Iraq.
"We wanted to really stress the system. All other energy systems had been tested in laboratories or under ideal conditions and in temperate climates. What we really wanted to do was stress it with heat, sand and real world trash in a low infrastructure combat environment," explained Valdes.
"You know that old saying, ?'Be careful what you wish for, you might get it?'? Well, we got it. We learned an awful lot over there about what works, what doesn?'t work and what?'ll break. But most important, we also learned what design changes were needed."
A second generation model known as TGER 2.0 was then built with lessons learned from the testing in Iraq. In 2012, the new system was tested on Aberdeen Proving Ground and performed well.
"Since 2005, TGER has really been all consuming, and now it has proven itself," he shared. "It's a good note to leave on."
With an impressive career filled with awards, accolades and successes, Valdes is ready for his next act.
"Working for the Army has been an incredible ride," Valdes shares. "And now I'm going to take my time, see what's out there and do what feels right. Until then, as we sailors say, 'I wish you all fair winds and following seas.'"
ECBC is part of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, which has the mission to develop technology and engineering solutions for America's Soldiers.
RDECOM is a major subordinate command of the U.S. Army Materiel Command. AMC is the Army's premier provider of materiel readiness -- technology, acquisition support, materiel development, logistics power projection, and sustainment -- to the total force, across the spectrum of joint military operations. If a Soldier shoots it, drives it, flies it, wears it, eats it or communicates with it, AMC provides it.