Army scientist reflects on 43 years of service
August 15, 2012
- "With the young people coming in, we get a chance to mentor them and help them learn about what we think we know about this business."
- Baker first served as an active-duty Soldier and then as a civilian scientist
ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. -- After more than four decades of scientific inquiry and leadership with the U.S. Army, Jim Baker considers his colleagues to be a second family.
"Working at [Edgewood Chemical Biological Center] has been a wonderful experience for me," he says. "I'd like to leave here and [have] people say, 'I knew Jim Baker, and he was a really nice guy. I really enjoyed working with him. He seemed like a fair and honest individual.' It's a great place to work."
Baker's 43 years of commitment to America's Soldiers, first as an active-duty officer and then as a civilian scientist, has yielded significant improvements for defense against chemical and biological threats. In a variety of research and management positions, Baker's work has produced better protective masks, collective protection shelters and personal decontamination kits.
BEGINNINGS OF A CAREER
Baker began at Edgewood Arsenal, which merged with APG in 1971. After completing his doctorate in 1969, he began active duty as a first lieutenant chemical officer at Chemical Systems Laboratory, which is now known as ECBC.
He described his first duties at Edgewood as establishing that the agent sarin could be safely incinerated.
"When I walked in here, the day after Thanksgiving 1969, my civilian boss said to me, 'Graduate degree in organic chemistry. Have I got a job for you.' They had told the colonel who ran the place that the way to get rid of the GB (nerve agent sarin) stockpile was to incinerate it," Baker said. "There was good reason to do that, and it made good sense, but they didn't have the data to show that it could be done safely."
"They sent me to a building on Beach Point Road, and I built an incinerator. I burned up liter quantities of GB to prove that we could do it safely and that no GB made it through the incinerator. It was organic chemistry but in reverse. That became the process to get rid of the stockpile."
Baker said he developed an interest in chemistry at an early age in rural Illinois that continued through his academic and professional careers. He earned a bachelor of science in chemistry at the Missouri School of Mines and Metallurgy in 1964 and then continued his graduate studies at the University of Wisconsin.
When his faculty adviser moved to Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., Baker followed and completed his doctorate in organic chemistry.
"When I was a kid, I used to play in my mother's kitchen with the spices and stuff from the cabinets and mix things up. I think I was meant to be a chemist from an early age but never really figured it out until I got into college," he said.
Baker had a two-year commitment with the Army through the Reserve Officer Training Corps, but the Army released him early because of downsizing to the active-duty force at the end of the Vietnam War era.
Baker said he did not know what he wanted to do as a profession after leaving active duty.
"The Army put me out on what is probably the worst job market since the recent recession. I wrote -- on a manual typewriter -- 140 letters to companies inquiring about the possibility of employment," he said. "Only seven of them even had the courtesy to write me back and say they really weren't offering any jobs.
"I had one interview near Atlanta with a company that makes contact paper, the sticky stuff that you put on kitchen cabinet shelves. They introduced me to their research and development department. I was really not impressed. I had been offered the possibility of a position here. It just wouldn't materialize for a couple of months. I've been here ever since," he said.
FOUR DECADES OF BIOLOGY, CHEMISTRY
Baker, who currently serves as ECBC'S associate director, continues to support Soldiers 41 years after joining the Army as a civilian scientist. His areas of expertise are decontamination and individual protection.
Baker moved quickly to management positions after a short time in the laboratory as a chemist. He has held numerous positions, including chief of Decontamination and Individual Protection Branch, chief of Decontamination Systems Division, and chief scientist and deputy director of Research and Technology Directorate.
Significant advances in biology and chemistry during the last 40 years have changed how ECBC scientists support America's national defense, he says.
The sequencing of the human genome has been one of the greatest scientific breakthroughs in this arena, Baker said. ECBC now has a laboratory that sequences genomes to assist the organization's research and development of chemical and biological detectors.
"It gives us insight into how someone could genetically engineer a material and make a bacteria or virus that our detectors might not be able to detect," he said. "We have to make sure we are staying on the cutting-edge of the science to make sure the basis of our detection systems is soundly based in science so that we can't be fooled or tricked into missing something."
Advances in technology, equipment, materials and computing have revolutionized scientific and engineering processes since his days in the laboratory, Baker said. He described improvements from ECBC in the fields of skin decontamination kits, protective masks and detectors.
"When I was the head of the decontamination division, we helped the medical community develop a new dry decontaminant for skin. We had been using a wet kit, which was effective, but it also had some drawbacks," he said. "It was a little bit caustic, a little bit corrosive. It left your skin in bad shape. The new material [that] came along was a sorbent resin and became the standard. Now it's used for equipment decontamination as well as skin decontamination."
The Joint Service General Purpose Mask, commonly known as the M-50, is an example of Army research and development leading to a significantly improved product for all military branches, Baker said. The Navy and Air Force, whose previous generation masks were badly outdated, have fielded more than 400,000 M-50 masks through the program manager for protection.
"That's a success story for us. That program started here. The technology started here. The development was done by engineers in support of the program manager," he said. "Interestingly, the Army hasn't started to adopt that mask yet because the mask that preceded it, the M-40, is a very good mask, also developed here. It's a logistics issue. They are both good masks. The Army will eventually start fielding the M-50.
"The mask has improved greatly since I first had one in the laboratory, which was an M-9. It worked, but it was rather clumsy looking compared with today's technology."
Better chemical detectors in today's laboratories also make for a safer work environment, he says.
"Ion mobility spectrometry and mass spectrometry has greatly increased the sensitivity and selectivity," Baker says. "When I worked in the laboratory and I spilled agent in the hood, there was a gas chromatograph that monitored the hood.
"Today, we have small DAAMS, tubes and other things [that] do that monitoring with much more accuracy and efficiency."
BOLSTERING ECBC'S FUTURE
One of Baker's responsibilities as ECBC associate director is professional staff development. He emphasized his confidence for the organization's future as he has worked with its young scientists and engineers.
"One of the reasons that I haven't retired yet is that I get to work with a lot of young people. They just simply light up my day," he says. "It's so nice to look at the young people here and say, 'There's a future for this place.' That's invigorating.
"We must bring young people into the organization because, otherwise, a bunch of old fogies like me will retire, and we'll take our knowledge with us, and we won't have transferred it to anybody. With the young people coming in, we get a chance to mentor them and help them learn about what we think we know about this business.
"Our first goal in the strategic plan has to do with people -- mentoring our people and making sure we have the right people at the place at the right time," he says.