Scientist begins Army career, protects nation against chemical warfare agents
September 12, 2012
- "What prompted me to move away from Texas was the opportunity to come to the pinnacle research center for chem-bio defense."
- Bruey handles, synthesizes, purifies and destroys chemical agents.
- "I made the choice that if I wanted to truly understand this, I needed to come to one of the few places in the country where I could get hands-on and do it for real."
ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. -- A recent college graduate moved from Texas to Maryland so he could work with the best scientists in the field of chemical defense.
Brandon Bruey, a chemist with the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, said his position allows him the best opportunity to use classroom principles for real-world applications.
TRANSITION FROM THEORY TO HANDS-ON WORK
"What prompted me to move away from Texas was the opportunity to come to the pinnacle research center for chem-bio defense," Bruey said. "I had been looking for an opportunity to work with the world's top scientists in this field. I figured the only way to become the best was to work with the best."
After graduating from the University of Texas in 2008 with a bachelor of science in chemistry, Bruey worked primarily on explosives for a defense contractor for three years. He then accepted a job at RDECOM's Edgewood Chemical Biological Center in 2011.
"For me, the chemistry associated with chemical warfare was always on a whiteboard or chalkboard. I made the choice that if I wanted to truly understand this, I needed to come to one of the few places in the country where I could get hands-on and do it for real," he said. "That's where my interest stems from -- [moving] from theoretical work to hands-on work."
Although he has worked at ECBC for only a year, Bruey said his research on chemical agents has been valuable and meaningful.
"I'm able to work on extremely important and difficult work," he said. "I can go home at the end of the day and feel like the work I did was important and made a difference in the world."
FIRST STEP IN CHEMICAL DEFENSE COMMUNITY
Bruey handles, synthesizes, purifies and destroys chemical agents in ECBC's Chemical Transfer Facility as part of the Chemical Biological Applications and Risk Reduction Unit. He develops and carries out experiments related to chemical agent detection or destruction. He also processes evidence and unknown samples received from other government organizations.
As a synthetic chemist, Bruey is often tasked with providing new chemicals to research laboratories in the chemical defense community.
If the chemical cannot be pulled from existing stocks, he examines a chemical's molecular structure and then conducts journal research to determine whether an existing synthetic pathway exists or if a new procedure needs to be developed. He then develops a synthetic procedure, performs the chemical reactions, and decides which purification steps are required before the compound is characterized using a suite of analytical instrumentation.
ECBC is able to provide all chemical agents needed by government or contractor laboratories for use in defensive research, Bruey said.
"If a laboratory needs agent for use as an analytical reference standard or to develop medical countermeasures, detection technologies, or personal protective equipment, we're one of the first steps," he said. "We can make the agent and provide it for them. It's the first step in a large chain of what makes up this part of the chemical defense community."
Despite the danger associated with working with chemical warfare agents, Bruey said he trusts his education and training, as well as the Army's built-in protective measures, to remain safe. ECBC researchers use gloves, suits and protective masks, including air-purifying or supplied-air respirators, to guard against the chemical hazards.
"You may learn the fundamentals in school using more innocuous chemicals. But many of the same procedures actually apply when you're working with chemical agent," he said. "You have to fall back on the basics you learn in school, along with your job-specific training, to be successful working with these chemicals. You must understand the strengths and limitations of the equipment that you're using. You can't be scared of it; you just have to respect it."
'DON'T SHUT OFF ANY OPPORTUNITIES'
Aspiring scientists should keep asking questions so they can understand how to apply classroom material in the real world, Bruey said.
"I remember sixth-grade science class and finding that I was probably annoyingly inquisitive with all my teachers," he said. "I found that science typically was able to answer a lot of the questions that I kept asking my parents, friends and teachers.
"You can go through high school and college, learning information, but never really understand how you can apply it. You must always make sure you know why you are learning something and how you can use that information in the real world."
Bruey also encourages students to keep an open mind during their academic pursuits.
"I initially went to the University of Texas as a music major. I started studying music, and I took a few chemistry classes, which sparked an interest. I went to college thinking I would be a band director or classical performer. I'm now here at Edgewood as a chemist. Make sure you don't shut off any opportunities for yourself," he said.