ADELPHI, Md. -- A U.S. Army Research Laboratory program manager, currently based in Tokyo, is working to build and manage relationships with international researchers to help advance the U.S. Army's knowledge of the expanding field of synthetic biology.

Dr. Valerie Martindale, former chief scientist for the 711 Human Performance Wing of the Air Force Human Performance Integration Directorate, retired from the Air Force after 22 years as an aerospace physiologist. She now works for ARL's Army Research Office and took on her role about nine months ago when the opportunity to represent ARL internationally became available.

Martindale arrived in Japan in April.

"I had the great good fortune while on active duty in the U.S. Air Force to have a very similar position in London, so I knew what the job entailed, knew I was qualified, and knew that I would enjoy the travel and the exposure to a wide variety of scientific research," Martindale said. "I also knew that it would be a good fit for my family, which is important."

ARL created seven positions to further define and explore research areas critical for the technical dominance of the U.S. Army.

The positions created complement the missions of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command's organizations: RDECOM-Pacific, RDECOM-Americas and RDECOM-Atlantic. Their missions include searching for state-of-the-art science and technology for Soldiers and theater security cooperation.

These organizations focus on gathering and reporting information, and ARL/ARO's international program funds leading international researchers in collaborative and partnering research projects.

Part of Martindale's main duties as a forward-based international program manager include building and managing relationships among researchers that cross national boundaries.

"This allows us to leverage investments and advances made in other countries, to take advantage of the alternate approaches that different cultures can take to scientific exploration and to prevent technological surprise by maintaining a worldwide awareness of the field," Martindale said.

Martindale noted that synthetic biology is an exciting field as new capabilities are continually opening, including advances in computation and information handling.

"Advances in computation and information handling allow us to simulate complex biological networks and very dynamic processes," Martindale said. "The human genome project, completed 13 years ago, was the starting point for the ability to collect DNA information on the billions of organisms around us, and understanding of the microbiome is just beginning to yield important changes in our understanding of human health and performance."

Because synthetic biology is as much an information science as a physical science, Martindale said, countries that may not be able to afford "big science" can still make significant contributions, and ARL's ability to partner with them allows the laboratory to multiply its effectiveness in these areas.

Martindale's work with synthetic biology falls under ARL's Materials Research campaign.

The Army of 2030 will require materials with unprecedented capabilities that can be rapidly grown or synthesized and processed cost-effectively to enable Army platforms that are highly mobile, information reliant, lethal and protected.

The Materials Research campaign addresses those needs through areas of emphasis to include biotechnology and bio-inspired materials, which are focused on new biological materials derived through synthetic biology as well as classical approaches.

"Biomaterials such as spider silk are already in the realm of applied science, with application to lightweight ballistic armor," Martindale said. "Basic research is now investigating how to design materials that sense environmental changes and respond to them."

For example, clothing may one day warn Soldiers of chemical or biological hazards and simultaneously begin counteracting those agents. Armor could sense damage to itself and initiate repair.

"The potential for human health is very exciting, as we understand how to choose or engineer probiotics to help humans heal, resist disease and recover rapidly from injury," Martindale said.

According to Martindale, other efforts concentrate on systems to produce and store energy, providing bio-based electricity, and systems to create such specialized materials as photonic crystals, found in the scales of butterfly wings, and active camouflage, found in the skin of octopus.

Martindale is slated to remain in this position for three to five years, when she will then have a position waiting for her back at ARO headquarters in North Carolina.

For the time being, however, Martindale is enjoying every facet of living and working overseas.

"Living and working overseas is an adventure every day," Martindale said. "I spent three years based in London and traveling to conferences, research institutions, and universities in Europe and the former Soviet Union, and loved every minute of it. It's like being struck by lightning twice to now have the opportunity to do the same in Tokyo and the Asian theater."

Learning about the cultures that she has the opportunity to interact with are at the top of Martindale's list.

"I enjoy learning about the cultures I interact with and being exposed to the languages, although I have to admit the Asian languages are a challenge far beyond what I'm capable of with my background," Martindale said. "Fortunately, the international language of science is English, so among researchers it is not uncommon to find English speakers."

In terms of researching overseas, Martindale has found similarities with what she experiences in the U.S., especially in regard to the types of questions researchers try to answer and their interest in forming strong working relationships. There are, however, some differences that take time to adjust to, and thankfully for Martindale, she has the support of ARL staff from thousands of miles away.

"Each culture is different and administrative questions can be harder to answer than scientific ones because different countries may define differently what government verses civilian or privatized is, how contract law is handled, and how researchers apportion time and money," Martindale said. "Fortunately, ARL, and ARO as a part of ARL, have a lot of experience in international contracting, so I have good support."

For Martindale, the decision to take this position was an easy one, and a decision that will not only enhance the capabilities of ARL, but will enrich her personal experiences.

"Being able to travel the world to talk to researchers and academics about science is as good as it gets," Martindale said. "There are demands, of course. The travel can be tiring, and there are some long flights involved. There are expenses, especially associated with moving and settling in, that can take you by surprise. And family circumstances are important. The Army is very supportive, but it still has to be a good fit and good timing for kids in school and spouses in their careers."

She noted that those interested in a similar position have to be willing to enjoy the adventure, which can mean getting lost in a foreign city, learning a new metro system, figuring out how to charge electronics with different infrastructure, dealing with local currency and exchange rates and finding a meal where you don't understand the language.

"Putting that all together may make it seem daunting, but it really is manageable, and there are lots of people to help, from colleagues here in the Tokyo office to U.S. Department of Defense resources throughout the world," Martindale said.

Amidst the challenges that are inherent when taking on a new position in a foreign country, Martindale is committed to her current role and the opportunities that it will provide ARL.

"Years ago I was advised by a fellow international program manager, "never take it for granted -- enjoy where you are." I have found these to be wise words no matter where I am," Martindale said.

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The U.S. Army Research Laboratory is part of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, which has the mission to ensure decisive overmatch for unified land operations to empower the Army, the joint warfighter and our nation. RDECOM is a major subordinate command of the U.S. Army Materiel Command.