FREDERICK, Md. (June 28, 2021) – For nearly 80 years, the heart of U.S. Army medical research has been beating in central Maryland, at Fort Detrick. The post gates opened in 1931, then known as Detrick Field, named in honor of Frederick Louis Detrick, a Frederick County native and an Army flight surgeon who served in Belgium during World War I.
Fort Detrick currently hosts a cadre of multi-disciplined scientists and researchers from across the Department of Defense and several federal agencies, and is home to the National Cancer Institute and the Army’s Medical Research and Development Command, or MRDC.
MRDC is a subordinate command within U.S. Army Futures Command, or AFC, headquartered in Austin, Texas. AFC has more than 26,000 people worldwide developing concepts and working on Army modernization priorities. MRDC manages and executes research in areas such as military infectious diseases, combat casualty care, military operational medicine, chemical biological defense, and clinical and rehabilitative medicine.
Since 1969, MRDC’s U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, or USAMRIID, has been using science and technology to address biological threats to U.S. military personnel. That year, then-President Richard M. Nixon ended the nation’s offensive biological warfare program and directed research efforts to focus on defensive measures.
“While it’s an Army lab, within the DoD construct, a lot of the research that goes on here has wider applicability that protects the American public,” said Col. E. Darrin Cox, M.D., a thoracic surgeon and USAMRIID’s former commander. A veteran of three combat deployments totaling more than 37 months, Cox has been tapped to become the command surgeon for U.S. Army Forces Command, headquartered at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
“Our specialty, or our core competency, lies in high-consequence pathogens,” Cox said.
Some of the pathogens USAMRIID studies with their federal partners include: Ebola virus; Chikungunya virus; Tularemia; and Anthrax. Due to varying risk-factors, research is conducted in layered bio-containment laboratories. They range from routine academic and hospital research up to highly secured spaces where special suits and breathing devices are required.
“It depends upon the particular agent being studied,” Cox said. “That’s what we do, study the high-consequence pathogens that our troops may encounter while deployed.”
In the past year, as the world confronted a global pandemic, USAMRIID took on the additive mission of helping the national effort to combat the deadly, novel coronavirus.
Some key accomplishments during this period include: developing multiple animal models for testing vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics; creating a novel biosurveillance approach to enhance screening for COVID-19 and other diseases; evaluating novel drugs and antibodies as potential treatments; and serving as a 24/7 confirmatory laboratory for the Department of Defense, providing diagnostic testing for mission-critical military personnel to help leaders make informed decisions about force protection and return to duty.
Through it all, USAMRIID’s primary mission continued to drive forward.
“We’ve maintained our core mission of developing medical countermeasures against those high-consequence pathogens,” Cox said. “Certainly, COVID is a high-consequence pathogen from the standpoint of the havoc it’s wreaking on the healthcare of the nation and the world, and economically.”
This brings us to the researchers themselves, in particular, John M. Dye, Jr., Ph.D., a viral immunologist with USAMRIID. His work has focused on filovirus vaccines and therapeutics, with years of intense research to combat Ebola and related viruses.
“Our specific goal is to develop medical countermeasures, vaccines and treatments, for emerging infectious diseases and potential bio-threats,” Dye said. “There’s a wide range of infectious pathogens that could potentially be used by a nefarious agent.”
“We’re here to protect the service member and the service member’s family,” Dye said.
Dye’s Ebola research efforts have given him the opportunity to lead teams throughout Africa, Central and South America to track immune response in hundreds of survivors of this and other diseases.
“A lot of the treatments that we develop here for the soldier, and the soldier’s family, actually make it out into the larger world and help humanity as an entirety,” Dye said.
Dye considers his work to be a life calling and is proud of his service to the nation as an Army civilian.
“It was the perfect mix, for me, to have a life-long mission to protect soldiers, because of the way I grew up in a military family on a military base,” Dye said. “This job allows me to do what I was trained to do. When you’re surrounded by the military on a daily basis, you remember what your mission is and why we’re here. It gives you a reason and a certain gravitas for what we do.”
In one of his last acts as USAMRIID commander, Cox held an awards ceremony and made a special point to recognize public servants sometimes overlooked in the Department of the Army, or DA, structure.
“With the COVID pandemic, it’s been a while since we were able to come together in person to recognize our folks,” Cox said. “Over the past two years, we’ve been pretty good about recognizing our military personnel; where we’ve sometimes fallen short is in the timely recognition of our civilian team members. They are a critical part of our mission.”
Cox presented dozens of awards to USAMRIID civil servants, including service medals and commander’s coins, for their contributions to biosafety, physical security, COVID-19 research, diagnostic support and public affairs.
Those awardees included Dye, who received the Army Civilian Service Achievement Medal for, among other things, taking on critical additional duties in the past year. Dye’s efforts ensured USAMRIID was able to return to full operating capacity while productively supporting the national pandemic response.
“He typifies the folks who stay here for many years,” Cox said of Dye and the non-uniformed members of the USAMRIID team.
“Their dedication is as great as any uniformed member,” Cox said. “The DA civilians are critical to the ongoing success, as well as our contractors. We have a varied workforce that consists of military, civilians and contractors, and they all play a key role in the research conducted here.”
Like uniformed service members, Army civilians take an oath of office and have a creed. Part of the Army Civilian Corps Creed states, “I am an Army Civilian – a member of the Army Team … I provide stability and continuity during War and Peace.” While soldiers ready themselves for battle, the Army civilian works to support them at home and abroad.
To ensure perpetual success, USAMRIID is not resting on its laurels. Leadership continues to look to the future and is opening doors for the next generation of medical researchers to support the nation.
“We’re always building the bench for the future, and we have a number of programs that bring in young researchers,” Cox said.
He said there are programs to inspire talent across the gamut, from high school through post-doctoral research.
“Some of them are sponsored by outside agencies and some of them are sponsored internally, and then those folks have an opportunity to spend anywhere from three to five years here, in their post-doctoral time, and then either move on or stay here,” Cox said. “We have a developmental program to have a junior researcher turn into a senior researcher turn into a primary investigator.”
“We’re always looking for programs that bring in young folks to be the next year’s leaders, the future leaders of this research,” added Cox.
One such rising star in USAMRIID’s civilian cadre is Keersten M. Ricks, Ph.D., a research microbiologist within the diagnostic systems division. She came to USAMRIID after earning her doctorate of chemistry at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, Tennessee.
Like Dye, Ricks considered other civilian opportunities to serve the nation after graduate school, but found the USAMRIID mission to be the best fit for her career goals. She said it also included the side benefit of being located near the nation’s capital.
“Frederick is an amazing small town,” Ricks said. “I always wanted to live in D.C., I loved the city, loved the history, so my search started to encompass the D.C. area,” Ricks said.
The search naturally led to defense equities on Fort Detrick and the surrounding community, Frederick, which is about an hour’s drive from Washington and Baltimore. Known as the gateway to western Maryland, Frederick is also home to significant history of the American Civil War.
“Frederick has a lot of the benefits that being in the D.C. area has to offer,” Ricks said. “There’s great food, there’s really good hiking close by, the weather is great—I like having all four seasons. There are plenty of options that everyone can explore to fill that niche for things they want to do.”
She was immediately welcomed to the team and found a collaborative partner and mentor in Dye.
“John (Dye) is not only an incredible scientist in and of himself, but he’s a huge advocate for advancing the careers of young scientists,” Ricks said. “It can be hard as an early career Ph.D. scientist finding your way in a large research institute such as USAMRIID. John has been so helpful to me in my career here with giving me advice and being willing to collaborate on some of my ideas for diagnostic tool development.”
Dye continues to look to the future and understands the importance of his role to help ensure the Army maintains an effective research capability and long-term subject matter expertise.
“This was a perfect opportunity,” Dye said, “to become a civilian employee, at a military installation, where I could take what I learned in graduate school, in infectious disease and immunology and virology, and help apply it to the military, the United States Army, and the world in general.”
As he departed the USAMRIID, earlier this month, Cox paid tribute to the USAMRIID workforce. He said he continued to be impressed by their intellect, devotion to the mission, and ability to handle multiple tasks while staying on point.
“You are taking command of a storied organization filled with wonderful people who are making a difference every day,” Cox told Col. Constance L. Jenkins, his successor as USAMRIID commander. “I have no doubt you will take this organization to even higher heights and greater successes.”