By Lt. Col. Carol McClellandMarch 15, 2012
CAMP STANLEY, Korea -- These are not your average bi-focal wearing, white lab coat clad, gray bearded scientists that don't stray far from their experiments. Instead, they are deployable men and women of all sizes and ages who have a laundry list of advanced degrees and a passion for what they do--diagnosing chemical, biological and explosive samples.
Called CARA for short, when the CBRNE Analytical and Remediation Activity team receives notice to go to a world hot spot where weapons of mass destruction may be present, they pack their bags and their lab and head out from their home under the 20th Support Command (CBRNE) at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md. They did just that for more than a month when they traveled to Korea in February, only this time it was for annual training exercises Key Resolve and Foal Eagle. In their weeklong certification during the Key Resolve exercise, the team processed more than 100 samples under the watchful eyes of two outside observers.
Bringing along one each of their two Heavy and Light Labs for the exercises, the small group of civilians don't use logisticians or movers to set up. These scientists do so themselves with hours of manual labor.
"Everyone has a really good role to play and brings something to the table," said Ray Sullivan, a microbiologist on the team that's made up of chemists and biologists. "It's a really good group."
The leader of the lab group of eight participants is Rick Trombly, the CARA Lab manager whom Sullivan described as the heart and soul of the lab.
"Rick has a real passion for the whole concept of the Mobile Expeditionary Lab. He never lets obstacles defeat the vision he has for this lab," Sullivan said.
While the concept is simple -- bring the lab and its experts to the field to conduct real time confirmatory sample analysis, the execution is not. One thing the scientists must contend with is the equipment.
The glovebox as it's called is an important piece of equipment in the light lab used to extract DNA or chemicals for analysis. It pulls air in for negative pressure and passes potentially contaminated air through charcoal and [High Efficiency Particulate Air] filters outside the vehicle. In the tight 3 foot by 2 foot space it is cumbersome to use. The scientist puts two pairs of nitrile rubber gloves on, and then slips on the thick, black butyl rubber gloves attached to the machine, followed by another pair of nitrile gloves worn on top. Working with glass capsules, tubes with tiny screw-on lids, samples and solvents, requires dexterity, a steady hand and patience.
While processing a sample during Foal Eagle, Xuerong Shi, called "Dave" by his colleagues, separates fatty acids and proteins from the DNA used to determine if the sample is what it's suspected to be, Bacillus arthracis, more commonly known as Anthrax. While the samples during this exercise aren't live, they could be during missions and the team has many safety procedures in place to avoid exposure.
"If a tiny, tiny DNA contaminates, it can be amplified hundreds of billions of times. So it's important to change gloves to avoid contamination," Shi said. After processing several samples, the molecular biologist flexes his multi-gloved fingers to work out a muscle cramp from the tedious work.
"The glovebox is uncomfortable and unwieldy, but important for safety. Because if we open a sample of nerve agent, we're not going to last very long," said chemist Lori Korczynski. "But if we open it in the glovebox, we're not at risk."
Use to looking for chemical weapons like mustard, sarin, soman or VX, or precursors, meaning the things used to make chemical weapons, Korczynski has been with the team for more than two years. The 38-year-old is getting married in a few months and has been planning last minute wedding details between 12-hour shifts, but she takes the temporary duty in stride because she says she realizes the importance of the mission.
"The results we find from our field samples can have a direct impact in saving Soldier's lives. If we find something that's potentially hazardous to Soldiers safety we can inform them so they can protect themselves or they can secure a site to maintain the welfare of many," Korczynski said.
The scientists use different techniques to analyze the liquid, powders, soils, vegetation, swipes, swabs or other solid samples. They search for proteins unique to the agents they seek, the DNA or genetics of the targets they seek, by microscope where they visualize the shape of the organism or they culture the sample, which can be accomplished in the heavy lab but not the Light Lab. The Heavy Lab has four additional technologies and two more engineering controls, in essence more stuff and more space. Having three times as much engineering space means there's more room to process samples and controls. The Heavy Lab can handle metal analysis like shrapnel or metallic powder and explosives and it fields three more people than the light lab.
Both labs deploy for different situations. The Light Lab is about three years old and is expeditionary with rapid set up (about three hours) and a 15 day consumable supply whereas the heavy lab takes several days to configure and it comes with a 60 day consumable supply that's reset from the rear. The Heavy Lab, delivered in 2011, is designed to be able to deploy for up to two years. While only the Light Lab was used during the Foal Eagle exercise, both labs used during Key Resolve helped the crew cross train. And there was a lot of interest in the labs.
The spotlight shined on both labs with a number of U.S. and ROK visitors passing through during the exercises wanting to learn more. Earl Austin, the supervisory chemist, was one of the CARA spokesmen explaining lab capabilities. A chemist with multiple overseas deployed experiences outside of CARA, he said the work he and his crew did in Korea was a great experience.
"Here, we're doing the exercises to prove a Mobile Laboratory platform. Based on [the information that has ] been sent back to the rear, and the accuracy of the results, the platform has been proven with minimum problems," Austin said.
But that doesn't mean the team of scientists that have worked daily for the past five weeks wouldn't have improvements for the next platform (space issues, adding heat in the connected tent area, detaching the High-Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle, also called Humvee, and so forth). Declining further analysis of improvements, Austin smiled.
"Hey, I have to go back and work with some of the guys who designed this thing," the Jackson, Miss. native said.