By Ben Sherman, Fort Sill CannoneerApril 26, 2012
FORT SILL, Okla.-- Dr. Betsy Rice is a research chemist with the Army Research Laboratory in Aberdeen, Md. Her work involves protecting Soldiers on the battlefield while also making weapons more effective. Last week she spoke to a group of science students at her alma mater, Cameron University, where she was quick to tell her audience that when she was growing up in Lawton, she never saw herself as a scientist.
"I never had a career path to be a scientist. In high school the only thing I wanted to do was graduate and become a court reporter. I thought that would be cool," Rice said. "I could type 110 words-per-minute. It's the only thing I've ever been able to do very well."
For Rice to say typing is the only thing she can do well is being modest, to say the least. She has a doctorate in theoretical chemistry and now directs a team of more than 500 scientists and contractors at the Army Research Laboratory. Her specific work is with the Multiscale Reactive Modeling Team, which is a technical name for the study of what happens when energetic materials "go boom."
"An energetic material is just that - a material that has a lot of energy; better known as an explosive. We try to develop and understand energetic materials and, believe it or not, even though we've known about explosives for hundreds of years, we don't understand how they perform," Rice said. "We don't know how it does what it does, because the chemistry involved is so fast that it can't be measured. And so much damage is done when it goes off, it destroys the measuring equipment. So nobody really knows what happens with energetic materials."
That doesn't mean that Rice and her team of scientists in the Weapons and Materials Research Directorate don't try to figure out that mystery, because figuring out what happens during that "boom" could help Soldiers survive on the battlefield.
"We're the folks who are trying to keep the Soldiers safe. To do that we study energetic materials and weaponry, precision munitions, as well as developing better protection materials - body armor and armor for vehicles - to make combat more survivable," Rice said. She went on to explain that they often find the best solutions for survivability in the study of weapons and explosives.
"That is what our Protection Division does -- survivability. That's the hottest topic in the Army right now. The Department of Defense has wisely said that the protection of our Soldiers comes first, above all things. We've got to develop the best advanced protective armors, and also know how these armors might fail. If we can figure out what causes them to fail, then we can design materials that won't fail as easily," she said.
Rice spoke at Cameron to encourage students to pursue careers in chemistry and science as part of the DoD's Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics program, or STEM. The program's goal is to get students interested in pursuing scientific careers, to help replace the government's aging scientific community, many of which will retire in the next decade.
"If most kids are anything like me, they would have said "Science is too hard, it's too boring, it's beyond me." But we have to get young people interested at an early age because they are the generation that will replace scientists like me in the future," Rice added. "We have government initiatives where students can actually come and work in my laboratory in the summer. This is our country's future scientific community."
Rice emphasized people shouldn't be scared of science because she succeeded even though she admitted she wasn't a good student.
"I flunked math and I didn't' do well in science at first," she said.
But, when her husband became ill and they had to move back in with her parents, Rice decided she would go back to school. This time she took a general physical sciences course and decided that it was fun. She went on to major in chemistry at Cameron and then earned her Ph.D. in theoretical chemistry at Oklahoma State University in 1987. She has been with the Army Research Lab since 1989.
Rice believes the ARL's mission is critical to America's future defense.
"We want to maintain battlefield superiority by developing weaponry and protection 15 to 20 years into the future. So we've got to think really far out of the box. That's the type of research we do at the ARL," she said.