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Forensic Science Communications January 2009—Volume 11—Number 1
Short Communication

Meet Senior Scientist Ben Garrett

The FBI Laboratory has two Senior Scientists: Dr. Bruce Budowle and Dr. Benjamin Garrett. Both men play a vital role in keeping the FBI Laboratory in the forefront of forensic science research and technology. This month, the editors present an interview with Dr. Garrett.

What is the FBI Laboratory’s goal in employing Senior Scientists?

Having one or more Senior Scientist satisfies several FBI Laboratory objectives. First, it ensures that a senior-level presence is established and maintained for oversight, supervision, and coordination of technical activities within the Laboratory and with Laboratory community partners. Second, it empowers these individuals—that is, the Senior Scientists—to speak authoritatively on scientific and technical matters on behalf of the FBI Laboratory, both within the FBI and with its partners, especially those groups elsewhere in the U.S. government.

Senior Scientists are removed from routine line management and supervisory duties, including financial matters, so that they might focus on the scientific and technical elements of the work of the FBI Laboratory. Finally, the Senior Scientist position provides a means of recognizing a lifetime of contributions of a scientific and technical nature on the part of individuals who are outside the ranks of line management and supervisors.

Do other laboratories employ Senior Scientists?

Other organizations do have Senior Scientists, especially those organizations that are heavily invested in science or technology. Examples include private-sector, high-technology firms such as IBM and Microsoft; pharmaceutical and biotechnology firms such as Merck; nonprofit institutes such as the Battelle Memorial Institute; and, especially, various U.S. government agencies, such as the Department of Defense and the National Institutes of Health. The titles vary, but the intent is similar—that is, to designate individuals as having senior-level responsibility both for planning, leading, and executing research likely to have a major impact on the core areas associated with that firm, organization, or agency and for serving as a spokesperson to help formulate and communicate the vision of how that firm, organization, or agency can best serve its stakeholders.

What is your specific role as a Senior Scientist in the FBI Laboratory?

My role is identical to that of other Senior Scientists, although the context varies. In my case, the context of my work is weapons of mass destruction, or WMD. In keeping with my background, I am best suited for the portion of WMD that deals with toxic chemicals, especially chemical warfare agents. But I am also comfortable in matters dealing with biological weapons and nuclear weapons, although I possess limited understanding of the physical and chemical properties of the biological pathogens and nuclear materials themselves.

Within the WMD context, I feel that I am expected to take on senior-level responsibility for planning, leading, and executing research likely to have a major impact on the ability of the U.S. government to conduct the forensic examinations and supporting analyses to aid in attributing a WMD event or incident. This expectation means I must work with my colleagues within the FBI, across the U.S. government (often referred to as “the Interagency”), and with selected international partners to ensure that the capabilities and capacities are available to conduct these forensic exams and analyses. It also means that I serve as a senior-level advocate within the Interagency and with our international partners for the proper role of the FBI Laboratory with regard to WMD investigations.

In fulfilling such expectations, I also work with FBI Laboratory Executive Management to ensure that we have the necessary staff to support forensic requirements attached to WMD attribution; we have trained and cultivated these staff so that their qualifications match our needs; and we have the infrastructure, equipment, instruments, and procedures consistent with our position as the world’s premiere forensic laboratory in the field of WMD.

Describe a typical day in the life of a Senior Scientist.

A pleasant aspect to my work is that my workday varies considerably. I enjoy the variety. Presently, I devote about one-third to one-half of my time to a position as FBI Liaison to the National Technical Nuclear Forensics Center (NTNFC), which is an element of the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, Department of Homeland Security. The NTNFC is based in Washington, D.C., and I have an office there.

Consequently, some “typical days” are spent in Washington, devoted to issues surrounding forensics and attribution of an incident involving radiological or nuclear materials. Those days involve meetings, within NTNFC, throughout Washington, D.C., and elsewhere across the United States. These meetings are the means by which we define our capabilities, identify shortfalls in these capabilities, plan the research needed to address the shortfalls, and communicate the results of this process.

The other portion of my time—“typical days in Quantico”— involves as much interaction with my Laboratory colleagues as I can manage, based on their availability. I genuinely enjoy those interactions, as I work with some of the most talented folks in the world of forensics.

What’s the most challenging part of your job?

I face challenges typical of many who are gainfully employed: trying to stay abreast of the communications in this age of the intranet, Internet, and BlackBerry devices. These communications require that I be proficient in sorting the important ones from the others and that I respond both appropriately and promptly. By the way, I much prefer face-to-face communications to those passed via the intranet or Internet. But I use e-mail, too, and understand its usefulness. Still, sorting through the messages is a challenge.

What do you enjoy the most about your work?

I gain immense satisfaction from feeling that my work has made a difference—in this regard, I imagine I am like everyone. Working for the FBI, though, offers me many opportunities to try to make a difference on matters that might have serious consequences for the interests of law enforcement nationally and for the U.S. government.

Briefly describe your background and how you became a Senior Scientist in the Laboratory.

An easy way to begin in describing my background is to start with what I am not. I am not a forensic examiner. I am not a longtime FBI employee. I joined the FBI in 2000, after a career spent in the defense and intelligence communities, mostly as a contractor. I was trained as an analytical chemist.

Since completing my graduate studies in 1975, I have devoted most of my professional career to chemical and biological weapons, including an 18-month stint in Russia, where I was assigned to the U.S. Embassy but worked in a Russian laboratory on planning the destruction of the stockpile of chemical weapons in Russia. Other assignments included my military service at one of the Army’s facilities for testing chemical and biological weapons; teaching college-level chemistry; and a long period as a research scientist, program manager, and senior manager in the private sector.

With a quarter-century of such experiences to my credit, I joined the Laboratory’s Hazardous Materials Response Unit (HMRU) to enhance the capabilities of that unit to conduct its science mission relative to operational response. In July 2005, I was made a member of the FBI’s Senior Level Executive Service and assigned to the Laboratory’s Front Office.

What’s on the horizon for you?

I hope to continue supporting the needs of the FBI Laboratory relative to operational response, emphasizing the forensic support to WMD attribution. I also look forward to continuing my service as chair of the Scientific Working Group for the Forensic Analysis of Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Terrorism (SWGCBRN). This working group is one of the many such SWGs sponsored by the FBI Laboratory. The SWGCBRN seeks to establish best practices, the same as all of the FBI Laboratory’s SWGs.

This SWG is distinctive in two regards. First, the FBI Laboratory will not knowingly bring evidence contaminated with CBRN materials onto the Quantico campus; therefore, we will always perform CBRN forensic examinations and support laboratory activities in space outside of the FBI Laboratory, through our network of partner laboratories. Second, any incident involving CBRN terrorism will be investigated by the FBI, meaning that our local, state, and federal forensic laboratory counterparts will have little or no hands-on role to play with CBRN-contaminated evidence. These two distinctions of the SWGCBRN contrast with the situation found for most other SWGs, where the evidence can come into Quantico or might be handled by forensic laboratories in our local, state, and federal counterparts.

If you could give a single piece of advice to laboratory and law enforcement personnel, what would it be?

Be prepared for life to take you in unexpected directions. It certainly has for me. I never set sights on working for the FBI or on working in forensics. But I certainly have had fun in life on my journey here.

Is there anything else you’d like to say that I haven’t specifically asked you?

You didn’t ask whether I like my job. I do—immensely. I am proud to serve in the FBI and to be part of the FBI Laboratory. I feel fortunate to work with so many fine people. I feel honored to be in my present position as a Senior Scientist in the FBI Laboratory and believe this position is a fine way to wind up my professional career.