Feature Story | 7-Nov-2023

Striving for a more secure world

PNNL experts work with international partners to heighten awareness of biological, chemical threats

DOE/Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

By Allan Brettman

Rachel Bartholomew, who was once on a medicine-focused career track, knows well that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Bartholomew is a technology and policy advisor and team lead in the Chemical and Biological Signatures group at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL). She has more than 20 years of experience using molecular biology to address challenges related to national security, policy, and nonproliferation.

Lately, that has meant Bartholomew is often working internationally, strengthening national security by partnering with foreign governments. Together, they work to detect and block materials associated with weapons of mass destruction and other weapons. She and PNNL colleagues regularly represent the Laboratory as subject matter experts and trainers for the U.S. State Department’s Export Control and Border Security Program (EXBS).

In this role, Bartholomew and PNNL colleagues recently traveled to Cyprus, the island country in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. There, with delegations from Yemen and Lebanon, they led “Cross Border Infectious Disease and Biothreat Preparedness” learning sessions for EXBS.

In Cyprus, Bartholomew shared best practices to thwart the transmission of infectious diseases across borders, including nefarious uses of pathogens. The workshops focused on threats and provided suggestions as well as hands-on exercises on how to deal with them.

“The workshops highlight changes that partners can make at border crossings to increase awareness and detection of biological threats,” said Bartholomew. “Ultimately, the goal is to stop those threats at the borders. Participants plan to make changes, such as modifying their standard operating procedures, launching new mitigation practices, or creating working groups for better communication and coordination.”

PNNL-influenced center

Cyprus serves as an ideal location in part because it is home of the Cyprus Center for Land Open Seas and Port Security (CYCLOPS).

The State Department’s EXBS program provided funding for the center, located in the port city of Larnaca, which opened in early 2022. PNNL chemists, biologists, and other technical experts served as design consultants, and PNNL managed its construction. The center is owned by the Republic of Cyprus and used by PNNL and other U.S. government training organizations for chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, explosives, border security, and other trainings with international partners.

“The facility certainly contributes to the security of Cyprus,” said James Spracklen, principal advisor for the National Security Directorate (NSD) within PNNL. “But perhaps more importantly, it serves the security needs for other countries as well—for the European Union, the wider Eastern Mediterranean region, and beyond.”

Spracklen, who also serves as program manager for the WMD Counterproliferation Training and Border Security/Interdiction Programs as well as the Critical Energy Infrastructure Protection Program at PNNL, noted that CYCLOPS was built in a geographic location that is strategically attuned for many countries.

“CYCLOPS is a facility for customs and exports control, port and maritime security, cybersecurity—a wide range of sensitive, non-military, security training,” he said, adding that similar facilities are in other regions worldwide. “These training centers enable PNNL and others to bring in audiences from countries they would otherwise be unable to reach, but that often need border security training the most.”

Decades of border protection

PNNL’s border security participation can be traced to the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. U.S. policy makers became concerned about the security of nuclear material in the newly independent states of the former U.S.S.R.

Officials sought to reduce this potential threat, creating what would become the Office of Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation within the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration. National security officials recognized that PNNL had expertise in nuclear weapons detection and radiation detection.

“There was great concern about radiological or nuclear components or materials crossing borders out of the former Soviet states,” Spracklen said. “PNNL stood out because we had experts—because of our Hanford Site legacy—in identifying, assessing, and detecting radiological components. That’s where it started. That’s where PNNL’s wider involvement in all aspects of border security started. It goes all the way back to the 1990s. We had people at PNNL assessing the nuclear security risk assessments at border sites in several countries.”

Addressing evolving threats

From offering its radiation and nuclear expertise, PNNL has expanded its involvement in other areas of border security. PNNL has collaborated worldwide with nearly 80 countries on addressing cross-border security issues, such as detecting potential biological contamination.

In addition to radiological and nuclear threats, the laboratory can dispatch experts globally with experience in assessing chemical, biological, and explosives threats. In addition, those experts talk with their counterparts, which often include border security officials operating in some of the most dangerous parts of the world, in recognizing and assessing those threats, Spracklen said.

“We're not making scientists out of these border security agents,” Spracklen said. “We work with them to be able to recognize something and then safely handle a potentially dangerous substance or situation. That's what we want our scientists to teach when they get in the field.”

Up to two dozen PNNL staff members may be at points across the globe at any given time, sharing their expertise at a variety of security sessions.

“We have chemists and biologists who are experts in their respective areas,” Spracklen said. “They may be participating in five courses a year worldwide. They may be participating in 25.”

A second home in Cyprus

Bartholomew has made multiple trips to Cyprus this year, talking with international counterparts who would be otherwise difficult, or even dangerous, for PNNL experts to reach.

During a trip this summer, she had a surprise: Julie Fisher, U.S. ambassador to Cyprus, stopped by to observe the workshop at CYCLOPS.

“It was a casual drop in,” Bartholomew said. “The ambassador was taking the opportunity to see what we were doing and visit CYCLOPS at the same time.”

It was all in a day’s work for Bartholomew and her team, which included PNNL colleagues Heather Engelmann, national security specialist; Melanie Davis, national security event project manager; Jen Mobberley, biomedical scientist; and colleagues from Louisiana State University and the Cross Border Advisory Network.

“Our work in Cyprus has been well received,” Bartholomew said. “Participants have told us these workshops have shown them ways they can apply practices and principals of detecting biosafety and biosecurity threats in their daily jobs. We’ve learned plenty, too, from people who are working out in the field.”

For Bartholomew, empowering partners from around the globe to raise awareness and empower best practices to thwart biological threats is part of her ongoing education.

She was destined for a career focused on animal physiology. Then 9/11 happened. Then she had post-doctorate training at the FBI Laboratory Counterterrorism and Forensic Science Research Unit as a visiting scientist and at the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education as a fellow.

“I knew I wanted to do something with greater meaning with my career,” Bartholomew said. “Helping to make the world a safer place? I made the right choice.”


About PNNL

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory draws on its distinguishing strengths in chemistry, Earth sciences, biology and data science to advance scientific knowledge and address challenges in sustainable energy and national security. Founded in 1965, PNNL is operated by Battelle for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. DOE’s Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https://energy.gov/science. For more information on PNNL, visit PNNL's News Center. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram.

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