MEET THE AUTHOR: Dr. Elizabeth Mezzacappa

By September 20, 2018March 11th, 2019Army ALT Magazine, Science and Technology
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by Mr. Steve Stark

Dr. Elizabeth Mezzacappa could seriously hurt you.

But if she did hurt you, it would be nonlethal and totally ethical (to understand why, you have to read the article she wrote, “Radical Futures,” in the July – September issue of Army AL&T magazine). Her laboratory got its start in nonlethal weapons, but just because they’re nonlethal doesn’t mean that they’d be pleasant.

That’s just one of the many cool things about our new pal, Liza—that’s Dr. Mezzacappa to you—from the U.S. Army Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center (ARDEC) Tactical Behavior Research Laboratory (TBRL) in Picatinny, New Jersey.

Another cool thing: She’s been on panels at a bunch of science fiction conventions. Seriously. In a recent interview, she said that the work TBRL is looking at in the near future would’ve been science fiction when she first started out.

“The coolest thing we’re doing,” Mezzacappa said, “is building the closest thing that the Army has right now” to the holodeck on “Star Trek.” (For you non-Trekkies, the holodeck is a virtual reality system that can create “solid” characters and objects as well as holographic projections to simulate specific vistas or scenarios.) That’s so the TBRL team can figure out all kinds of way-beyond-your-pay-grade things about—among other things—the neural reactions of Soldiers in particularly stressful situations—crowd control, for example. The computer can play any scenario that the artists create and the team can get tons and tons of data about tactical behavior.

In addition to cool, Mezzacappa is soft spoken, like the nicest therapist a person could have. And she’s working on weapons. But mostly she’s working on how Soldiers respond to those weapons—lethal and nonlethal—from both ends of the barrel.

Just take a look at the video. You’ll get it.

When the amazing “Radical Futures” article dropped out of the ether and into our laptops, our first thought was, “We are not worthy.” Meanwhile, Mezzacappa was thinking that Army AL&T wouldn’t be interested.

What? Seriously?

“Right before I submitted to you,” she said, “somebody in my lab gave us articles that you had published on AI [artificial intelligence] and swarms. … When I looked at that, you had high-level people” writing the articles in the magazine. “To me, that told me that you wouldn’t want something from me. I don’t have a title like that.”

Probably the first time in the last decade she’s been wrong.


We were immediately intrigued when we wrapped our flabbergasted heads around the work her team does, which falls under the general heading of Inventing the Future of Warfare, and has a whole lot of bullet points beneath it, one of which would be: Testing Nonexistent Weapons.

We could go on. Better yet, do whatever you have to do to hustle on over to read Mezzacappa’s “Radical Futures.” It will be worth it.

Oh, and since the article was published, Mezzacappa said, her team has been “contacted by a company for collaboration and I was invited to speak at a London conference because of the article.” Could not have happened to a nicer person.

When Army AL&T talked with Mezzacappa in late July, she had just returned from being out of town and was marooned at home, her car’s battery having died while she was gone. She was more than happy to talk about the work that her laboratory does and the difficulties in publishing the laboratory’s research. In a general sense, Mezzacappa said, “Within acquisition, and perhaps because of the kind of area that I’m in, which is human subjects, with its own kind of methods and own kind of analysis, it’s been my observation that defense acquisition does not really have an outlet for the scientific work that we do.”

The problem, she said, is that mainstream psychological journals “don’t want to hear about guns. No psychologist, behavioral scientist, wants to hear about guns. Even within the Army where they have psychologists for Soldier support, they tend to do kind of general kinds of behavioral psychology,” she said. “They’re not comfortable dealing with how you make a Soldier more lethal.”

Or even how you create nonlethal weapons. Her laboratory, she said, “started off in nonlethal weapons and we slid into lethal weapons because that’s where the priorities are right now. So there’s no place for a lab like us to publish. The general behavioral science areas don’t like to deal with war, and the general Army publications aren’t set up to evaluate that kind of behavioral science.” She was quick to add that “might be changing. We’re starting to publish so that people might understand what we’re doing. The closest area [to what we do] is probably operations research and systems analysis. They’re the closest thing to putting a person in a situation and seeing how the performance is of the person, plus whether their systems are working.”

The original paper she wrote and submitted to a science journal, she said, was about a nonlethal weapon. “We were trying to generate obscuring requirements to protect vehicle mines. There’s personnel mines that traditionally blow up people, and they don’t want to blow up people anymore.” The question was, can we “make a nonlethal way to prevent people from removing the vehicle mines that we put out?” And how much obscurant would be necessary? “So we designed a test bed, which I believe is in the article, it’s that fog test bed. That was what the article was about.” Talking with Mezzacappa and her team is a continuous revelation of the fascinating and vital work that they do.

Perhaps fortunately for Army AL&T, that paper was rejected. Mezzacappa, for whom “persistent” might be an understatement, kept looking for venues to show the work TBRL does.

“I’m still trying to find a place for it.”

For writers guidelines and to submit articles, go to:

STEVE STARK is senior editor of Army AL&T magazine. He holds an M.A. in creative writing from Hollins University and a B.A. in English from George Mason University. In addition to more than two decades of editing and writing about the military and S&T, he is the best-selling ghostwriter of several consumer-health oriented books and an award-winning novelist.

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