RESEARCH ABROAD IN THE TIME OF COVID

By February 17, 2021Army ALT Magazine
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FRESH AIR: Dr. Irene MacAllister enjoys some time outside the lab running in the Hradec Forest across from her apartment near the research center at the Czech Republic’s University of Defense, where she is working as part of the U.S. Army’s Engineer and Scientist Exchange Program. (Photo courtesy Dr. Irene MacAllister)

 

 

How one U.S. Army scientist is making it happen in the Czech Republic.

 

by Cathy VanderMaarel

Moving to a foreign country can be a difficult and anxiety-inducing experience because of language barriers, different customs, new colleagues and many other factors. A global pandemic isn’t usually one of those—until now.

Army research chemist Dr. Irene MacAllister arrived in the Czech Republic for a yearlong tour on Feb. 19, just weeks before the country declared a state of emergency in response to the spread of the coronavirus throughout Europe.

A BUMPY LANDING
MacAllister spent a brief time handling some administrative matters at the U.S. Embassy in Prague before heading to Hradec Králové, about 70 miles east of the capital, for her assignment on the faculty of military health sciences at the Czech Republic’s University of Defense.

“Luckily, I had arranged a number of things before leaving the U.S., and all the intense planning—and to some degree ‘over planning’—before my actual arrival paid off,” MacAllister said. “I have incredibly supportive Czech peers, including one colleague who had had a past research assignment in the U.S. and who knows exactly what it’s like to arrive alone in a foreign country. She had prearranged an apartment for me which turned to be in an ideal location.”

But even over-planning didn’t prepare MacAllister for what the pandemic would bring. She’s the first Army employee to participate in the Engineer and Scientist Exchange Program in the Czech Republic, and the only American at the facility where she’s assigned. In the early days, she wasn’t sure if she should work according to the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command – Atlantic protocols for teleworking or those of the university where she was assigned. She didn’t know if she’d be allowed to move into that perfect apartment. She didn’t even know if she’d be recalled to the U.S. and have to completely give up the opportunity to work abroad for the year.

WORKING FOR THE FUTURE: The work MacAllister does as part of the U.S. Army’s Engineer and Scientist Exchange Program improves the military-to-military relationship between the U.S. and her host country. (Photo courtesy Czech Republic’s University of Defense)

DR. MACALLISTER
Dr. Irene MacAllister is a research chemist at the Construction Engineering Research Laboratory within the U.S. Army’s Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) located in Champaign, Illinois. She holds a Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Illinois and a B.S. in biochemistry from Beloit College. She has completed three levels of the Army Management Staff College Education System, is a graduate of the ERDC Leadership Development Program Levels 1 and 2 and is an alumnus of the Emerging Leaders Group program.

THE BACKSTORY
When the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center was tasked to identify potential candidates for an exchange program with the Czech Republic, the request included three different position descriptions relating to immunology, microbiology, proteomics, gene editing and bioinformatics, one of which seemed tailor-fit to her skills. “I was very excited about the prospect of reinvigorating old skills, learning new procedures and techniques and getting back to full-time laboratory work,” said MacAllister.

Her research focus during the exchange is laying the groundwork for the future development of a vaccine against the highly lethal bacterium Francisella tularensis for both the warfighter and civilian population, in the event it is weaponized and deployed.

Not only did it seem the work would suit her, but she was excited to live in Europe again and for the opportunity to travel. Having grown up in Lampertheim, Germany, and having a German mother, MacAllister is fluent in the language and had made plans for her octogenarian parents to visit from Illinois.

UNEXPECTED FRIEND: Dr. Irene MacAllister enjoys riding her bicycle in the Hradec Forest as a break from her research on the development of a vaccine against the bacterium Francisella tularensis. (Photo courtesy Dr. Irene MacAllister)

THE IMPACT
Despite the restrictions and uncertainty, MacAllister was eventually able to move into the apartment and begin her research in Hradec Králové. She lives just across the street from a forest, which, she said, “was a godsend during the initial phase of the state of emergency, during which I teleworked and admit I was getting a bit of cabin fever.” Her Czech supervisor ensured she was included in group picnics and other outdoor activities to stave off any feelings of
isolation.

In late April, MacAllister was finally able to start working in the lab instead of teleworking from her 400-square-foot apartment. Since then, she has noticed more similarities with her Czech colleagues than differences. “Most government researchers—U.S. and Czech—tend to grumble, at least a little bit, about administrative activities which we see as distractions from actually doing the fun stuff,” said MacAllister. She also noted a shared dedication to the research mission.

Dr. Klára Kubelková, a captain in the Czech Army, was part of the team that selected MacAllister for the exchange, made arrangements for her arrival, and works alongside her regularly. “Dr. MacAllister provides valuable advice in solving the scientific questions in selected projects and provides her personal opinions on the studied issues,” Kubelková said. “It is also a great benefit for the staff of the department, who have the opportunity to communicate with the researcher in English.”

While the Czech facility has hosted exchange scientists before, those programs were from other European countries and for a much shorter time than this one, according to Professor Jiri Stulík, who was responsible for preparing MacAllister’s scientific program at the university. “Previously, we had collaboration with people from Fort Detrick [Maryland] funded by [the Defense Threat Reduction Agency], so we are used to work[ing] with scientists from [the] USA,” Stulík said. “I think this program is very useful, as any other program concerning the exchange of scientists from abroad. Definitely both sides gain new experiences and there is a good chance for further scientific collaboration.”

As restrictions started lifting, MacAllister was able to do more than just go to work or walk in the forest, and she found so many others in town to be just as helpful. She had hoped her German and English fluencies would help her learn Czech, but unfortunately it doesn’t resemble the other languages at all. She’s finding, though, that people are incredibly patient and willing to help when she needs it. “I learned to say, ‘I don’t speak Czech. Do you speak English or German?’ in Czech,” MacAllister said of her efforts to reach out. When she hears other Americans or native English speakers also living in the college town, she takes some time to chat with them.

STATE OF EMERGENCY

  • The Czech Republic’s initial state of emergency on March 13 restricted:
  • • All public and private cultural, sports, social, religious, educational and other events with more than 30 people.
  • • Operation of catering services in shopping centers.
  • • Public access to gyms, swimming pools, wellness services and saunas, public libraries and galleries.
  • • Entry into the territory of the Czech Republic for all foreigners coming from risk areas, with the exception of foreigners staying with a temporary stay of more than 90 days or permanent residence there, unless their entry is in the Czech Republic’s interest.

LOOKING AHEAD

During a press conference in August, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said he and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had discussed scientists and defense cooperation. “We can cooperate in science and development. We have great scientists that are also active in the United States. So we have excellent scientists and I see a great potential,” Babis said. MacAllister, as the first Army scientist in Czech Republic under this exchange program, is laying the groundwork for that future cooperation.

The U.S. Embassy in Prague has recognized the importance of MacAllister’s exchange and of the program. “We are delighted that she is cooperating with outstanding Czech scientists at the University of Defense Research Laboratory in Hradec Králové,” said embassy spokesman Griffin Rozell. “Her work in infectious diseases is timely and her presence has been noted and appreciated at the highest levels of the Czech government. We look forward to continuing the exchange program by building on this experience and also hope to facilitate an exchange for a Czech researcher to the United States. Cooperation through military exchanges improves allied readiness and solidifies our strong military-to-military relationship.”

In addition to the scientific outcomes, MacAllister knows the potential for her exchange to have an even bigger impact by reinforcing the enduring U.S. relationship with the Czech Republic—which is recognized internationally for its expertise in chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defense—and facilitating the future placement of Czech scientists in U.S. Department of Defense research facilities. In hopes of paving the way for future U.S. Army exchange personnel, MacAllister will take the lessons learned from her exchange to help the U.S. Embassy in Prague; the Science and Technology Attaché at the Czech Republic Embassy in Washington; U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command – Atlantic; and the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Defense Exports and Cooperation develop standard procedures for more U.S. Army research scientists to take part in the Engineer and Scientist Exchange Program with Czech Republic’s Defense Ministry.

MacAllister has approval to extend her exchange through June 2021. Though her parents likely won’t be able to visit, and the cultural experiences aren’t exactly what she thought they would be, she said this experience is “one that I will think of fondly (despite the pandemic) for many years to come, and I would encourage everyone to seek out an ESEP assignment.”

THE ENGINEER AND SCIENCE EXCHANGE PROGRAM (ESEP):
• A government-to-government effort aimed at increasing international cooperation between the U.S. and its allies in military research.
• The only DOD program that gives civilian scientists and engineers the opportunity to work in a foreign partner’s facilities side by side with experts around the world.
Army ESEP:
• Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Defense exports and Cooperation manages the program.
• First exchange was with Germany in 1963.
• Agreements with 16 countries.
• Participants come from the U.S. Combat Capabilities Development Command centers and Army Research Laboratory, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Engineer Research and Development Center, U.S. Army Test and Evaluation Center, and U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command.
• More than 70 participants in the last 15 years.

Early to mid-career U.S. Army scientists and engineers in Career Program 16 grades GS 12-14, or Acquisition Demo equivalent, can apply for the Engineer and Scientist Exchange Program’s career-broadening work assignments. Candidates should have a bachelor’s degree and a minimum of four years of technical experience in industry, military or federal civilian service. For more information on the program and upcoming application deadlines, email dasadec.army@mail.mil.

 


 

CATHY VANDERMAAREL is a career Army public affairs civilian, having started in the field in 2003. She has served as the public affairs specialist on the strategic communication team at DASA (DE&C) since March 2020. She holds a Master of Public Administration from Norwich University, a B.A. in communications from the University of South Carolina, and has earned the Intermediate Certification in Security Cooperation Execution Support Management.

 


 

Read the full article in the Winter 2021 issue of Army AL&T magazine.
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