ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. — A U.S. Army engineer from APG is enabling American Soldiers to detect and defeat their adversaries’ arsenal of chemical agents.
Nichole Au, a civilian chemical engineer with Edgewood Chemical Biological Center, and her colleagues travel to military installations across the United States to field, test, maintain and repair chemical detectors for all services.
“[I] get to interact with Soldiers and see the efforts of [my] work immediately,” Au said. “[Soldiers] come to you to fix something so they can use it right away. What I’m doing helps keep Soldiers safe. It’s really gratifying.
“You don’t always get to see immediately the effects that you have on people. That’s one of the best things about going into the field.”
BOLSTERING SOLDIER PROTECTION
Au has worked for ECBC’s Detection Engineering Branch for two-and-a-half years. She works on equipment such as the Automatic Chemical Agent Detector Alarm and Improved Chemical Agent Monitor that warn the device’s user of dangerous substances, including nerve and blister agents that can be lethal.
The branch works to ensure the technology is ready to meet the demands and challenges associated with military use.
“For detectors used by the military, there are a lot of requirements to meet. They have to be able to withstand the coldest temperatures in Alaska and the deserts in Texas,” she said. “They have to withstand drop tests [and being] thrown in the back of a truck.”
Au said one of her job’s greatest benefits is being able to use her education and expertise to help Soldiers, Marines, Airmen and Sailors be better prepared for missions in potentially dangerous environments. She has traveled frequently to Fort Bragg, N.C.; Fort Hood, Texas; and Fort Drum, N.Y.
“It’s great to relieve the Soldier of the burden of having to figure out how to fix an item themselves. It is a specialty,” Au said. “We go out to save them time and burden.
“When the Soldiers get back their equipment, they are appreciative. Sometimes they’ll have a suggestion. ‘Why can’t this bag be the same? Why can’t we use the same battery? Why can’t we use rechargeable batteries?’ ”
Au said the face-to-face interaction with end users allows her to more thoroughly explain the devices’ intricacies. She is also able to provide further technical advice and training to the Soldiers who will maintain the equipment in the field.
DEVELOPING STRONG PARTNERSHIPS
An important part of ECBC’s mission is partnering with its military and civilian counterparts to share its expertise in chemical and biological threats, Au said.
In additional to maintenance support, Au’s branch provides engineering and technical support for Tank-Automotive and Armaments Command. ECBC has also provided training and fielded detectors to support the Joint Project Manager Guardian, Product Manager Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Installation Protection Program. Additional programs include program management to test detectors, both developmental and fielded items, for civilian and military use.
“It’s a new direction that we’ve had to adapt to. There’s an increased demand for help in this area,” Au said. “[The Army has] a long history of chemical and biological defense. Since 9/11, we’ve had to step up in the civilian arena for first responders.”
A PASSION FOR SCIENCE
Au participated in an engineering magnet program during high school and then earned bachelor and master of science degrees in chemical engineering from the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. She said she developed her interest in chemistry and engineering from her family.
“I was inspired by my dad. He’s an electrical engineer. There are a lot of engineers in the family. I started early in science and math. My dad was always getting me to practice math problems and chemistry,” Au said.
Au encourages young students to pursue science because of the potential benefits to society.
“We need engineers and scientists. There are so many problems in the world, and I think one of the best things about being an engineer is working on a team to solve those problems. If we can have more people working to solve those problems, we could set ourselves up as a country to be a better place,” Au said.