By Alena M. James
Just a few years ago, Deborah Harden made the decision to continue her education. After earning her undergraduate degree in engineering and serving in the U.S. Air Force as an Aerospace engineer, Harden began working at Battelle, a nonprofit that plays a major role in managing the world’s leading national laboratories. The company offers expertise and resources helping government agencies and multi-national corporations in several projects. In her employment at Battelle, Harden very quickly recognized that an understanding of biodefense would help her acquire financial resources to fund projects for the company. In order to gain this knowledge, she enrolled in GMU’s Biodefense Program. “When I began working at Battelle, I needed to understand biodefense so I could better articulate what our scientists were researching so I could find funding for them,” Harden said.
This year Harden completed her Master’s Project on a very interesting topic examining what happens to bioengagagment programs once donor funds stop being made available. “I studied sustainability of U.S. bioengagement programs. After the fall of the Soviet Union, several agencies in the U.S. worked with the newly independent states to secure pathogen collections, institute disease surveillance systems, and work with former weapons scientists to learn to conduct peaceful research programs. Money from donor countries like the U.S. won’t continue forever, so what happens to these biologists and programs after the donors leave? I found some great literature about sustainment and found that we’re mostly on the right track, but more can be done,” explained Harden. Dr. Gregory Koblentz served as Harden’s advisor and provided her with numerous resources and feedback to help her with the project.
Harden’s project coincided nicely with her current profession. As a program manager for Battelle, she developed and worked on bioengagment programs in Iraq and Afghanistan. “My job is to determine the state of biological research, safety, and security in these countries, and find ways to improve them so they meet WHO and international standards. I also lead some tasks in the Republic of Georgia trying to make their BSL-3 public health laboratory sustainable,” she explained.
Not only has Deborah completed her project and continues to evaluate programs overseas, but she was also selected as this year’s Departmental Award Recipient of the Master’s Program for her work and scholarly achievements.
Harden’s experience in the Biodefense program has been pretty great for her. She explains that she learned just as much from her smart fellow-students as she did from the courses she was taking. “It was an eye-opener for me because I expected to go to GMU to learn and found that contributing was just as important. That wasn’t my experience as an undergrad.” The retired Aerospace Engineer enjoyed taking several classes in the program that helped her to gain a better understanding of her own field in bioengagment. She also really enjoyed her classes on policy and treaties, arms control, disease surveillance, and the Examining Terrorist Groups course.
With her Master’s Project now behind her, Harden is already contemplating how to spend her time. “I’m thinking of re-learning French or maybe beginning Russian. Or I might reapply for a PhD in Biodefense. There is a lot more I could do with the research I began.”
“People always ask me if it’s frightening studying something like bioterrorism. I tell them that the most comforting thing I learned was how hard it is to actually make a bioweapon that is capable of killing a large number of people. And that Mother Nature is probably the scariest bioterrorist.”
Harden also had a few words of advice for the future graduates and prospective students of GMU’s Biodefense Program.
“Keep an open mind about things you read. Academia and the ‘real world’ are often two different animals. Also, please read at least half of what you are supposed to read before a class!”
(Banner Image Credit: George Mason University)