CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - When Irene MacAllister learned the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army (DASA) for Defense Exports and Cooperation (DE&C) was searching for potential candidates with expertise in immunology, microbiology, proteomics, gene editing and bioinformatics who were interested in a 12-month assignment to the Czech Republic, she jumped at the chance.
A research chemist with the Construction Engineering Research Laboratory (CERL) at the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC), MacAllister joined the U.S. Army Engineer and Scientist Exchange Program (ESEP) for a yearlong assignment at the Faculty of Military Health Sciences at the Czech Republic's University of Defence in Hradec Králové.
The ESEP is a government-to-government effort aimed at increasing international cooperation between the U.S. and its allies in military research, development and acquisition. It is the only Department of Defense program that affords civilian scientists and engineers the opportunity to embed within a foreign partner's laboratories and test centers and work side by side with experts around the world.
“I’ve known about the ESEP for many years as several engineers and scientists from CERL have taken advantage of the program,” said MacAllister. “CERL has also had a long history of hosting ESEP participants — mainly from Germany — and as I speak German fluently, I often interacted with these scientist and engineers.”
When the ERDC was tasked by DASA DE&C to identify potential candidates, the request included three different position descriptions. “One of these descriptions seemed tailor fit to my skill set,” said MacAllister. “I was very excited about the prospect of reinvigorating old skills, learning new procedures and techniques and getting back to full-time laboratory work.”
As the first Army ESEP participant in the Czech Republic, MacAllister is working with the Faculty of Military Health Sciences, Department of Molecular Pathology and Biology, focusing on biological agents with the potential of misuse by military and terrorists. The predominant microbial model under investigation is the gram negative bacterium Francisella tularensis.
“Specifically, I am supporting the university's research aimed at understanding host-pathogen interactions at the molecular level,” said MacAllister. “My project is focused on expressing, purifying and characterizing a subunit protein called PilA, which is the main building block within the type IV pilus structure found on the surface of the pathogen, and it is thought to be involved in host-cell adhesion. The PilA protein is required for virulence, and the type IV pilus is antigenic. Ultimately, the hope is that a protein such as PilA could aid in the development of a vaccine as there is currently no Food and Drug Administration-approved vaccine against F. tularensis.”
The underlying goal of the research is the prevention of tularemia, also called rabbit fever, in the warfighter and the civilian population in the event of the intentional misuse of a F. tularensis derived bio-agent, said MacAllister. The secondary goal is the underlying biology and pathogenicity.
Although the current COVID-19 pandemic has created some challenges along the way, such as limited access to the laboratory and delaying some work, MacAllister says it’s the nature of doing basic research.
“When conducting basic research in the biological sciences, you get accustomed to unexpected challenges,” she said. “The key is to be willing to look at the research from a new perspective, adapt to change, be willing to ask for advice from your colleagues and explore new approaches.”
MacAllister’s aspirations for her ESEP experience are multifaceted and include learning new skills, as well as reinvigorating old ones, while building both professional and personal relationships that will endure long after the assignment is complete.
“As the current pandemic has demonstrated, infectious diseases are a threat to the security of our Nation and the world,” she said. “While I am currently working with the attenuated Francisella strain, I hope to have the opportunity to also work with the wild virulent strain and become an ERDC and Army subject matter expert on this topic.”
“This ESEP assignment has provided me with opportunities to learn about Czech research programs and have resulted in new and strengthened relationships with Czech researchers,” she added. “This could lead to future multi-laboratory cooperative projects or funding, and — although I am not entirely certain were my career will take me after my ESEP is complete — I hope to use the expertise I have gained in the realm of microbiology, proteomics and bioinformatics.
“There are several ways this is a very, very good thing,” said Dr. David Pittman, director of the ERDC. “It not only enriches us technically — understanding what other countries are doing — it really helps the National Security Strategy.”
Currently, the U.S. has 16 signed agreements with strategically important allies and partners around the world. "You are representing the United States of America,” said MacAllister. “It’s more than just about the exchange of technical knowledge. You are helping to build bridges and relationships that strengthen alliances and partnerships between the U.S. and its allies.”
“There is a vast pool of international expertise to leverage for all of the ERDC’s mission areas,” she said. “It’s a phenomenal opportunity to work side by side with experts around the world.”
“The program is a wonderful opportunity to expand one’s perspective of the world and build new friendships,” she continued. “My colleagues here have been tremendously helpful, and their assistance and generosity have been instrumental in my personal well-being. I cannot overstate the positive impact of their support, and how grateful I am for their kindness and friendship.”