Advising the Nation on Biological Weapons

<p>Steven Geary, professor of Pathobiology, at his office. Photo by Peter Morenus</p>
Steven Geary, professor of pathobiology, at his office. Photo by Peter Morenus

Senior faculty are generally used to asking students probing questions and expecting thoughtful replies that demonstrate their students’ knowledge. It is not often faculty are on the receiving end of such pointed questions and expected to respond on demand.

Yet that is where Steven Geary, interim department head and professor of pathobiology in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and director of the Center of Excellence for Vaccine Research, found himself, while serving as a Jefferson Science Fellow from 2008 to 2009 at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C.

As one of seven tenured faculty from around the nation serving as scientific advisors to the diplomatic corps, Geary spent a year engaged in a wide array of assignments utilizing his expertise in microbiology, vaccine research and development, pathobiology, and biological agents. He worked in the Verification, Compliance and Implementation Bureau (VCIB) within the Department of State’s Office of Biological Weapons Affairs, which is responsible for analyzing biological weapons research and development activities in many nations around the world.

“You’ll be in a meeting with all these other agencies, and they’ll turn to you and ask a question, putting you on the spot,” says Geary, who returned to Storrs in September. “You have to be able to break down the information and convey it to them in layman’s terms on relatively short notice. But you also can’t be afraid to say, ‘I don’t know, I’ll find out and get back to you.’ Your answers are definitely going to influence a policy track. You give them the best answers you possibly can.”

Geary says that after several initial meetings answering many complicated scientific questions from VCIB staff, other offices within the diplomatic corps came to him for assistance.

“I found that they would just seek me out and ask for my opinions. That’s when I knew I was accepted and of some value to them,” says Geary, who consulted with other bureaus within the agency, including International Health and Biodefense (IHB) Security and Intelligence and Research (INR). INR is the intelligence bureau within the Department of State which, in addition to analyzing top secret communications, writes the President’s daily briefings, including those on infectious diseases and microbes.

Geary also worked with other agencies addressing President George W. Bush’s last Executive Order to strengthen the nation’s biosecurity. And he worked with scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory on the development and implementation of a Pathogen Strain Library, a national database that can be used by intelligence agencies in the event of a biological weapon release.

“It was a tremendous experience to see how the government operates and how agencies interact, and I would encourage this type of activity with other faculty at the University,” says Geary. “I think I provided a service to the State Department, and now people there think about UConn as a science resource.”

Geary now knows his expertise is valued by the diplomats at Foggy Bottom. Since completing his Jefferson Science Fellowship, his diplomatic passport and top-secret security clearances are being held in Washington, after he was asked to continue as a consultant for the Department of State.