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NCO takes his place at forefront of Army’s Zika vaccine research

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By MARTHA C. KOESTER
NCO Journal

When Sgt. Christopher A. Springer received orders to report to the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Silver Spring, Maryland, all he knew of his impending assignment was that he would be working in a medical laboratory. Because of the rapid spread of Zika, Springer soon would be among the first military personnel in the country taking part in the U.S. Army’s efforts to control the mosquito-borne virus.

Recognizing the threat of Zika to its service members who are located in the outbreak zones of North and South America and Southeast Asia, the Army quickly moved to develop a vaccine at the U.S. Department of Defense’s largest biomedical research laboratory. Zika, which is primarily transmitted through mosquitoes, is a flavivirus similar to yellow fever, dengue and Japanese encephalitis.

Walter Reed Army Institute of Research is focused on supporting the readiness of the force whose service members are deployed around the world, said Col. Nelson Michael, director of WRAIR’s Military HIV Research Program and Zika program co-lead. (Photo by Martha C. Koester / NCO Journal)
The Walter Reed Army Institute of Research is focused on supporting the readiness of the force whose service members are deployed around the world, said Col. Nelson Michael, director of WRAIR’s Military HIV Research Program and Zika program co-lead. (Photo by Martha C. Koester / NCO Journal)

The Zika Purified Inactivated Vaccine was successfully created within a few months at WRAIR. Flaviviruses are the field of expertise at the institute, which dates back to 1893. Springer, a lab technician, played a contributing role in the team that helped in the vaccine’s development.

“I had my suspicions when I got here and saw I would be working in vaccine development that there was a good chance I would get to work on something that comes out and ends up being used on a larger scale,” Springer said. “I definitely felt like there would be some good opportunities here, but I had no idea that something like this could ever happen.”

Springer soon was immersed in lab work with other colleagues at WRAIR. He and another colleague routinely handled the bulk majority of lab work on the Zika virus, running tests, producing paperwork and sharing the results, along with other essential lab duties. Springer has a bachelor of science in criminal justice from Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, and an associate’s degree in health science laboratory technology from George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

WRAIR leads the way

Earlier this fall, human trials began at WRAIR, where 75 healthy adults were vaccinated with the Zika Purified Inactivated Vaccine. The technology used to create the vaccine mirrors the process WRAIR undertook to produce its Japanese encephalitis vaccine, which was licensed in 2009.

Sgt. Christopher A. Springer, a lab technician at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, says he enjoyed the intensity of working on the Zika project but is ready to move on to other projects at WRAIR. (Photo by Martha C. Koester / NCO Journal)
Sgt. Christopher A. Springer, a lab technician at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, says he enjoyed the intensity of working on the Zika project but is ready to move on to other projects at WRAIR. (Photo by Martha C. Koester / NCO Journal)

“A lot of what we do here affects Soldier health every single day, so folks like Sgt. Springer are able to get an insight,” said Col. Nelson Michael, director of WRAIR’s Military HIV Research Program and Zika program co-lead. “Regardless of where they are put in this institute, they are going to be working on something that is not obscure.

“We have a lot of really young Soldiers here at WRAIR, and this will be the most unusual assignment they will ever have in the Army because we are not a troop unit,” Michael said. “We’re not a hospital unit, either. We’re something else, and we are not an administrative unit. They come here, and they are exposed to science.”

Both Michael’s and Springer’s laboratories are just a small sliver of an institute comprising 2,000 personnel who also work in far-flung locations in Africa and Asia, Michael said.

“[For the Soldiers,] WRAIR is basically a combination between being at the Army University and an Army company, which is making products,” Michael said. “We don’t do basic science for its own sake. We do a lot of very good basic science, but we do it always so we can eventually propel a scientific discovery into the field, something that protects Soldiers.”

WRAIR’s in-house capabilities are credited with enabling scientists to quickly develop a vaccine. The Pilot Bioproduction Facility, led by Dr. Kenneth Eckels, manufactures small doses of the vaccine to be used in clinical studies.

Zika’s emergence

Zika was first identified in Uganda in 1947. Researchers, who in recent years tracked the Zika infection through WRAIR laboratories in Thailand, realized the infectious disease was beginning to emerge, Michael said.

Sgt. Christopher A. Springer examines cell growth at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Silver Spring, Maryland. Springer, a lab technician, was among the first military personnel in the United States who took part in the Army’s efforts to control the spread of Zika. (Photo by Martha C. Koester / NCO Journal)
Sgt. Christopher A. Springer examines cell growth at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Silver Spring, Maryland. Springer, a lab technician, was among the first military personnel in the United States who took part in the Army’s efforts to control the spread of Zika. (Photo by Martha C. Koester / NCO Journal)

“Much like Ebola was an epidemic of disease as well as an epidemic of fear, Zika is an epidemic of disease as well as an epidemic of fear,” Michael said. “Zika is new and frightening [to the public], especially if you are about to become pregnant or you are pregnant.”

As of Nov. 30, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 156 cases of Zika infection were confirmed in the military health system, including four pregnant service members and one pregnant family member. The CDC recommends that women and men who are returning from Zika-affected areas abstain or use condoms for six months, which is an increase from the previously recommended eight weeks.

“There has been at least one documented case of a Soldier who was infected with Zika overseas, came home, had sex with his wife and transmitted it,” Michael said. “Zika has some twists to it ─ [such as] the fact that it can be transmitted sexually, because usually when you think of a disease that was borne by mosquitoes you think, ‘Make sure you don’t get bitten by a mosquito.’ Now, you have got to be thinking about something else.”

Though the disease has been around a long time, scientists did not know much about it until very recently because no one studied it, Michael said. Infection during pregnancy was found to cause birth defects.

“Zika has hit the map big time because it causes neurological disease in developing fetuses,” Michael said. “One person in 4,000 actually develops a very serious complication called Transverse Myelitis or Guillain-Barré Syndrome. Basically what it means is your muscles stop working, your sensations stop working, and it comes up in your lower extremities. If it goes high enough, you stop breathing. For all these reasons ─ sexual transmission, the rare but finite chance of developing neurological disease if you are an adult, and the fact that we don’t have a vaccine for it ─ this is why we all jumped on it.”

Collaboration counts

Progress on a vaccine came quickly once Michael and his WRAIR colleagues ─ now-retired Col. Stephen Thomas, an infectious disease physician and a vaccinologist specializing in flaviviruses, and Dr. Kenneth Eckels, who runs the Pilot Bioproduction Facility ─ banded together. Thomas is the former deputy commander for operations at WRAIR and the former Zika program lead.

In March, Michael received a phone call from Dr. Dan Barouch, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. Barouch, who is also director of the Center for Virology and Vaccine Research at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, Massachusetts, was seeking to collaborate with Michael and his colleagues at WRAIR. Barouch’s center was developing mouse and monkey models to test the Zika vaccine, but did not have a vaccine. Michael’s team had made a vaccine, but did not have the mouse and monkey models to test it.

A deal was struck, and a couple of weeks later WRAIR shipped Barouch the vaccine. In quick succession, it was proved that the vaccine protected mice and monkeys when they were exposed, Michael said.

The usual timeframe from making a vaccine to human studies is about four years, Michael said. They did it all in 200 days.

“We all put it together, and everyone shared,” Michael said. “No one tried to compete with each other.”

WRAIR has deep and durable connections with the best and brightest in Health and Human Services, including the National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, CDC, and the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, Michael said. WRAIR is also working in collaboration with Sanofi Pasteur, one of the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the world.

“We have weekly calls where everybody ─ academia, government ─ is on the same call, talking about their own data at the same time,” he said.

“The secret for why we work quickly is that people put their egos away, which wasn’t easy because we are all competitive,” he said. “We decided to work toward a common problem. The Army has an interest in this. It’s a readiness issue. It’s affecting Soldiers. It’s affecting their families. We know that the best chance of making a vaccine is the way the Army did it ─ by growing up the virus and killing it.”

Another candidate ─ a DNA vaccine ─ is undergoing separate testing by the NIH in clinical trials.

“The vaccine that the NIH is making is more of a riskier vaccine,” Michael said. “It’s based on a newer technology that has never been shown to work for humans.”

In the spotlight

With the advent of WRAIR’s vaccine came the national spotlight, which has highlighted the research institute and its scientists’ work on Zika. Two of their reports on the Zika Vaccine Program were published in Science and Nature journals. An article in New Yorker magazine followed, as well as many others.

“If you’re a young sergeant [such as Springer] and you’re watching this happen, this is pretty amazing,” Michael said. “Zika is probably the most topical infectious disease of 2016. People are talking about it all the time, and here he is: sitting in this environment, watching it happen. He is the tip of the spear. That’s what we do here.”

Because of his work in the lab, Springer has participated in media interviews that most young NCOs usually don’t handle. Though he has thrived on the intensity of working on a critical project such as Zika and has enjoyed seeing his name in print, Springer is ready to move on to other projects at the institute.

“I hope everything goes well in human trials and the vaccine successfully gets distributed,” Springer said. “I hope I don’t have to do anymore work on Zika ─ that’s what I hope more than anything. I’m overworked from Zika. I am ready to be done with it. I want that virus to be extinct.”

Though the World Health Organization announced recently that Zika is no longer a world health emergency, WRAIR officials say the fight will continue to limit its spread and prevent a future outbreak.

“The military has lots of reasons why people may not want to join us [the Army],” Michael said. “Part of what we need to be able to do is make a pact with a Soldier and his family. If we are going to send him in harm’s way ─ damage doesn’t just come from bullets and bombs, it comes from other sources ─ we want to keep him healthy. We protect them from frostbite, we protect them from heatstroke, and we protect them from diseases such as malaria, HIV, Zika and everything else. This is part of what we do.”

It’s all about readiness, and WRAIR is focused on supporting the readiness of the force whose service members are deployed around the world, Michael said. Licensing the Army’s vaccine for commercial use would probably take about two years if human testing proves to be successful, he said.

“If the DNA vaccine were to work and it were licensed, then that would be the one the Army would buy and use,” Michael said. “If our vaccine works, it’s the one the Army would buy and use. Even though I have a dog in the fight, I really don’t care which dog wins. I just want to have a tool that protects Soldiers.”

Soldier volunteers provide critical service at Natick

By MARTHA C. KOESTER
NCO Journal

They arrive every 90 days at the Natick Soldier Systems Center in Natick, Massachusetts, ready to perform an invaluable mission on behalf of their military brothers and sisters. If a Soldier wears it, eats it or sleeps under it, a human research volunteer has tested it for the Army warfighter.

HRVs arrive at Natick usually following advanced individual training and prior to their first permanent duty station. Many Soldiers often arrive unfamiliar with the small military research complex and installation.

A human research volunteer is the first line of research and the backbone for testing everything that is worn, carried or consumed by Soldiers, Natick says. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center / U.S. Army)
A human research volunteer is the first line of research and the backbone for testing everything that is worn, carried or consumed by Soldiers, Natick says. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center / U.S. Army)

“I had no clue about Natick,” said 1st Sgt. Miguel A. Martinez Jr., first sergeant of the Headquarters Research and Development Detachment at the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, who works with many of the HRVs. “Before I came here, I asked myself, ‘What am I getting myself into? I have no idea what this is.’ I have been here a year, and I love it. It’s great.”

Behind every HRV is a small force of noncommissioned officers who are charged with sustaining Natick’s mission of maximizing the warfighter’s survivability and combat effectiveness.

“We know what the equipment can be used for, instead of what it was designed to do,” Martinez said. “Soldiers walk in and say, ‘That’s awesome. I can do this, this and this.’ The scientists then say, ‘Wow. We never thought of it that way.”

It happens often: Soldiers repurpose a piece of military equipment in a way that scientists never thought possible. One example was the Army poncho, said Sarah Ross, human research volunteer test coordinator and a veteran NCO.

“Scientists had no idea that Soldiers were using it as a shelter or a cover,” Ross said. “Two years ago, [a review] was done in the Doriot Climatic Chambers because Soldiers were getting heat injuries from being underneath the poncho. They found Soldiers were using the poncho as a shelter, and the temperature underneath the ponchos was reaching 150 degrees. Soldiers thought they were in the shade, but in reality they were hurting themselves by doing it. Scientists and engineers didn’t create that item for them to use it in that regard, so they changed it. But they

Soldiers who volunteer to be human research volunteers at the Natick Soldier Systems Center at Natick, Massachusetts, provide an invaluable service and help further studies at the small military installation. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center / U.S. Army)
Soldiers who volunteer to be human research volunteers at the Natick Soldier Systems Center at Natick, Massachusetts, provide an invaluable service and help further studies at the small military installation. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center / U.S. Army)

wouldn’t have known that if they didn’t have a good relationship with Soldiers to be able to get that feedback.”

Martinez and Ross work together with HRVs to ensure that being a Soldier doesn’t come second at Natick, Ross said.

“Bottom line is we are all just making sure that we do the best we can for the Soldier,” she said.

A lot can happen in the 90 days that Soldiers serve as HRVs.

“It’s enough time where Soldiers who are not diligent in staying within qualification of their MOS, their job, that they can become complacent quite easily,” Ross said. “So that’s where HRDD comes in ─ to make sure that Soldiers keep that good order because that’s important.”

Soldiers who volunteer for studies at Natick may find themselves with such tasks as trying new uniforms or garments or enduring environmental conditions that Soldiers in the field commonly face.

“A Soldier can be here for 90 days and participate anywhere from doing one study to 10, 12 or 15,” Ross said. “I keep records, and I give them all a little memo of things they have done. I did one where a Soldier did 17. That’s the most I have seen a Soldier do in 90 days.”

As part of the team at the Doriot Climatic Chambers, Ross has seen a lot of HRVs come through Natick.

Cognitive science research team members at the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center guide a human research volunteer through a virtual reality experiment in Natick, Massa chusetts. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center / U.S. Army)
Cognitive science research team members at the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center guide a human research volunteer through a virtual reality experiment in Natick, Massa chusetts. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center / U.S. Army)

“Our program is evolving because the Soldiers that we work for are evolving,” Ross said. “The Soldiers we are getting in this program are changing because the demographic of the Soldier is changing. We are seeing more females in these groups than I have ever seen. This upcoming group has 11 females. I have never had 11 females in a group of 30 before. That’s never happened in my eight years here.”

The installation often welcomes West Point cadets as well as squads from larger bases to help with testing.

“We have cadets from West Point who intern here,” Martinez said. “We also have a squad from the 82nd Airborne Division that helps as well. There are guys from Fort Stewart, Georgia, here, and we have HRVs as well. It’s a very busy installation for a small unit.”

HRVs have been prized for their feedback since 1954 at Natick labs, where they take part in studies for NSRDEC and the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine. Ross often hears back from some Soldiers who have volunteered at Natick.

“One of the best things to me is when I open up Facebook, and I get a message from [a former HRV],” she said. “They tell me, ‘Hey Sarah, I am an E4 now. My unit was chosen to use this new rucksack. I opened it up and realized that three years ago when I was at Natick as an HRV I helped with this research.’ I probably receive about 10 of those emails. That to me is so cool.”

NCO forges valuable partnerships with veterans at Natick

By MARTHA C. KOESTER
NCO Journal

When he first arrived at Natick Soldier Systems Center for duty as 1st sergeant of the Headquarters Research and Development Detachment at the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, 1st Sgt. Miguel A. Martinez Jr. had heard the assignment in Massachusetts wouldn’t be a typical one.

“My response was the first sergeant position is the same regardless of where you are and what you’re doing because your first and foremost priority is the health and welfare of the Soldier and then to try to advance the organization,” Martinez said.

He made sure all Soldiers were taken care of and that they were meeting all standard Army requirements. Then, Martinez set out to meet every director or team leader at the small military installation.

Soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division’s 1st Brigade test female body armor. In a collaborative effort, the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center worked with Program Executive Office Soldier on an improved outer tactical vest designed specifically for women. The innovation was named one of Time Magazine’s “Best Inventions” in 2012. (Photo courtesy of Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center / U.S. Army)
Soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division’s 1st Brigade test female body armor. In a collaborative effort, the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center worked with Program Executive Office Soldier on an improved outer tactical vest designed specifically for women. The innovation was named one of Time Magazine’s “Best Inventions” in 2012. (Photo courtesy of Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center / U.S. Army)

“I told each one, ‘My intent is to have an NCO from this organization help every single team here at some point,’” Martinez said. “Before, [what I was suggesting] was pretty much nonexistent. We didn’t have any of our NCOs help any of our directorates. I wanted to change that because I was previously at the U.S. Army Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center [at Picatinny Arsenal, New Jersey], and I saw how those Soldiers interacted. That’s what I wanted to bring here.

“A lot of people think the NCO’s main job here is to manage the human research volunteer program,” he said. “That’s only partly true. We are here to make sure HRVs are being trained properly and also to help all of the studies. I asked the HRDD commander, Capt. Enrique Curiel, about my recommendations and told him what I wanted to do. Together, we started making little changes.”

‘Different animal’

Located in Massachusetts, the birthplace of the U.S. Army, the Soldier Systems Center employs about 160 active-duty Soldiers and 1,800 civilians. Roughly a platoon of the Soldiers at Natick serve as human research volunteers for scientific studies at NSRDEC, while NCOs fill roles that run the gamut from parachute riggers in the parachute shop or noncommissioned officers in charge at the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine.

“I started teaming up my NCOs to work with other teams [at Natick],” Martinez said. “I told my guys we need to start getting embedded [in projects]. The more the scientists see us, the more they are going to remember the NCOs and the more relevant we are. We want to be seen. We want to be in the front of their minds, so when they have a new project or are starting a new job, I want them to think about talking to NCOs.”

Martinez views working with the scientists, engineers and other civilian employees at Natick as a mutual partnership.

A scientist from the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center tests uniforms for burn injury protection at the Doriot Climatic Chambers in Natick, Mass. (Photo courtesy of Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center / U.S. Army)
A scientist from the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center tests uniforms for burn injury protection at the Doriot Climatic Chambers in Natick, Mass. (Photo courtesy of Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center / U.S. Army)

“One of the biggest things I noticed that was shocking to me is that when I met with some people, they told me they were under the impression that the NCO chain of command here switched out every 90 days like the HRVs,” he said. “That only solidified my desire to meet everybody here because I need to change that way of thinking. I told them we are here for three years. We don’t switch out every 90 days; those are the HRVs. The NCOs and officers are here for three years, and we want to be able to work with you guys.

“I can open those doors for them [in the military], and they will not have to be slowed down by trying to get the right people in the right place to talk to them,” he said.

Work often brings Sarah Ross, human research volunteer test coordinator, and Martinez together at Natick’s Doriot Climatic Chambers. As a veteran noncommissioned officer, Ross has a history there. Her last duty assignment was as NCO in charge of the facility, and she was also a medic assigned to USARIEM when she a Soldier.

The chambers are a unique facility that can mimic environmental conditions from any location around the globe. Temperature, humidity, wind, rain and solar radiation can be simulated for testing on HRVs or military equipment.

Ross’s military experience often comes in handy when trying to bridge communication between scientists, engineers and Soldiers.

1st Sgt. Miguel A. Martinez Jr., 1st sergeant of the Headquarters Research and Development Detachment at the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, works with Sarah Ross, human research volunteer test coordinator, at the Doriot Climatic Chambers in Natick, Massachusetts. (Photo by Martha C. Koester / NCO Journal)
1st Sgt. Miguel A. Martinez Jr., 1st sergeant of the Headquarters Research and Development Detachment at the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, works with Sarah Ross, human research volunteer test coordinator, at the Doriot Climatic Chambers in Natick, Massachusetts. (Photo by Martha C. Koester / NCO Journal)

“1st Sgt. Martinez is the Soldier component that HRVs have 24 hours a day, because although they are human subjects they are Soldiers 24 hours a day,” Ross said. “It’s important that we work really well together. [Natick] is a different animal, and as a veteran, I understand that. I know from my own experiences, it is a completely different ballgame.

“1st Sgt. Martinez and I work together really well to make sure that the Soldiers get opportunities to participate in things, and that they are always ready as Soldiers because that’s the number one priority ─ making sure that HRVs are always safe when they are volunteering in these studies,” she said.

Teamwork

One of the projects Martinez and Ross worked on together was to revise the physical restrictions document, concerning the participation of HRVs in studies.

“Some of the things I wanted to change were due to risk aversion,” Martinez said. “Principal investigators don’t want to get in trouble or do anything wrong. They don’t want to hurt the HRVs, or tarnish the name of the detachment, program or installation.”

Principal investigators were limiting the activity of some HRVs to an extreme, sometimes resulting in Soldiers who were going back to the Army after their 90-day HRV stint at Natick unable to fulfill the physical requirements of being Soldiers.

“We want to make sure these Soldiers are healthy,” Ross said. “We want to make sure they have appropriate recovery time, and sometimes these principal investigators err on the side of caution. … The principle investigator is thinking, ‘I want to make sure my subject is protected, and that they are not doing something outside the realm of the study.’ And HRDD is thinking, ‘I want to make sure my Soldiers are ready to be able to do the PT necessary and additionally anything physical they have to do as Soldiers.’”

Because Soldiers’ careers were being affected, Martinez saw he needed to get involved.

“The PIs actually started explaining, ‘This is what I will be doing, this is what I want,’ and Capt. Curiel, and I will make sense of it,” Martinez said. “We will agree, or we will debate. Eventually, we come to a good middle ground, and everybody is happy.

“We told the civilians, ‘We can help you; we can do all these things to help your project and not be in conflict with your study,’” he said.

For Martinez, it helps to have someone such as Ross, with her military experience, serving in her position.

“If there are any questions I might have that are study-related, she is my go-to person,” Martinez said.

Ross couldn’t be happier that she ended up in a job she loves. Despite separating from the Army, she still works with Soldiers every day.

“Although I have been here eight years, I am still learning,” Ross said. “I have to make sure I am aware and updated, and that I am familiar with [federal regulations on human subjects and how Soldiers should be treated] so I can be the best facilitator with the program. At the same time, I love these Soldiers. I have the best job in the Army. I still get to serve without wearing the uniform … and I get to meet 30 new selfless Soldiers every 90 days. I meet 120 new Soldiers every year, which is so cool.”

Ross is part of a growing population of veterans who found work at Natick after leaving the military.

“The veteran population is pretty strong,” Ross said. “It’s close to 300 veterans who work at this installation. I think in this environment [being a veteran] is instrumental to [Natick’s] success.”

Despite its size, the work done at Natick extends far beyond its small confines. Valuable Soldiers’ feedback goes a long way toward building projects and contributing to the readiness of the big Army.

“Here, it doesn’t matter what your rank is,” Ross said. “It doesn’t matter how long you have been in the Army. What matters is that you give us your opinion and that we are going to take that under consideration. That is one thing that I love. I don’t know where else that happens.”

The experience has proven invaluable to NCOs such as Martinez, who says there are still many tasks he wants to work on to better the detachment.

“When I leave here and I continue my service, I will always keep Natick on the phone,” Martinez said. “Now that I have worked here, I want to continue to work and would like to tell Natick they have an open door with me.

As a veteran, Ross is particularly grateful for the opportunity to work with Soldiers. It’s not unusual for Natick to have about 20 studies running at the same time.

“This place is incredible,” Ross said. “The things that we do for the Soldier in this small installation blow my mind. At the same time I am talking to you, there is a Soldier down at the biomechanics lab doing a VO2 max ride test, at the same time they are blistering Soldiers in this front room, at the same time another scientist is doing a thermal test and burning a uniform, at the same time there’s a change of command over here, at the same time there is a glove dexterity test happening and at the same there are Soldiers at Fort Devens, Massachusetts, testing a uniform in an obstacle course.”

The Soldiers, scientists, engineers and civilians form a powerful team at Natick, with a common goal, she said.

“We have all of these facilities, and we are all just working toward giving the best equipment and making sure Soldiers can function to the best of their abilities,” Ross said. “You could argue that Soldiers/warfighters are the best athletes in the world, and we have to make sure a team of 100 people goes out with every Soldier [on the field]. They might not be present with Soldiers, but they are there.

“They are there in the uniform that Soldiers are wearing,” she said. “They are there in the boots Soldiers are wearing. They are there in that Kevlar. They are there in that weapon. They are there with Soldiers without actually being physically present, and that’s incredible to me.”