Renee has served as the Springfield Lab Director since 2007. She began her 20 years with the Agency — first with U.S. Customs and then with CBP — as a Student Trainee Chemist, followed by positions as an Analytic Chemist, Chemist/Science Officer, and Supervisory Chemist.
How did you decide to become a scientist?
My mother was a registered nurse, and she would come home and tell stories. She was on the post-surgical transplant ward, and she had been a midwife. That was always interesting. My paternal grandfather was a pharmacist on the island of Antigua. He also would help the local police with investigations. He was the first forensic scientist on the island, although that wasn’t his training. Hearing those stories over time, I just went in that direction.
Can you tell us about your experience as a Student Trainee Chemist?
Back in New York, I did a career-mentor fellowship with the National Coalition of 100 Black Women. One of the women on the board worked in the college employment office. She received the announcement for the student position at U.S. Customs and reached out to the science majors. I wasn’t even aware that Customs had a lab. It was fascinating because we did microscopy, textile analysis, chemical analysis; special chemicals, such as imported manufacturing solvents; plastics, wet analysis, and of course narcotics testing. We analyzed everything that came across the border.
Over the years, the work became even more interesting because I was able to see how the science influenced the legal aspects. There is never a typical day; we see some very weird things that are smuggled in, such as jewelry stuffed with controlled substances, pouches of unknown white substances in electronic devices, radioactive watches from World War II, and substances labeled as soap that mysteriously do not dissolve in water.
How does the Springfield Lab fit into CBP’s over-all mission?
Laboratories and Scientific Services Directorate (LSSD) works as the scientific assistance to the Agency, providing technical evaluations, forensics analysis, crime-scene evidence collection, and any other scientific analysis needed. We support trade enforcement, such as textiles component analysis, foods (such as sugar and wine), and pharmaceutical content identification; and all of which affect our Nation’s economy. We also analyze gold and other metal components, such as the bolts that hold bridges or airplanes together. If our labs can’t do it, we will find a way to respond to the scientific needs of our agents and officers in the field.
How would you describe the lab’s work?
The lab is responsible for special projects, methods development, and canine training aids. The lab system is accredited by two bodies, which mandate the maintenance of methods in ways that ensure sound research. We look into new technology for ports of entry (POEs) and new methods that currently don’t exist. For example, we have been working to determine the country of origin for diamonds and other gemstones. We work with colleges and universities to develop reference databases and special procedures and methods at POEs. Because we are located in the Washington, DC, area, we collaborate with the State Department on illicit trade and forensic issues. We also work with the Smithsonian, Food and Drug Administration, the Drug Enforcement Agency, Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the Gemological Institute of America.
How did you prepare to serve as director of CBP’s lab in Springfield, Virginia?
The diversity of the lab system’s work has prepared me for advancing technology for the work that we do. The diverse work has allowed us to demonstrate and expand our capabilities, whether it is [the analysis of] clothing or intellectual property issues, such as accurate labeling of food and textile products, examination of integrated circuits and digital evidence, or expanding formulas for canine training aids. We want to make sure that whatever lab equipment we purchase can be used for multiple purposes. My experience has also prepared me through the people who are scientists, who come with the range of disciplines and backgrounds.
What do you find most rewarding about your position?
Learning that we’ve had a positive impact on something that happened at the border is very rewarding. The Springfield Lab has contributed to two Supreme Court cases, including Florida v. Harris, which involved the development of training protocols for canines to detect controlled substances at the borders. I got to sit in the Supreme Court and listen to the claim that dogs are not capable of doing what we had documented training records demonstrating they could. The Court ruled in the government’s favor.
Several times each year, we produce special controlled substance training packages for the CBP Canine Program that are used in training and proficiency exercises. Among the developments have been scent profiles for smuggled currency.
Once when assisting in the evaluation of field-deployed technology that detects radiation, we identified radioactive material linked to a Southeast Asian gambling ring, which led to domestic and international arrests.
How can someone best prepare for a role in LSS?
He or she can make sure that their scientific background is solid, their interests are varied, and that they are willing to do any sort of analysis. Sometimes we get so specialized that we miss opportunities. Flexibility is necessary because of the varied disciplines in LSS. They must also be willing to always continue to learn.
How do you encourage young women to consider a career in the sciences?
My secret passion is to get more girls in love with science. When speaking to them, I hold up an endless list of women who have come before them. I discuss some from the past, such as Madame Curie, and then some current women. One is Admiral Michelle Howard, who recently became the Nation’s first female four-star admiral. She is a phenomenal woman; a math major. There are many more including Deborah Leben, Director of the U.S. Secret Service Laboratory; and Dr. Miquel Antoine, who conducts amazing research at Johns Hopkins’ Research and Exploratory Development Department.
Why would you encourage a woman in the sciences to consider working at CBP?
CBP is endlessly interesting. I was just going to stay here a couple of years, and in October it will be 20. The CBP labs provide so many opportunities to expand your scientific mind and to feel your impact on something beyond the lab bench. We also go into the field and help the canine handlers with some of their tests. We get to collaborate with universities and other institutions to see what is cutting edge, to expand our science, to improve it, to help with enforcement. Working for CBP is infinitely exciting because we deal with everything that comes across the border.