Dr. Maureen McCarthy

Dr. Maureen McCarthy is another example of the kind of top quality women the Department of Homeland Security has hired. We were amazed and deeply gratified to meet these exceptional women and to learn how vast the opportunities are for not only them, but for all women in government jobs. FSM asked Dr. McCarthy how she finds these women to hire and just what the horizons are for all women who work in service to their country....

FSM: Tell us how you find good people to work at DHS?

Maureen: We use a personal network. Actually in this town it's pretty easy, there are lots of networks. As I said, there's an underground of what I call the "young girls network" We have an affinity for each other, and so I certainly call upon my friends and ask for good people - but my male friends as well. Everybody's in the same business. Though I also use Triple A-S, I was a Triple A-S Fellow that's how I came to Washington originally, and Triple A-S is a fabulous network.

FSM: Tell me about it.

Maureen: American Association for the Advancement of Science. They have policy fellowships where they bring people in who are mid-career. It's the premier program of getting scientists into government. I was the first defense policy fellow and worked for the Secretary of Defense as an arms control advisor. And, through that network I have lots of connections to other women. It's also a very good network for getting scientists. I mean our challenge is not only getting women into the business, but I need technical women in the business. I need technical people in the business and so the recruiting is very difficult. But, there is an attitude change about the commitment to government service. It's shifted. Among the technical community, I've seen more women are now interested in government service, post 9/11, than they were before.

FSM: Oh, that's terrific. Are any scholarships offered?

Maureen: One of the things we've established is the scholarship fellows program where we give full tuition and grants to students at the undergraduate level and the graduate students in any discipline that's related for which they feel a personal tie to Homeland Security. And the good news with that program is that it's close to 50-50 male/female, and we're getting the students in, juniors and seniors, undergraduates and up to three years in graduate students. We have them do internships at one of our facilities and we've had phenomenal success with that. We also have the International Science and Engineering Fair, so we give four fellowships to rising seniors from high school, 4 to 6 rising seniors from high school. They go through the science fair program for one-time fellowships into college. .

FSM: That's so good for our mothers to know about.

Maureen: And we do an orientation with the fellows every year in November; we have lots of different panels. And one of the panels that I insisted on last year was entitled "well behaved women rarely make history".

FSM: Oh, that's wonderful... it must have been a fun panel too.

Maureen: It was. And so we're drawing people out from the humanities, the social sciences, the physical sciences, the natural sciences. And that's made a big difference because you pull from all those places where the demography at the undergraduate level is better.

FSM: Did you ever think you'd leave the public sector to go to the private sector? Or have you always been in this?

Maureen: I've always been working for the government. I used to work for the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, a government-owned laboratory, and so I've never actually worked in the private sector per se. I grew up in a highly technical family. My father's a physicist and my mother is a chemist. My sister's a PhD. environmental chemist and has her own consulting business. I grew up in a family where the gift from my father when you finished your PhD was a 25” string of perfect pearls.

FSM: That's a prize well worth the effort.

Maureen: Yes it is. And so I grew up in a family very focused on science. My mother was studying physics at Columbia during the war. So, being a scientist was a given in my life. And I do come from a family where science and the notion of public service was a way of life for us. My mother was President of the League of Women Voters. My sister was President of her League. I was President of my League. My father was on the school board for 23 years. So public service was just a way of life.

FSM: So the driving force behind all of this was a family environment?

Maureen: The driving force for me was really a very strong commitment to being able to make a difference. To apply the knowledge, the intellectual talents that I had earned, the understandings that I had in areas where I believed I could make a difference – for the country. And all along I've felt that, and that's driven all of my career moves which have been varied - I've lived all over the world. I did my postdoctoral work in Israel. I spent three years in Israel, and then moved back to Washington State and then moved here, very much driven by a commitment of making science and technical areas have an impact on society.

FSM: Give us in laymen's terms what it is that you do here... the 30,000-foot view.

Maureen: I manage research and development programs for Homeland Security that take place at our government laboratories. And those programs are focused on providing the technical support for the intelligence and the operations missions for the department. So we do the technical work to understand threats and understand what adversaries are capable of doing. We do the technical work to support deployment detector systems around the country - to protect the country from chemical, biological, radiological attacks. We provide technical expertise to support response operations, and so I work with the government laboratories to give that support to those missions.

FSM: Okay, now give us some examples of the technical support - for any of those things you've just enumerated.

Maureen: Ok, in the technical areas, we focus on what we call building national resiliency, which means that since we're on the preparedness side, we look at building detection systems to have early warning for cities for potential environmental or biological releases. We look at protection systems around chemical plants, nuclear plants. We deploy detector systems at the borders for radiological activity, possible radiological nuclear materials. We also work on developing response plans and being able to give the technical input for if an event were to happen... how do we get in and model something…how do we understand... what clean-up technologies do we have... how fast can we get in and how rapidly could we restore the infrastructure. So, very much focused on preparedness.

FSM: Are you doing anything with schools?

Maureen: Yes, we work at designing the architecture for the national scale but we do not deploy out to individual areas. That's the decision of the local communities. Also, states have grant programs. DHS puts out a lot of grant money to the states which is used in state and local areas. We help them prioritize techniques and we help them do critical infrastructure studies so we can help them judge what the most important assets are that they have to protect, and then how to balance their resources accordingly.

We work with industry to put standards out, so that local communities can purchase equipment from industry that meets a certain set of standards that would work in the environments we think are applicable. So we do that front end of it, and then the local communities make the decisions as to where to prioritize their investments.

FSM: What would your advice be to a mother if she wanted to bring some kind of detection or preparedness tool into her children's school in her community. Where should she start?

Maureen: I think the outreach efforts the department has done have been in trying to give fundamental awareness of the issues that we're concerned about. Because bringing a detection system into the school is not the problem. You have to look at the totality of the issue. One of the big issues is resiliency, as opposed to response. So my advice that mothers need to think about is... how do we build a resiliency, how do we be prepared, not how do we respond after something happens. Because you will respond as well as you are prepared. So you need to understand, first, what the community views as the high risk areas. Second, what their emergency plans are. Third, who's involved in working with the emergency response communities and how do the communications work.

The notion is that you have to build resiliency, you have to put your head in the mindset that whatever happens, I will survive and I will recover and we will come back together. And, that means there's a whole lot of preparation and thought process that goes on in understanding how your local community responds. And the better you know how your local community works, the better off you are. Because how things happen on a national scale is not going to matter to you at the time of an event. We're going to manage very much on the national scale. Your local community is going to manage what happens on a local scale.

FSM: Are you involved in any way with the development of medicines that might combat the use of chemical or biological weapons?

Maureen: No, actually the Department of Homeland Security is not formally involved in the development of medical counter measures. That's the responsibility of the Department of Health and Human Services. However we're partnered with them. What we do with them is we work on understanding and prioritizing what we think are the highest threats for which we have the greatest vulnerabilities and what are the areas that we need to put in for both stockpiling existing medical supplies and also for research and development for future countermeasures. So we work with them very closely to help them understand the whole front-end portion and do the prioritization.

HHS has a huge responsibility both for maintaining the stockpile and acquiring the strategic national stockpile, and then also doing short and long-term research for medical counter measures. But inside of the department we're constantly tied at the hip with them, because in any potential attack with the exception of disrupting the cyber system, you're going to have public health impacts. And you could have public health impacts with cyber as well. So we work with them to understand not only the front end of what needs to be done, but also the back end of the response planning. So that may mean things like, how do the logistics work on moving medical supplies in the country if big parts of the country are out... if the electrical grid is down in California, can we move supplies? What kind of supplies do we need that require refrigeration or liquid nitrogen? What kind of thing can be stockpiled regionally that has long shelf life?

We work very closely with them to understand if we need a multiple defense, do we need vaccines and anti-virals for a particular agent because you don't want to have a single line of defense? Is your current drug treatment time dependent? Does it have to be delivered in the first 15 minutes, or can it be on the shelf for six months? So we work with them to understand here's where we think the priorities are. We're focused in understanding catastrophic national scale events - which very often in the early stages we may not know if they're intentional or unintentional - but the disruptive force is much worse than what would happen with a naturally occurring event.

FSM: What are the qualities of successful people who work in the public sector and why should women be interested in a career in government service?

Maureen: I think probably the biggest attribute that women bring to the table is the ability for multi tasking and integration of lots of sources of information. We tend to think holistically much more, and that's an oversimplification and generalization, but it is the notion that you see the inter connectivity between public health and the development of a new material to detect nuclear materials. It's that ability to multi task, multi process. It's also, I think – and this isn't women over men – but I can tell you personally I have a deep commitment to protecting this country. That matters a lot to me. I am very committed to the country, to the government, and I believe that focusing my energy there is where I can really make a difference. And there's something very rewarding and satisfying about being able to feel that I'm contributing in protecting the homeland.

FSM: Please comment on the role of women in DHS today and national defense in general.

Maureen: It's a great career for women, it really is. And it brings in a lot of disciplines that wouldn't normally work together. And there are lots of opportunities. In the defense world, there are some very specific technical disciplines that we draw upon. In the Homeland Security world, like I said, we need everybody from people who are trained in linguistics and social sciences and psychology, dynamic societal behavior, physicists, biologists, chemists and more. So for areas that normally you wouldn't necessarily have drawn women into government service - language studies, or psychology or sociology – we're pulling them in very fast. And so we're tapping into resources where the population of women is significant in that particular area. So there are wonderful opportunities.

FSM: With 9/11, did that change any of your attitudes or did you always feel that way? Did you redouble your efforts or did it just underscore that you were right all along?

Maureen: On 9/11 I was in the government. And at that time I was the chief scientist for the National Nuclear Security Administration so I was deeply seated in the national security business. Prior to that, I was responsible for the strategic nuclear stock pile work that the Department of Energy handled, so it was the development of nuclear weapons, non-proliferation programs and securing nuclear materials in the former Soviet Union. I'd also led delegations to Moscow to negotiate and secure materials over there. So I was very much steeped in national security. What changed for me on 9/11 was... it came home. The world changed for all of us on 9/11. The work that I was doing became focused very much on protecting the homeland. I was asked to come over very early on to serve on the original transition team to set up the Department.

So for me the focus was to turn from working on the strategic national security issues - which was very focused to working with our allies on the strategic nuclear deterrent, like working with the former Soviet Union on protecting the stockpile and materials - to focus on what we never really imagined we would ever be doing…which is fighting the war on our own soil. None of us, even those of us who worked on it day in and day out, ever thought it could possibly have happened here. And I'll tell you this, the one thing I remember about 9/11 - and most people say they remember the CNN coverage - I never saw CNN. I immediately went down into the emergency operations center. My boss had taken off on a flight 5 minutes before the first plane hit. So I was working with the team in the emergency operations center and I never saw the television screen. So I never saw anything, I just worked straight through the day.

I remember coming out at about 8:00 at night and it was a spectacularly gorgeous evening and there was dead silence. It was the first time I walked out onto the streets after the crashes, walked out onto Independence Avenue; and I think one of the most startling moments was I stepped out on the street - and the city was empty, everyone was gone - and I saw an armored personal vehicle driving down Independence Avenue. I thought…the world has changed. I never imagined that I would see a military vehicle on the streets of Washington, DC. And I said, that's it, this is the war we will fight until we win and there was no changing after that.

FSM: What do you think is the single greatest danger facing American families today? Like for instance, what do you think is the most likely kind of attack to happen here?

Maureen: Those are two separate questions. I'll answer the first question first. The single biggest danger to the American family is apathy. That is the one thing that will degrade our ability to actually have national resiliency. It's not believing that it won't happen again because it hasn't happened in the last few years. That's the biggest danger. Ok?

Now once I answer that question, any other scenario that I can come up with, whether they're likely or not likely, is almost irrelevant. What is important is that people understand that we're working in a dynamic right now where they have personal responsibility to protect themselves and to protect their families and to be connected to the communities in which they live, that they know how to connect to neighborhood watch groups, that's something people do. They have to understand that it is not the government's responsibility, it is their responsibility to understand what they need to do in the community. It doesn't mean that they have to think about it every day, all day long, like I do. But they have to understand how their community functions and they have an obligation as individuals and as part of the community, and hence as part of the nation, to be prepared.

FSM: You have no idea how pleased I am to hear you say this because this is actually in our own mission…inspiring women to personal responsibility in terms of educating them that the government can't do it all but that they can protect their families by learning. That's what we're all about. What are your personal goals from this point on?

Maureen: My personal goals affect the safety of our country and I have to tell you, I think I have the greatest job in government.