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Anna M. CRUMBLEY: engineer for the army

Military research focuses on solving specific problems and needs of the military forces. This often involves developing new weapons and protective gear, but it also delves into a wider range of topics as pharmaceutical treatments, preservatives for food supplies in remote locations, portable energies for equipment etc. Many military scientists work in a typical laboratory environment at a military facility. Some specializations require working in the field (e.g., on board ships or onsite) during military operations.

Dr Anna Crumbley is a Research Chemical Engineer for the U.S. Army. Discover her mission and the importance of her work in this interview!

Anna M. CRUMBLEY: engineer for the army

Hi! My name is Dr. Annie Crumbley. I live north of Baltimore in the state of Maryland, USA, and work as a Research Chemical Engineer in the Biomanufacturing Pilot Facility at the U.S. Army DEVCOM Chemical Biological Center (DEVCOM CBC).

My mission

Anna M. CRUMBLEY: engineer for the army

As a Research Engineer, my job is to lead a team of scientists and technicians to scale up the production of microbially-produced biomaterials so that the research and development teams have enough to explore new uses and develop creative applications. This is a research position because in many cases the “how” has not quite been worked out yet. So, we ultimately develop solutions to answer the operational questions in order to be able to deliver the requested final product.

In this job, I use a lot of chemistry, biology, and math. I also have to have strong hands-on lab and large-scale unit operations skills, and I absolutely must be able to communicate science effectively through writing and presentations. While I brought the hands-on lab skills from grad school, I largely learned the large-scale unit operations skills during my postdoc. Depending on the product, my day might include using applied chemistry to identify and measure the concentration of a chemical, monitoring automated chemical sampling probes to track the growth of a microorganism in the bioreactor, applying chemical separations techniques to recover my target biomaterial product, or summarizing my research efforts into presentations delivered to collaborators or senior leaders – and sometimes all of the above in a single day!

I have worked at DEVCOM CBC for not quite three years. I started at DEVCOM CBC as a National Research Council Research Associateship Program (NRC RAP) Postdoctoral Fellow, and today am a federal civilian.

My favorite thing about my job is that my team gets to have a tangible impact on science that matters.

Since the manufacturing process to make a material can have a huge impact on how it performs, I communicate with our collaborators often. I love when we hear back from one of our collaborators that the material we scaled up for them resulted in a promising scientific breakthrough.

My background

I grew up in Huntsville, Alabama, home of Space Camp. While I very much enjoyed science growing up, I did not decide I wanted to be a STEM scholar until my senior year of high school.

I studied Chemical and Biological Engineering at The University of Alabama, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, for my bachelor’s degree (Roll Tide!). While at UA, at the urging of my professor I applied to a National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates (NSF REU) program and got to spend a summer at Clemson University, South Carolina, doing water purification research with the Ladner lab. That summer completely changed my life. It was the first time that I’d ever been gripped by a complete conviction that I had to see this path through, and I came back to college that fall determined to find a lab at UA where I could do more research. I ultimately connected with one my new professors that fall, Dr. Margaret Liu, who did research in biotechnology, and worked in her lab for the rest of my time at UA. The ultimate test of whether biotech was a good fit for me was when one of her grad students assigned me to clean out the E. coli reactor, which smelled like vomit. When I still showed up ready for lab the next day, he told me I’d passed the test and should definitely consider a career in biotech. That was a good test because there are lots of different smells, not all pleasant, in my job today.

After graduating from UA, I moved to Houston, Texas, where I pursued my doctorate in Metabolic Engineering and Industrial Biomanufacturing within the Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering department of Rice University. While at Rice, I took the opportunity to develop and expand not only my technical research and laboratory operations skills, but also my science communications and relationship building skills, by attending in-house and national conferences, teaching workshops, and our weekly departmental seminars. I loved the seminars because they were a great place to watch world-class scientists present their research using all sorts of different styles and skills sets and pick up best practices.

Anna M. CRUMBLEY: engineer for the army

My job is to help research projects successfully make it “out of the lab and into the real world.” The field of biotechnology brings together people from many related backgrounds, including but not limited to materials science, chemistry, biology, chemical engineering, bioengineering, metabolic engineering, synthetic biology, bioinformatics, and computer science.

Biotech roles span industries from pharma to food to industrial fuels. In my experience, biotech as a field is looking for good ideas and solutions from all sources.

My hobbies

Outside of my formal work, this year I am volunteering on the organizing committee for a national biotechnology conference. I also am active in my personal life leading my local chapter of a college alumni group and making time for my hobbies, which include tennis and sailing on the Chesapeake Bay.

One perk of government science is that I work within strict hours set on both lab facility operations and administrative space access. This makes me very motivated to stick to a detailed schedule during the day to ensure I meet my targets for all our projects. It also means that I have dedicated time set aside for personal life activities.

Anna M. CRUMBLEY: engineer for the army

My advice

In my career, I feel very fortunate to have had a couple of stellar role model faculty both at UA and at Rice, and to also have had strong support from my formal mentors to reach for and follow through on my goals. I will also be forever grateful to the many technicians and Safety & Health Officers I have worked with at Rice and CBC who have taught me to respect the materials we work with and be an advocate for my team’s and my personal health protection every day.

Science, especially biology-based science, is not the easiest career path – sometimes experiments run late into the night or require care on the weekends, but it can be incredibly satisfying to watch a project come together.

Best of luck to you all with your career goals and life plans! Thank you for considering joining the ranks of us scientists and engineers.

Edited by Carolina C. and Mazzarine D.

Anna M. CRUMBLEY: engineer for the army

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