Visiting Professor Boehm Speaks On Threat of Biological Weapons

A prominent developer of tools and tactics used in defending against biological weapons, Dr. Michael Boehm presented an enlightening lecture in Kemper Auditorium on Tuesday to talk about his role in the war against terrorism. Addressing a crowd of faculty and students, Dr. Boehm highlighted the important projects and missions he completed as a Lieutenant Commander in the United States Navy. During his time in the armed forces, Dr. Boehm was instrumental in creating a number of essential safeguards to prepare soldiers for dangerous chemical attacks. Before assuming his current post in the Navy, Dr. Boehm was a Professor of Plant Pathology at the Ohio State University and served nearly 20 years in the armed forces as a reserve soldier. He is also the brother of Instructor in History and Social Sciences Pamela Boehm. After the first anthrax-laced letters surfaced in New York and Washington in October of 2001, Dr. Boehm was recalled to active duty to research the deadly virus and to assist the Navy in its initial precautions to safeguard against threats of infection aboard its vessels. Since the autumn of that year, however, the apparent anthrax threat within the nation has subsided. Explaining the importance of his organization towards researching the anthrax incidents at the Supreme Court and the Hart Senate Office Building, Dr. Boehm said, “Everything you saw in The New York Times or on CNN—we were behind the scenes.” Dr. Boehm also discussed various tests and mechanisms he used to determine the presence of anthrax spores in both laboratory and field experiments. In addition to describing a “Hand Held Assay” test similar to a common strep-throat culture, Dr. Boehm emphasized the use of Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) technology in determining the threat of infection. A method of DNA amplification, PCR was first used during Operation Desert Storm to assess hazards within Iraq. However, the bulk of Dr. Boehm’s presentation was devoted to a description of the major project he supervised over the course of the 14 months he spent with the Navy. Using an elaborate slide-show, he displayed images that conveyed the demands and challenges of his job. Assigned to assess the feasibility of deploying anti-biological-warfare mechanisms aboard the Navy’s ships, Dr. Boehm visited five different aircraft carriers over the course of his study. Starting aboard the U.S.S. Kitty Hawk, Dr. Boehm helped to implement a series of protective measures designed to aid the ship’s sailors in the event of an emergency. These precautions included the installation of PCR machines aboard the vessel, the preparation of special Dry-Filter Units capable of collecting minuscule anthrax particles, and the delivery of a variety of treatments and antibiotics to remedy the virus’ deadly symptoms. Despite the rigors associated with preparing all the elaborate systems and treatments, Dr. Boehm remarked that the most difficult aspect of his mission was the coordination of staff training through the Navy’s notoriously complex chain of command. According to Dr. Boehm, every member of the vessel’s crew had to be briefed on the appropriate use of the new systems, and special training sessions were required for emergency personnel, technical workers, and laboratory assistants. After successful stints aboard the Kitty Hawk, the U.S.S. Washington, and a number of other aircraft carriers, Dr. Boehm was called to present his innovative program to the NATO Senior Defense Group on Proliferation at a special conference in Prague. Using his major presentation as an example of how “one person can make a difference,” Dr. Boehm also offered a series of life lessons to the audience, encouraging them to precipitate change in their own lives, and to respect the men and women of the armed forces who work “24 [hours]/7 [days a week] to protect our freedom.” Following the address, Dr. Boehm opened up the floor to inquiries from the audience, most of whom were enrolled in advanced electives offered by the Biology Department. Questions ranged from the historical origin of chemical weapons, to the number of spores at which anthrax becomes fatal to a human being. Dr. Boehm also visited advanced Biology classes on Wednesday, using his extensive knowledge of scientific practices and procedures to enrich student’s understandings of complex material relating to DNA and viruses.