Q&A: Frederick J. Cox, Ph.D.

Q&A: Frederick J. Cox, Ph.D.

Q&A: Frederick J. Cox, Ph.D.

Shawn Nesaw

Frederick J. Cox, Ph.D., served as the Acting Director of the Research and Technology (R&T) Directorate at the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command Edgewood Chemical Biological Center (RDECOM ECBC). He exercised responsibility over the robust science and technology program at the Center, which includes 400 government and contractor personnel, and 200 buildings worth $1.8 billion located at the Edgewood Area of Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland and at Dugway Proving Ground, Utah. The R&T Directorate applies a broad spectrum of scientific expertise to detect, decontaminate and protect warfighters against chemical and biological warfare agents. Prior to returning to his normal duties as deputy director of R&T we asked Cox to share his thoughts on his experience as acting director.

Solutions Newsletter: What sparked your interest in science as a young man?
Dr. Cox: A fascination with fireworks and explosives, and a general desire to know how things worked. A great high school chemistry teacher sealed the deal.

Solutions: When was the moment you knew you wanted to dedicate your time and talents to chemical biological defense?
Cox: In college, I had a great opportunity to work as a contractor part time at Naval Air Station Patuxent River doing materials analysis, and that sparked an interest in defense work. Post 9/11, I really wanted to apply my knowledge and skills in chemistry to national defense, and chemical biological defense is the place to do that. The critical moment was when I turned down a more lucrative job in chemical industry to work with a chemical biological defense contractor.

Solutions: After being a contractor for several years, when did you know RDECOM ECBC was the place for you?
Cox: My experience as a contractor was a little different than many, as I worked independently from Edgewood and worked on many Department of Homeland Security and Center for Disease Control and Prevention chemical defense projects. ECBC was always in the background, but a bit behind a curtain. I had a strong desire to be involved in the decision making, not just receiving the decisions, and so working directly for the government was the path to that.

Solutions: What would you say your science niche, expertise is?
Cox: My expertise was originally in mass spectrometry and analysis. Over time, of course, that has broadened into more applied problem solving in chemical analysis.

Solutions: As acting director for R&T, what was the greatest success accomplished during your time?
Cox: I’ll leave that for others to judge, but it was very rewarding to have huddles with each of the divisions and address, in near real time, a number of issues the workforce raised during those huddle.

Solutions: What was the greatest challenge?
Cox: Balancing the competing demands between day-to-day operations and strategic engagement.

Solutions: What advice would you pass along to the next R&T director?
Cox: Visit the people and facilities on their turf as soon as you can.

Solutions: How about the workforce? What advice would you give them?
Cox: Stay engaged and take advantage of opportunities. Don’t accept the status quo.

Solutions: What makes RDECOM ECBC special to you?
Cox: The people and their work. Many toil daily doing hazardous operations with little notoriety, and are truly world-class experts in their part of chemical biological defense. When they are called upon with no notice during a major crisis or event, they readily respond. Seeing people disrupt their lives to provide expert support with little tangible reward is inspiring.

Solutions: What concept or project are you most excited to see further develop?
Cox: It is hard to pick one project or area. In general, I am most excited at the concept of integrating chemical biological defense capability into more generic equipment that provides solutions for not only CB threats, but also environmental and physical support.

Solutions: Being in an administrative role means less science and more overseeing of science. How do you keep up with the ever-changing information to maintain a solid knowledge base?
Cox: I read multiple newspapers (printed and online) on a daily basis, and then do a deep dive on topics as needed, either online or an occasional journal article or book from the library. Most days I also get a handful of articles, links, or topics sent to me through formal and informal networks.

Solutions: What’s your least favorite saying(s)?
Cox: “That’s just not possible” or “It’s not my job.”

Solutions: Finish this sentence, “A wise man once told me…”
Cox: Leading by consensus is more difficult but better in the long run.

Solutions: What are you most known for?
Cox: Good question. Probably stability.

Solutions: What books are you reading?
Cox: I had a stack for summer reading but have only gotten through most of a couple. Hellfire Boys by Theo Emery is about the start of the chemical warfare service. Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War by Mary Roach explores the strange work DoD laboratories do.

Solutions: What volunteering are you doing these days?
Cox: Every summer I do a lot of work at my children’s school, as I am on the building and maintenance committee. I just completed installing a shade structure for a playground, spread (with a few helpers) three truckloads of playground mulch, and helped manage a ceiling and lighting improvement project utilizing a state grant.