Three Puerto Rican scientists spend summer researching new ways to detect explosive traces

Dr. Liz Diaz Vázquez, Vivianette Giusti Vález, & Anais Vázquez Rivera

A ten-week research program during the summer of 2011 may lead to the development of new tools for fighting terrorism. Dr. Liz Diaz Vázquez, Vivianette Giusti Vález and Anais Vázquez Rivera traveled thousands of miles from their homes in Puerto Rico to Kingston, RI, to help tackle this challenge.

Through the Department of Homeland Security Summer Research Team Program for Minority Serving Institutions, these scientists spent their time helping advance research in the field of explosive trace by analyzing improved methods for detecting explosive traces on materials. The program, which is administered for DHS by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education, is designed to increase and enhance the scientific leadership at Minority Serving Institutions in research areas that support the mission and goals of DHS.

Part of the team's assignment focused on the micro-encapsulation of explosives. Specifically, the researchers looked at ways to isolate the core from its surroundings, slow the evaporation of the core, improve the handling properties of the compounds, and control the rate at which the compound leaves the microcapsule.

The second project surrounded the use of molecular imprinting polymers. Dr. Diaz Vázquez holds a doctorate in analytical chemistry and is an assistant professor at the University of Puerto Rico at Rio Piedras campus. She said the major goal is to develop a fast, reliable and inexpensive analytical technique for trace detection of explosive components. The research could ultimately lead to improved abilities of security personnel to find explosive traces in the field.

Dr. Diaz Vázquez encouraged her students to join her for the summer research program in Rhode Island. Anais Vázquez Rivera, who has an academic background in both chemistry and biochemistry, is pursuing her doctorate in pharmacy at the University of Puerto Rico Medical Sciences Campus. She said she was surprised to learn that DHS had so many centers of research around the country. Vázquez Rivera said her favorite part of the program was meeting with fellow scientists. "They have different ideas that can help in the development of new techniques to maintain the country's safety."

Giusti Vález is also a graduate student at the University of Puerto Rico, where she is studying analytical chemistry. Like Vázquez Rivera, she too was surprised at the scope of DHS's research. "I did not know I could be involved in an investigation that has so many applications. This experience has helped enrich my knowledge about the ways in which we can contribute with our ideas and techniques."

Their days were spent preparing and characterizing various batches of compounds used in the microencapsulation process. The team employed different analytical and instrument techniques to help with the investigation. At least one day each week, the team met with advisor Dr. Jimmie Oxley, sometimes sharing the results with Dr. Oxley’s graduate students.

Ultimately, each of these three scientists takes back to Puerto Rico a wealth of new knowledge. Vázquez Rivera said the lessons learned during this internship will aid her as she pursues her doctorate. "The DHS program is a big opportunity that gives faculty members, undergraduate or graduate students a great experience," she said.

Giusti Vález said the program is just what she wanted. It provided a great research environment as well as an opportunity to learn about different cultures. "During my years of study I had never had the chance to investigate explosive traces because this field is totally new," she said. Giusti Vález highly recommends that others pursue opportunities like this whenever possible.

For Dr. Diaz Vázquez, the 10-week program helped her understand the mission and research needs of DHS and plans on recommending programs like this to her students in the future. "It is unique because it allows us to strengthen our scientific skills and establish future research collaboration," she said.