Issue Date: August 11, 2008
Guarding Fair Trade
CARGO CONTAINING imported vegetable dumplings arrives at the U.S. border. An import specialist responsible for collecting duty on the product opens a bag of the dumplings and finds what appear to be chunks of meat. If the dumplings contain meat, the importer could face penalties for deliberately misrepresenting the shipment to avoid paying a higher duty.
To settle the matter, the import specialist collects a sample of the dumplings and ships it to one of eight field laboratories around the country operated by the U.S. Customs & Border Protection (CBP) operation of the Department of Homeland Security. That's when the work of the analytical chemists begins.
Jose (Jenner) Gutierrez, a research chemist in CBP's Springfield, Va., lab, was tasked with solving this very mystery. He ran several tests on the dumpling samples to determine whether they contained animal cells, protein, or DNA. He discovered that the dumplings did contain protein, but it was in fact soy protein. The manufacturer of the dumplings apparently used soy to mimic meat.
Analysis to prove a product's authenticity or to verify its country of origin is at the heart of what analytical chemists at CBP do. The information they collect helps import specialists determine whether an importer is paying the correct duty on products. Unscrupulous importers have been known to try to pass their products off as ones that can claim lower tariffs or to make it appear as if their products are coming from a different country. "In some ways, you're matching wits with the perpetrator to see who's the shrewder person," Gutierrez says.
Ira S. Reese, executive director of CBP's Laboratories & Scientific Services in DHS's Office of Information & Technology, points to some recent indictments involving honey claimed to come from Russia that was of Chinese origin—an apparent effort by importers to avoid the antidumping duty, or additional tax to prevent unfair trade, the U.S. imposes on Chinese honey.
For an analytical chemist, CBP offers an interesting mix of science and law enforcement. "A lot of people like the fact that they're working for a law enforcement agency," Reese says. "They like carrying the badge and having authority." But more important, Reese says, they like the fact that they are helping to protect their country.
Approximately 200 scientists, including 140 chemists, work in the various field labs of CBP's Laboratories & Scientific Services. These labs also employ teams of biologists, textile analysts, physicists, forensic scientists, and engineers who analyze everything from agricultural products to textiles to digital media. All together, CBP has more than 49,000 employees.
CBP scientists complement the work of scientists at the Food & Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture, whose primary goal is to ensure public safety.
Because scientists at CBP always have a new mystery to solve, the work remains interesting and challenging. "Anything can come through the door, as far as work," Gutierrez says. "It's very hard for the job to get dull."
Every chemist starts by working in one of the eight field labs. From there, they can advance within the lab and become a team leader or quality manager, or they can move to the headquarters building in Washington, D.C., and work as a science officer helping to plan, coordinate, and execute support operations. Both paths can lead to the management level, which includes positions such as assistant lab director, lab director, and ultimately executive director of the laboratory system.
Stephen Cassata worked as a chemist in the Springfield lab for five-and-a-half years before taking a position as a science officer. Although he is no longer in the lab, Cassata says, he is doing just as much chemistry as he was before. "We consider ourselves desk chemists up here," he says. "We do a lot of chemistry; it's just not at the bench." Cassata's responsibilities now range from searching for new technologies for the field labs to communicating with CBP officers and border patrol agents to providing expertise on a variety of scientific topics.
Like Gutierrez, Cassata is constantly being challenged by his work. Six months ago, he was the only one in the office when a question came up about whether it was possible to determine the country of origin of peanuts that are made into peanut butter. He looked up everything he could on the process of making peanut butter and determined that it was not technologically possible to figure out which countries the peanuts came from. Determining country of origin is important to ensuring that a product is properly classified and the correct duty is collected.
"In a moment's notice, we can be asked to become a subject matter expert on any given commodity that's coming into the U.S.," Cassata says.
Because scientists at CBP are expected to be versatile, they get a significant amount of on-the-job training. Consequently, chemists whose highest degree is a bachelor's have the same opportunity for career advancement as chemists with master's or Ph.D. degrees.
Cassata, for example, has a B.S. in chemistry from the University of Iowa and has become a science officer in just seven years. He aims to become a lab director. Reese points out that he also has only a bachelor's in chemistry. He started at CBP as a researcher and worked his way up.
Gutierrez, who has a Ph.D. in chemistry from Georgetown University, admits that the chemistry he does is fairly simple. "Any chemist can do it," he says. However, having a Ph.D. gives you more freedom in the lab, he says. "It gives me the latitude to say, 'Okay, I need this done, and I need to go do it.' As a Ph.D., that gives me free rein as far as how to structure my time in order to get the job done."
For example, Gutierrez is currently analyzing a sample of herbal pills suspected of containing bone from tiger, which is endangered and banned from trade. He needed to get his hands on some tiger DNA to serve as a positive control, so he went to the Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington, D.C., and asked for a small amount of tiger saliva. He wasn't able to get the saliva, but the zoo did give him a sample of tiger skin that they had collected for a different purpose.
Gutierrez says the most challenging part of the job is juggling many unrelated assignments, each one with a short turnaround time. "It's kind of like splitting your brain into several pieces and focusing on each one," he says.
CBP is on the federal pay scale, which consists of 15 grades, from GS-1 to GS-15. Entry-level chemists typically start at GS-5 or GS-7, making between $30,000 and $40,000 per year, depending on their location. After one year, however, employees are automatically promoted to GS-7 or GS-9. The next year, they could advance another two grades. Within three years, chemists can be making around $70,000, Reese says. Ph.D. chemists have entered at GS-11. Employees also receive all the benefits of federal employment.
APPLICANTS FOR chemistry positions must have a bachelor's degree or higher from an accredited college or university in physical sciences, life sciences, or engineering. They must have completed 30 semester hours of chemistry, course work in mathematics, and at least six semester hours of physics. A combination of experience and education is also considered. Candidates must be U.S. citizens and pass a background check.
CBP currently has 20 openings for chemists in the various field labs. Job opportunities are posted on the federal jobs site, usajobs.gov.
Because of the diverse and interesting work and the potential for career advancement at CBP, retention among chemists is high. Over the past five years, CBP has retained 98% of chemists, according to Tara Dunlop, public affairs officer for CBP. The agency is also focused on increasing its diversity. Among chemists, minorities account for 40% of the workforce, and women comprise 36% of the workforce.
For chemists looking for a fast-paced job that will expose them to a variety of experiences, CBP can offer a satisfying career. "The more you're cross-trained, the more valuable you are to the agency," Cassata says. "But you need both types. You need the type that comes with a lot of experience and expertise in one discipline, but you also need the ones that are just a couple of years out of school whom you can mold into the future of the agency."
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