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Dr. Ilana Goldberg

Chemist studies thermal properties of homemade explosives to improve transportation security

Dr. Ilana Goldberg

Postdoctoral fellow Ilana Goldberg, in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Transportation Security Laboratory Visiting Scientist Program, puts a homemade explosive mixture into the differential scanning calorimeter. This instrument measures and controls heat flow in to and out of the sample. Goldberg’s goal is to better understand the thermal properties of these explosive mixtures to aid in stability predictions.

Ilana Goldberg, who has a doctorate in solid-state materials chemistry from Georgetown University, never wanted to spend her career sitting in a cubicle in front of a computer, and so far, her love for chemistry has protected her from that. “What I really like about chemistry is that it’s everywhere,” she said. “To me, it’s fascinating.”

She spent much of her academic life in a materials chemistry laboratory and now serves as a fellow in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Transportation Security Laboratory (TSL) Visiting Scientist Program studying the properties of explosive materials. “I have a very strong research background, and I was able to use the skills I developed in graduate school to start [on this project] with my feet running,” she said. The two-year program is an initiative managed by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education to enhance the quantity, quality and diversity of the future DHS scientific and engineering workforce.

For her research at TSL, in Pomona, N.J., Goldberg measures the heat flow in and out of materials used to create homemade explosives, or HMEs, to observe their melting and decomposition points. She collects and then interprets that data to predict the materials’ long-term stability outside of controlled lab conditions. Knowing how the HMEs function in various physical environments, such as assorted containers or extreme temperatures, can help develop life-saving responses that stabilize the hazardous material.

Goldberg enjoys projects with worthwhile applications and said the overall goal of her research is to “enhance homeland security by understanding more of the physical properties of homemade explosives.” She adds that her research has implications for creating safer military explosives for the troops to carry, as well.

The program provides Goldberg with a “good mix” of activities by combining data analysis with experimentation and discussion. “There really isn’t such a thing as a typical day,” she said. “There are always a lot of different things to do.”

This experience has also afforded Goldberg numerous opportunities to meet other people in the field and gain insight into the collaborative nature of a government lab setting. “You have a lot of support to get your project done,” she said. At meetings, Goldberg gives and receives advice.  “I think it’s just a great experience.”

So far, Goldberg thinks her time at the lab has been productive. “We’ve made many advances in understanding thermal properties of different [homemade explosive] mixtures and how they can be altered,” she said.

She hopes this stint will help her land a job as a U.S. government physical scientist specializing in homeland security issues. She also would not mind a managing or mentorship position. “I’d like to hopefully be able to direct projects and have a say in what projects are important to undertake and study.” At TSL, she mentors an intern, helping him learn how to think about, and perform, laboratory research.

When the fellowship ends in October 2013, Goldberg might be able to say how different types of HMEs act in different environments, but she doesn’t expect her research to be finalized. “There’s always more you can do. That’s a sign of good research,” she said. “You never solve everything; you always come up with more questions.”