Detonating pipe bombs, creating improvised explosive devices and burning up land mines – not everyone can say they do these things every day, but some University of Rhode Island students can. Under the direction of Jimmie Oxley, chemistry professor and program leader of the Center of Excellence in Explosives Detection, Mitigation and Response, students think like a terrorist and blow things up for credit.
The program, a Department of Homeland Security Center of Excellence, offers students the unique opportunity to help prevent terrorist attacks. Their work – how to handle, detect, build or gently destroy an explosive – is published so law enforcement officials can have the best tools to approach dangerous situations.
Oxley’s labs are bustling with students and filled with displays of their research. The labs tell a story of the program’s past, present and future, from determining if baby powder can explode to recovering explosive residue from hair.
Oxley is sought out for her expertise about explosives. Media, government officials, local organizations and bomb squads turn to her for guidance and insight into events like the 2005 bombings in London or the 1996 TWA Flight 800 crash in New York.
In her eyes, she’s just one part of a bigger picture. The lab, which she runs with her husband, Professor James Smith, is a collaborative effort, she stresses. It’s a place where the students make it all happen to protect society from “the bad guys.”
The mission of the program is to use research and education to protect the nation from physical and economic harm caused by explosive devices attacks. In your opinion, is this truly possible?
This is a problem that DHS and all security people have. They may have prevented 99 things from happening and you don’t know it — all you see is the one thing that did [happen.] Yes, I think we have made life easier for the security folks, but it’s just too easy to break things. If you go back to the shoe bomber who was turned away the day before — he had a lighter. Why didn’t he succeed in taking down the plane when he actually got on the plane? Because he had to try with matches. If he had that lighter, he might have succeeded. So you only occasionally know a positive result of what you’ve done.
Where do you get ideas for your research?
Accidents and terrorist events. I’ll look at industrial accidents and say, ‘Could this have been done on purpose?’ Not that I suspect that particular accident had been intentional. The government has taken that viewpoint on things, too. Could it be done on purpose, and how would you prevent it? But, we also work with enough law enforcement people that we just listen to and hear what they’re saying.
What are some common misconceptions from people about what you do?
The one misconception is basically, do I get called into a case? The answer is no. I go in and teach for the FBI but they don’t consult me on a case. I teach for TSA, but if they call me about an event that has happened recently, they’re very circumspect that I don’t know too much about it, so I won’t expose them. I’m a civilian researcher in this field. When there’s a case going on, I never ask law enforcement questions about it, because there can be no doubt whether I leaked information or not, because ‘I didn’t get any information from them.’
After an event happens, like the Boston Marathon bombings, and seeing how local, state and federal teams handle it, does this change how you approach your research?
Yes, we look at events like the Boston bombing and say, ‘What are the needs here that we can contribute to?’ I keep thinking about the Connecticut school shooting – not a bombing. It’s a total look at security that we need to be interested in and it’s going to be a combination of tools and strategies to help.
Is there a lot of information that you deal with that you can’t discuss with students, the public or anybody?
There’s certainly classified information that I can’t share with anybody and it’s not just a matter that you have to have a clearance, but you also have to have a need to know. It may not sound as interesting, but we work with companies and sometimes their information is proprietary. Usually whoever pays for the research has the right to say how public the research can be. Certainly with classified information, which we don’t handle much of, I can’t share with the students, but with proprietary information the students are the people generating it.
But you’ve been quoted a lot in news stories?
During the TWA flight 800 [explosion investigation], we had scads of reporters come in. One of them said she couldn’t understand why everybody was coming to interview me, and I said, ‘Because I know absolutely nothing about it.’ If I knew details of that case, I couldn’t talk to reporters, and everybody wants to have somebody to talk to. The non-dangerous way in giving out information is to just talk about the problem generally. You don’t want to talk about specifics. Think about a murder. They don’t want to tell you the details because there might be copycat crimes. They always hold stuff back because it would hurt their case.
Are there always people creating new explosives or other threats? Does anything they come up with shock you?
There’s always new ways of thinking of mischief. Ask any mom of a 2- year- old. They’ve blocked him out of this room; they’ve blocked him out of that room; they put plugs in the electrical sockets — and he finds something else like coloring on the couch. There’s always going to be something. But shocks? Not really. When the underwear bomber came along, he had a new triggering mechanism – we studied it eight years earlier.
What is the most rewarding part of what you do?
Working with the students is the most rewarding part and seeing them grow. Probably the best metric of a professor’s success is his or her students’ success.