Dickinson College Homepage Dickinson Magazine This issue of the Dickinson Magazine was mailed on Monday, October 3, 2005
From This Issue
Volume 83 • Number 2
Fall 2005

Attacking Bioterror
Professor's goal will be reducing the WMD threat
By Sherri Kimmel
The things commonly known about John Henson are impressive. He’s a leading Dickinson scientist with a Ph.D. from Harvard. He’s spent 14 summers in Maine’s Mount Desert Island Laboratory as principal investigator using sea urchin cells to study cell movements. And he’s helped generate more than $2 million in external grants during his 16 years at Dickinson.

But what one doesn’t know about this tall, trim, soft-spoken biologist is even more intriguing.

Drive south on Route 11 any given Sunday and you’ll see the former University of Virginia soccer and rugby player making a breakaway at the head of an over-40s soccer team comprised of U.S. Army War College colonels and Dickinson alums and professors. He’s fast and he’s fierce, his foes will attest.

He’s an athlete who’s been dealing with officers all of his life. “My whole family was in the military,” he’ll tell you.

An army brat, Henson opted into ROTC as an undergraduate to help pay for college, earning an award for his potential as an officer. Exploring that option, he spent a decade in the reserves after college, entering the chemical corps with “the thought that there might be some interesting research opportunities.” There weren’t.

Instead, he settled into a life as a dedicated teacher and cell biologist/researcher; he now holds the title of Charles A. Dana Professor of Biology.

Though content teaching cell biology, histology, immunology, marine science, general biology and animal development, Henson’s early interest in research that had military applications was reawakened when a pamphlet arrived in his biology-department mailbox 18 months ago.

He soon began filling out the lengthy application for the U.S. Department of State’s William C. Foster Fellows Visiting Scholars Program, which provides opportunities for scholars in biology, engineering, chemistry, history and physical science. After undergoing a six-month security clearance, which included interviews with neighbors, past employers and Geology Professor Jeff Niemitz about Henson’s directorship of the Norwich, England, science study-abroad program, he made the cut.

John Bolton, now the controversial U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, made the final selections for this year’s Fosters Fellows program. Henson’s unusual background—biological expertise and military experience—fit with a new direction for a program that previously had explored nuclear-arms issues, rather than chemical and biological weaponry, Henson explains.

Henson will spend the 2005-06 academic year working on biological-weapons issues in the Office of Conventional, Chemical and Biological Weapons Affairs in the Bureau of Verification and Compliance at the State Department in Washington, D.C. The State Department will provide his usual salary and benefits for this unpaid leave of absence.

As he wrote in his application letter, “My motivation for applying … derives from an intense desire to find a position that will allow me to contribute to WMD [weapons of mass destruction] threat reduction. In essence I am tired of sitting on the sidelines and have decided to take an active role in these crucial efforts.”

If you suggest that the events of Sept. 11, 2001, might have inspired his service, he’ll quickly tell you no. After all, he experienced that trauma while in London not Carlisle. “The European perspective was that this was horrific, but these kinds of things happen. ‘One must go forward,’ was the British view.

“My motivation is more, ‘Could I do something positive for the future with nonproliferation issues for the sake of my kids?’ I am less concerned with putting forth the policies of the U.S. government than trying to make the possibility of having weapons around lower in probability. This was an opportunity for me to enter into some national service in which I could, in a small way, do something good for the nonproliferation issue.”

In August, sitting in his Dana Hall lab, Henson mulled over how the next year would unfold.

“It will be a steep learning curve on my side to figure out how the culture works and how the kind of knowledge that I have can help with what needs to be done,” says Henson.

“I’ll be the only scientist in my group of policy and military folks. But when it comes down to trying to assess bio/chemical weapons capabilities in different countries, you need the technological expertise to talk to foreign scientists or to put other experts together with folks trying to assess the capabilities.

“One of the biggest worries in the field,” he adds, “is what has happened to the capabilities in the former Soviet Union? Facility after facility had chemical- or biological-weapons capabilities. One of the State-Department initiatives is to engage those scientists.”

A tactic that the State Department has pursued is to set up a funding agency to provide grants to Soviet scientists to do research using techniques formerly used for weapons-production facilities and turn them to good civilian use. “It’s a good idea and a step in the right direction,” he says.

Although Henson’s responsibilities have not been finalized, the office that he has been assigned to is involved in several projects, including helping with the continued progress of the biological-weapons convention treaty and preparing reports for the president and Congress on the capability of nations that have chemical and biological weapons to assess if they might put them to use.

This office also has taken a major role in efforts geared at helping Libya dismantle its WMD programs, and Henson is interested in getting involved. This may find him interacting with Libyan scientists to gauge the status of their WMD capabilities and encouraging their conversion to nonweapons-based research.

One of his hopes for his sojourn in the strange world of Foggy Bottom, Henson asserts, is to enhance his role here as an educator of citizen leaders.

“I hope to be able to use this as a way to talk about science and public policy—how science influences what goes on in the world—whether it works into Dickinson’s Leadership in Conflict Initiative or peace-action studies. It’s important to show folks there is a program in government that is trying to do important, worthwhile things, to make the world a safer place, to show that we’re not always interested in military-based options but ways to work through diplomacy.”


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