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Q&A with Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal Finalist Leticia Pibida

Leticia Pibida, a physicist in the Radiation Physics Division at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), has been chosen as a finalist for a Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal, an award for federal employees given by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. The honor recognizes her work to strengthen “our nation’s defenses against nuclear and radioactive threats by developing performance standards and tests for detection systems that screen nearly 7 million cargo containers entering U.S. seaports every year.”

We sat down with her to discuss her work.

How did you get into science? 
Since I was young I liked reading about astronomy, understanding how things worked and the origin of the universe. When I was reading these books, I found that I could get many answers to my questions through science. And as I always had many questions and I found math to be a fun thing to do, I decided to go into science. 
How did you get involved in this area?
After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, many in the U.S. were greatly concerned about being potentially vulnerable to radiological, nuclear, chemical and biological threats. To protect the country more fully, we needed new technologies, in particular, instruments for detecting nuclear and radiation-based threats. The radiation detection instrumentation that was available at that time was not built for this purpose, so we needed to develop standards to support the development of new instruments with the required capabilities. 

Describe some of the standards you and your team have developed. What do they do?
Since we started in 2002, we have developed and published approximately 20 national and international standards for homeland security applications. These standards define the performance requirements and test procedures for a host of radiation detection systems and data format standards for all types of radiation detectors.

What were some of the ways that your work improved scanning at seaports? What’s been the impact?
Standards, in general, affect all areas of our lives as they provide a method for users to assess the performance of any device to which the standard applies and give users the confidence that the instruments are suitable for the purpose and perform as advertised. In this way users can rely on these instruments to do their job. In the particular case of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, they use the standards we developed to evaluate portal monitors before deployment at seaports, thereby permitting the accurate and reliable detection of illicit nuclear and radiological materials that might be trafficked.

What does being a career civil servant mean to you?
The most rewarding part of my work as a civil servant is that the results of my work are reflected in tangible things that can make people’s lives better, and that in this way I can provide a service to the people in our country.

To read the full Q&A with Leticia, go to the NIST website.