By Fred W. Baker III, American Forces Press Service ; Jun 26, 2009
NATICK, Mass. (June 25, 2009) — Nestled in the shadows of the Boston skyline, scientists and Soldiers in a one-of-a-kind Army laboratory work quietly behind the scenes to improve the health and performance of today’s troops. Though it’s known to relatively few outside of scientific and academic circles, the lab’s work leaves its fingerprint on nearly everything Soldiers eat, wear and use. The U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine is housed on a leafy, waterside post at the Soldier Systems Center here, alongside a handful of other military research and development agencies. But while those agencies are busy readying the force with rations, clothes and gear, the environmental medicine lab focuses on the physiological effects those items have on the Soldier. About 200 people work on staff at the lab, and the scientists say their work concentrates on the “skin in” while the other development labs on post focus on Soldier equipment, or the “skin out.” “We’re not designing the equipment. We’re not designing the backpacks. But we essentially try to evaluate and make sure they are doing what they are supposed to do to optimize the Soldiers’ performance,” said Edward Zambraski, chief of the military performance division at the institute, who holds a doctorate in exercise physiology. Shortly after World War II, Army officials realized Soldiers would continue to be deployed worldwide and wanted a research facility that could study the environmental and operational impacts on the health and performance of troops in a variety of climates and conditions. The institute as it stands today eventually was formed in 1961 from a composite of other federal and academic laboratories. It is the Defense Department’s lead research lab for operational medicine, and spends about $28 million annually on its efforts. Using high-tech, multi-million-dollar facilities, scientists and technicians can simulate the searing summer heat of Iraq and measure its effects on Soldiers’ performance. They can reproduce the effects of the high altitudes and freezing temperatures of the mountains in Afghanistan, gathering data that can help commanders predict how many Soldiers will succumb to mountain sickness on an infantry patrol there. “We basically can duplicate the environmental conditions here [of those] almost anywhere in the world where our warfighters are going to be deployed,” said Christopher Joyce, the lab’s head of technology transfer and marketing. The lab’s two climatic research chambers – each 60 feet long, 11 feet high and 15 feet wide — are among the largest and most sophisticated environmental test chambers in the world. They can simulate environmental conditions ranging from the arctic to the tropics. The tunnels can blast wind up to 40 mph and rain up to four inches an hour. Temperatures can drop to minus 70 degrees and soar to 165 degrees. The lab’s two altitude chambers can simulate altitudes of up to nearly 30,000 feet and temperatures to minus 25 degrees. A water-immersion lab simulates cold and hot environments in a 10,000-gallon concrete pool. But the lab does not test only the effects of heat and cold or high altitude. It tests nearly everything that affects the Soldier.