Hosts John Verrico and Deepak Saini sit down with S&T’s Chief Scientist, Dr. Sam Howerton, to pick his brain about all things science. Listen as Sam takes our hosts on a journey through a world of imagination and exploration as he shares his unique perspective. Sam discusses the ways scientists can help solve homeland security challenges, S&T’s role in the future, taking risks as an organization, and more. He also talks about what motivated him to pursue his career path and gives us a chemist’s explanation for why Nashville hot chicken is so good! This episode will change the way you think about science. You don’t want to miss it!
- Recorded on: November 29, 2022
Guest: Sam Howerton, Chief Scientist
Hosts: John Verrico, Chief of Media & Community Relations and Deepak Saini, Media Strategist
[00:00:00] Dave: This is Technologically Speaking, the official podcast for the Department of Homeland Security, Science & Technology Directorate, or S&T, as we call it. Join us as we meet the science and technology experts on the front lines, keeping America safe.
John: Hello and welcome to this episode of Technologically Speaking, I'm John Verrico. With me today is my co-host, Dee Saini, and we have a special guest today, Dr. Sam Howerton, who is S&T's new Chief Scientist. Good afternoon, Sam and hi Dee.
[00:00:31] Deepak: We're glad to have you, Dr. Sam. How do you want be referred to during our episode? Do you want to be Dr. Sam? Dr. Howerton?
[00:00:39] Sam: Sam. Just Sam. Just Sam. Sam's easy. I'm pretty, pretty casual. I'm a country boy, so just, hey you, works as well.
[00:00:44] Deepak: So, I have a burning question for you. You're Chief Scientist and you also have roots in Tennessee. So, I would like for you, Sam, to give me your best scientific explanation of why Nashville hot chicken is so good?
[00:00:59] Sam: [00:01:00] Okay, so one, it's the spice that starts, right? So, it grabs you up front, but then it's all that fat, right? So, like where I grew up or when I grew up, you fried chicken in lard, not in oil and that kind of stuff. So, if it's done right, you're getting that combo really hot and then those receptors that really feel the fat like go into you and then the protein on the back end's pretty good too. But it's really the combo of those two things that get you going.
[00:01:22] Deepak: See, I like that. Short, succinct, to the point, and it had a scientific flare. A little seasoning.
[00:01:28] Sam: Absolutely. Literally, right.
[00:01:31] John: I love that. A little seasoning. that puts a flavor for this whole episode then, doesn't it?
[00:01:36] Sam: It does. I hope the rest of the questions are this entertaining actually. This is what science is about, right? Every day. Why is the world about this or that?
[00:01:44] John: So Sam, I have to ask now, what got you started in the science side of things? Were you trying to explain all of these wonderful things about food?
[00:01:52] Sam: Yeah. No, I mean, it's a great question. Like, naturally curious as a kid, right? I think, just fascinated by the world around me, wondered. Was going around asking why all the time. I'm sure it drove my parents nuts, right? And so eventually, you know, I reached that age where, you're in school and you're dealing with teachers who can explain the why of the world. And I had some spectacular teachers, right? Not only in grade school, but in high school and even in, and even into college, that made science exciting and fun, right? You ask odd questions like, why does hot chicken taste good? And they explain it to you, you know, and they don't do it in a way that makes you feel like you're an idiot, or the question itself is stupid. And I think that's really what got me into it, is that the combination of natural curiosity and some great teachers along the way.
[00:02:34] Deepak: And what was your major in school?
[00:02:36] Sam: So, I was at Tennessee, right? I, I was a chemistry major, and then when I went on to Michigan State University, I added a little bit of, environmental toxicology on the side there to kind of round out a little biology. but I think, you know, my, when people ask me like what I do or what I was right, I'm certainly a chemist, first and foremost. And I, that's totally because of the teachers as I said that I had. Probably my, greatest first teacher was my high school teacher. Her name was Ms. Coleman. Her son was in my class as well. And she just really made it a lot of fun. And that's, that hooked me. And that's probably 16 years old, right? Isn't that crazy?
[00:03:06] John: Sam, you said it right there, man. Sometimes, you know it's the teachers that really inspire us, right? The ones who, open the doors for us and get us excited. So, what got you excited about science besides that one teacher?
[00:03:18] Sam: I think it's really, it's being able to explain the world in a way that is not only understandable to me as an individual, but to others as well. I think that the, that what makes science really something that's spectacular is that it's this additive effect, not even just in a human lifetime, right? But over decades and centuries, right? Like the world we live in is the culmination of the thought and work of thousands, if not millions of people, right? Over, over a long period of time. And that kind of concept that even if I'm a tiny little cog in this great machine, that is the scientific endeavor, that it can move humanity forward. And I think that is a very inspiring sort of feeling that comes to me when I think about being a scientist.
[00:04:05] Deepak: Sam, you said something pretty profound. So, I read something that you wrote somewhere online and it's so short, but it says so much and it stuck with me all day. You said, I'm at my best when the problem is tough. Can you walk me through that philosophy?
[00:04:21] Sam: I, I think the process by which one, earns his or her PhD or other terminal degrees, is one that is designed to not only test your mental fortitude, but also the emotional reserves. And I think back to the time that I spent in graduate school, it was very hard. It was a very small number of people all laboring, you know, on these very technical sorts of issues. But it builds this reserve within you, and I like that feeling of adversity. I think that I personally don't want a life where it's easy. And maybe that's just more of a personal sort of issue than it is an intellectual one.
[00:04:52] John: Your excitement about being here is infectious. It really is. And we are excited to have you here where you can, take these brilliant, like I say, these brilliant scientific brain cells and apply them towards some of these tough challenges. So, what would you recommend for other scientists to start applying their brain power to these problems that the government faces, especially in the homeland security realm?
[00:05:19] Sam: So, I think that you have to find something that tugs on your heartstrings a little bit, right? When you're being trained as a scientist, you're taught to always live in this world, the cognitive world, right? That is devoid of emotion. But that's not the everyday world that you and I live in, right? You get up some days, you feel good, some days you don't feel good. Same thing with your, your spouse or your partner, your kids, right? Like the world we live in is a world driven as much by emotion as it is cognition. And I think for those of us who have found ourselves in a career path of science, engineering, or some other technical discipline, right? Not forgetting that human contact, that human connection, is important, can help you find the area that you are passionate about and then pursue it, right? And to me that's the idea. And the thing about homeland security in particular is that, no matter your field, there is an issue here that you can help us on, right?
[00:06:12] John: I love that.
[00:06:13] Sam: So, there are certainly social science dimensions to the work that we have that, you know, whether it's at our borders or how the TSA may interact with you, you know, at the airport, all the way to highly technical sorts of issues around artificial intelligence and machine learning to protect national critical infrastructure that even I don't really think about. You know, every day you turn on the faucet, water comes out. You don't think all of the things that have to happen correctly for that to enjoy. And so to me, that's the advice that I would give others you know, who have a technical mindset is to think about the problems in the world that you're passionate about, and then to apply what you have in your brain. To help on those. Whether it's a challenge or an opportunity. I do think that one of the things that's sometimes an easy pitfall to fall into when you work in the national security environment is to look at the world, through a threat lens only. Like bad things. It must stop bad things. But the reality is too, is that there's a lot of affirmative sorts of work that can be done, to make the everyday person's life a little bit better, a little bit more seamless, right? And how they interact with not only the Department, but the government, and then one another. And I think that, that's also something I would suggest people, if they're really interested in looking at the homeland defense, homeland security mission spaces, not to think that we're looking at a world where every, shadow is a bad guy. It's actually there's a lot of good to be done too. And I. I think back, just even in the past 10 to 20 years, all of the things that DHS has done to make it better, right? It's incremental progress to a better world.
[00:07:43] Deepak: John and I are curious, what are your plans for the future?
[00:07:47] Sam: So, I think DHS, especially S&T, has a greater role to play in the future than maybe it has in the past. And I think that because I see a world that's becoming more complex. Both if I look from a domestic lens, right? So, DHS certainly has a lot of responsibility. The United States from security to disaster preparedness response. and then you kind look outward in terms of people who want to immigrate here or, you know, that you want prevent know, the transshipment of narcotics. I think DHS, S, & T has a larger and larger role in each of these missions. And my hope in the time that I serve in this position is to help elevate DHS to the place that I think that it rightly deserves. Which is really amongst the equals of all the other science funding agencies, in terms of both their impact and their import to the country. It's easy sometimes I think, when people think of DHS to think about, our operational, elements, right? Because that is what is front and center to the average American. It's certainly what is captured by our different, different, uh, media partners. But in the background, Science and Technology is there unwinding these really complex problems. And I think that my hope is that we will begin to not only increase the scale, but the scope of the impact that we make to the Department and to the nation.
[00:09:09] Verrico: When you look at the mission space across the vast mission responsibility that the Department of Homeland Security has trying to protect the nation from disasters of all sorts, whether they're manmade or natural, there's not a piece of what DHS does that does not have some flavor of what S&T has put into the process. And I think that is so incredibly important to see the impact that scientific R&D has on the lives of people. When you look at the impact that we have, what does it mean to you on that personal level of being able to make some positive change out there?
[00:09:48] Sam: So in, in my life, probably one of the most impactful events was having children, right? It changes your perspective on, on things, right? You go from, I think, one focus on you and living in the moment to us and thinking about the future. And to me, my service not only at Homeland Security, but across the 20 years of my federal service really has focused on trying to make sure that the world that I leave people, especially leave my children now that they're here with me, is equal to or better than the one that I inherited from my parents and their generation. And so, to me, like that's what gets me up every day, right? Some people call it the call to service. I don't know that's what I call it, right? And it's a clarion call. It has been from the moment that I joined the government, right? Which is I can make this, I can make this better, and if I work with other people, I might even make this a lot better. And that's the personal sort of aspect that drives me every day to get up and do what I do. I think the world's worth having. And I think it's worth sharing with others.
[00:10:49] Deepak: Sam, across S&T, we have over 800 staff in our workforce. A lot of them are subject matter experts across different fields of science and technology that really have that expert knowledge, that secret scientific sauce, if you will, to really carry our mission forward. And over course of this last year, I'm sure you've gotten to know quite a few of them. I would love to hear your thoughts on your interactions with them and the value they bring to S&T and to our stakeholders.
[00:11:17] Sam: So, I think that one of the real interesting things about science, which is I think reflective in our organization, is that diversity of thought and diversity of perspective actually make things better. And as I unpack that a little bit, you know, in science we become very specialized, by the time that we finish our graduate program. And some people stay that throughout their course, but more and more what we've discovered as a scientific enterprise, is that the most vexing problems actually require teams of individuals from wide varieties of different technical areas to solve it. Because the skills that I have as a chemist, the way that I see the world really stop at the molecular level. That's what I was trained to do. But there are others, who are in the engineering field or who look at use-inspired sort of design, right? From social science or other things who can take what I do at a very small level and then build on that outwards. And that's very, I think, symbolic of the way that our team here works as well. We not only have these different sort of technical capabilities that allow us to approach the problems from different mental frameworks, but we also have perspectives, right? That help us understand like, this is how it may be viewed or interpreted or used by someone from the community that I came from or the community that you came from. And so here in DHS, S,&T, because we have these problems that are complex, it's not just building me a new table, right? And it needs to have these dimensions. It's actually solve this complex problem that involves human beings. Having those sorts of diverse perspectives, those diverse backgrounds is actually critical to making the solution that we deliver as a Department to the American people is well received and understood.
[00:12:58] John: You know, you talked about the perception and perspective. Different people look at things in different ways. So, let's talk a little bit about the communication of science and how can we help to get people to understand the science and its impact.
[00:13:15] Sam: I always start with the assumption that I'm the dumbest person in the room. And when I think about how to communicate things, I try to communicate them as if I am in that state. When you're surrounded by people who use the linguistics and the kind of norms of science, you begin to assume that everyone else in the world lives in that kind of bubble that you do. And you have to take a moment, reflect and realize that the vast majority of people do not. And you have to take a step away from that as you begin to think about how to communicate with them. Whether they are of a similar sort of scientific discipline, different, or people who have no scientific background at all. And so, to me the most effective way to engage in science communication, especially when you're dealing with topics that are very complex, is to tell a story, right? That helps people understand. Because science without context is facts. And that's great if you live in that world of scientific norms, right? But as I said, I think that most people don't. I think people live in a more complex environment day to day that's filled with facts and emotions, right in any number of variables. And so it's intended, I think to package those sorts of things up in, in a way that is understandable to people.
[00:14:29] Deepak: What I find interesting is I feel like a lot of our stakeholders understand that one of our primary portfolios is developing R&D for DHS operational components, but I feel like there's a strong yearning and calling, if you will, we used that term earlier, but we're trying to expand out of that, to broaden our impact across the country. As you've been here, as you've been observing, as you've been getting your feet wet, what are some of your visionary goals to taking us into the future?
[00:15:01] Sam: As, I think about the future of DHS and specifically DHS S&T, I hope that we become an organization that balances this kind of immediate need with a more proactive posture, right? A more anticipatory stance that gets you ready for what's coming. Because I think that if you reflect back on the pandemic at all, right, it looked like magic happened in about two years as we went from sequencing this novel virus to getting therapeutics and prophylaxis or, you know, pills and shots in people. But it actually, you know required the anticipatory investment of a number of both government and non-government organizations for a very long period of time to prepare us for that eventuality. When the government and others were doing it, they were probably hoping that this never needs to be used, but when it needed to be, it was there and ready to go. I hope that when I leave DHS, S&T, at some indeterminate point in the future, that I can look back and say, we are now in a more proactive posture. We're thinking about today, and we're thinking about tomorrow, and we're meeting the needs of both simultaneously.
[00:16:14] Deepak: In your personal opinion, Sam, do you see science and tech, of course it's a huge blessing, but you know how sometimes we talk about things being a blessing and a curse? Because I feel like as much as we are seeing rapid advancements in science and tech to get ahead of threats, bad actors are also using the latest advancements in science and tech to try to get ahead of us with those threats. I feel like it's a ping pong game. How do we manage something like that?
[00:16:41] Sam: I mean, it's certainly a game of cat and mouse, right? So as long as there are, you know, in the DOD it was like the blue team, the red team forces, right? That I think that you're always, I think that you're always going to have that sort of tension and those sorts of things, but how do we get ahead of it, right? So, the beauty of being, imaginative is that you can use that for a force of good or you can use it for a force of bad. It's way easier to think of all the ways things can go bad. It's a lot harder to do all the things that go good. It's a lot harder to imagine the solutions to all the things that can go bad. I think the benefit of being in an organization like DHS S&T is that you can pivot between those two states seamlessly, right? So, as I think about what I do and the other subject matter experts do here, right? We are constantly toggling our brain like a light switch between this is what I'm going to do as an adversary. Ha. Now I'm going to flip it and put myself in, good guy mode, let's call it that, right? And figure out how to undo that. And in some ways it reminds me of like when you play chess against yourself, right? Like you have to balance these two different ways of thinking simultaneously. I think that's really the competitive advantage that we have here.
[00:17:52] John: Understanding that, as we're coming up with one kind of a security solution, the, we also have to think about, how are the bad guys going to attempt to defeat this? How are they going to take this technology that we're developing on this end and morph it into something that can be used, into, like a weapon mode? And then how do we defend against that? And it's back and forth and back and forth and back and forth, and it's such a complex issue. Sam, I have to ask this question. What do we need to be able to do that? What kind of latitude do we need to be given? What kind of funding do we need? What kinds of things do we need in order to be able to accomplish this supremely complex mission?
[00:18:32] Sam: So, the first thing you need is people. So, you need people who are not only, up to the task, I think, to do this intellectually, but also have the passion to do it. And I think that's actually probably, that's the secret sauce, that we have right now. And it's the secret sauce that we're going to need in the future. And it's actually the thing that at times, I worry about most because, it takes a long time to train up somebody with a technical background and then to take that and remold them to think about these sorts of problems takes additional time. And so, workforce development is certainly something that I think that we need to invest in, not only here at DHS, but I think as the U.S. government. And it's certainly been an issue for a large number of years for all of the national security agencies. I think we have to redouble our efforts, right? to get people interested in it, in science and technology at all levels. Not just the PhD level, right? But at all levels, going all the way back to, kindergarten all the way to the terminal degrees because then that gives us the pipeline of the people that we need who are imaginative, creative, and thoughtful to address these problems. So that's the most important thing that we need. We need people who can step up to the plate, and we have to prepare the next generations to take the proverbial baton from us. More immediate needs, so you'll never, ever meet a scientist or engineer that says that they've got enough money.
[00:19:51] Deepak: True. That's a good point.
[00:19:53] Sam: I think that we're like, day one, you show up, they're like, always ask for more money. You know, but that's the easy answer. I would say more money with context, right? You can spend an infinite amount of money and get nowhere and you can spend a small amount of money and do amazing things. I think money combined with an understanding of what our citizenry and our political leadership care about is very important because that kind of helps orient us. It's orienting us on the right vector to make sure that the time and energy that we're spending is aligned to what people care about. We need public support to understand that the problems that we are working on are hard. The solutions that we are providing will be imperfect, but we will keep working to make them as good as we can. Please don't lose faith with us. This is a marathon. It is not a sprint. And when I say that, I mean I'm talking like lifetimes sometimes for some of these problems. So those three things, people, money with context and public support.
[00:20:55] John: So, there's always risk in, in, in scientific endeavors, obviously. We know that. But sometimes there's not a tolerance, publicly or politically and the patience, for that kind of risk. So how can we, I guess, whet the appetite to take more risk knowing that, if we come up with the solutions to these challenges and we take risks to try things that we don't know whether or not they're going to work or not, until we actually try them. We know they, they can be a game changer. And if they don't work, then we've learned from it and we know what the next step would be. But how do we explain that and how do we help to get that support?
[00:21:33] Sam: When I talk to leadership or to other people, right? Just every day who are like, I don't know if we should do that. I always like to remind them that the United States got here, right, in the 21st century by taking on some pretty huge risk across the centuries that we've been a country and sometimes we've fallen flat and sometimes we have soared like eagles, right? But I think that's where I start, is to remind people that this is who we are as a country. And then when we get down to the brass tacks of an individual sort of investment, right? In a technology or a program or something like that, I like to then apply the kind of more scientific rigor to it, right? Which is, okay, here's the risk that comes with it along all these sorts of different ways, right? Whether it's political, technological, legal, maybe it's just perceptual risk, right? And so, my job as a chief scientist being apolitical, not being part of the management, is to lay out the complex landscape that any given decision lives within. And then let the decision maker make it based upon his or her best judgment. And I have to have faith, right? That they're going to take that information and they're going to make the best decision that they can. There are no perfect decisions. Just there are, like, there are no perfect experiments, right? But there are informed decisions and there are informed experiments. And I think that's how we approach these sorts of issues when we talk about risk intolerance, especially here within the government.
[00:23:00] Deepak: I'd like to talk a little bit about the transition of technology from prototype, from the beginning of the pipeline down to the end product where not only our components can use those, but also hopefully our support law enforcement agencies, state, local tribal agencies, public and private sectors. Everyone combined. Talk to me a little bit about that journey and the value that S&T holds in bringing that to the country.
[00:23:28] Sam: So, let's begin with why does the government even invest in science at all? Why do we not let the private sector do this, or philanthropies, or those sorts of things? We spend taxpayer dollars to strategically de-risk very hard technical problems. There are some large market cap companies, that have R&D budgets that are large, and they take very big risk. But at the end of the day, most of them are driven by a hope to generate profit at the end. Whereas on this side of the house, we're trying to lead to some sort of outcome that's tied to the betterment for Americans, and hopefully the rest of the world. So, if you start from a position of the government exists to invest in science and technology to strategically de-risk hard problems, to advance the frontiers of knowledge. Then what we also have to do every now and then is help get those things into the marketplace. And those are, I think, some of the most challenging problems because at the end of the day, DHS is not going to be a vertically and horizontally integrated manufacturer of a thousand different things that, that the operation need. We need partners in the private sector. We need to bring experts in who are good at that. And that's, I think, another part of the role that S&T plays, which is being a matchmaker between those who invent and come up with great ideas, to those who know how to take that idea and make it a reality. Now, similar to what we were just discussing with risk, we also have to take on the understanding that that transition also fails a lot. In fact, know, a few years ago, I spent some time, in a business school because I thought, you know, I've been a scientist all my life. I wonder how the business world looks at these sorts of things. Right. And what I learned from talking to VCs or startups or even some large cap companies, was the best idea in the world often fails, right? Because there are other factors that are in play. It's not just about money, it's not just about technology. Sometimes it's about the people, and I think that that's where DHS, S&T kind of brings all these things together. We've got the people side of it, we've got our operators, we've got the American people, we've got the great ideas. We've also got to bring in this third component, right, which is the private sector and be somewhat of a matchmaker. But just like baking a cake, you have to shove it in the oven and hope it bakes. And if you put all the pieces together, it probably will, but sometimes it doesn't. And so to me, that's the mindset that I take when I think about technology commercialization. And it's, one, it's not linear. Two, it's not guaranteed. And three, you can just, spend a lot of money and sometimes it just doesn't work. That's okay.
[00:26:06] Deepak: Alright, Sam, take us back. When you were a little kid, what was your first love of science? Like what memory comes to your mind?
[00:26:14] Sam: So I was doing something dangerous now, right? That or something I know to be dangerous now as a chemist, right? I remember crawling under the kitchen sink, finding a thing of bleach, finding a thing of ammonia, and being amazed that they made bubbles when you mixed them together. All the while not knowing that I'm inhaling chlorine gas, right? So I think back, like that's my first memory of really loving science was doing something that was, inherently dangerous to myself.
[00:26:40] Deepak: And you still have the brain cells to remember.
[00:26:42] Sam: Apparently, I didn't, breathe that deeply, I guess.
[00:26:46] John: Did you have one of those chemistry set kits that you get with all the little bottles of chemicals and the microscope and all of that?
[00:26:54] Sam: No, I was never that organized of a child. It was literally like, that's a liquid. That's a liquid. Let's pour those together and see what happens. And to this day, I always describe myself as an experimentalist, right? Scientists come in two general flavors, right? Like the theoreticians, which are thoughtful and then the experimentalists that are just like, let's just see what happens. That's so much more exciting to me as a scientist.
[00:27:14] Deepak: Sam, how do you explain to your kids what you do?
[00:27:17] Sam: One of the greatest pieces of advice I got early in my career was to try to never cast a shadow. And so when I talk to my kids, I don't talk to them about what I do. I talk to them about what I’m trying to influence in the world, right. That I'm trying to make sure that, when they're on Roblox playing, right, that there aren't bad people there trying to entice them into things or people trying to scam them when they're, you know, watching some other sort of online short. I, I try to put it in the context as best I can for someone who, is still, 10 years young or younger. And so, when I talk to my kids, that's what I talk to them about. I, and maybe that's a very philosophical way of trying to approach it, but, you know, when I was 10, I didn't understand or care about science at the level that I do now. My kids may grow into it, but trying to help them understand that I'm trying to make the world better and safer for them, and man, you want to talk about a hard problem? I look at my kids and the world they are growing up in as so different than the one I grew up in, and I'm sure my parents said the same about me. But that's what I tell them, that I do what I do here at DHS, that I've done all these things across my career, for them, for their friends, and for all of our families. So, it's a non-answer. It's a non-answer.
[00:28:29] John: But Sam, you said that your kids may or may not decide to grow into science. How would you encourage people to consider a scientific career? Or at least to incorporate science in their learnings.
[00:28:42] Sam: The science is as much the power of work as it is the power of play, right? And so, I think that the way for us to get people to be interested in science is to remind them just like it was for me, right? It started with play me doing something inherently dangerous. I didn't know about it, but it was fun. And to me, like that's how you get people into this world of imagination and exploration, whether or not you end up in it as a career or not. I all starts with play.
[00:29:12] John: That is beautiful. And it may be the title of our episode, the Power of Play. It's so true. And you know, when we were talking earlier about recipes and cooking, and that's all science based, if you think about it, right? It's all basically, like you said, chemistry and understanding how, you take the academic concept of science and just put it towards that practical real life thing. It just really makes an enormous difference. And it's an eye opener for people when they realize suddenly how much science really takes a part in their daily lives.
[00:29:46] Deepak: Sam, John and I are really grateful to have had you on. We've learned so much about you, about your philosophy, about where you plan to carry S&T into the future. And, we're in good hands.
[00:29:55] Sam: Well, thank you all very much. I appreciate you kind of listening to my, to my ramblings today.
[00:30:00] John: You may consider them ramblings. We found them very inspiring and illuminating. So, thank you so much, Sam.
[00:30:08] Deepak: This has been Technologically Speaking, the official podcast of the DHS Science and Technology Directorate. To learn more about S & T and find additional information about what you heard in this episode, visit us online at scitech.dhs.gov and follow us on social media at DHS Scitech. Thanks for listening.