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Former Postdoc Featured in TV Special

By Eddy Ball
March 2009

John Fortune
Fortune, shown during one of his lighter moments as an NIEHS trainee, now takes technology a little more seriously in his position at DHS. He's also had to swap his lab-casual shorts and sandals for a suit and tie. (Photo courtesy of Tom Kunkel)

Tom Kunkel
Kunkel, above, described Fortune as "a particularly fine example... of how trainees can use their fundamental strengths to succeed in what many would consider a non-traditional career path." (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

When former Postdoctoral Fellow John Fortune, Ph.D., left NIEHS in 2005, he knew he was taking an important step that would change his career path. What he couldn't have known was that in February 2009 he would appear on national television as one of the real-life heroes showcased in a National Geographic Channel special on the "Hi-Tech War on Terror ( Exit NIEHS," speaking as a specialist in the application of innovative technology to protect people and infrastructure in the event of terrorist attacks.

During his four years at NIEHS, Fortune was a member of the DNA Replication Fidelity Group headed by Principal Investigator Tom Kunkel, Ph.D., which is known for its pioneering work in DNA replication and mutagenesis. He was a talented young biologist with degrees from Duke and Vanderbilt and a growing list of publications in peer-reviewed journals.

Today, Fortune works at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as a program manager in the Science and Technology Directorate's Infrastructure and Geophysical Division. He oversees twelve programs, including "Resilient Tunnel ( Exit NIEHS," which was featured in "Hi-Tech War on Terror." The segment showed Fortune and scientists from West Virginia University testing fireproof inflatable devices that can be installed at intervals in subway and traffic tunnels to block fires from accidents and explosions.

The journey from the bench to the television set began when Fortune landed an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science and Technology Policy Fellowship. He accepted an assignment at DHS that turned into something he hadn't expected at all. "I went in thinking of my background in biology," Fortune recalls, "and [18 months later] ended up working on transportation infrastructure."

Looking back on his circuitous path to DHS, where he is far more likely to talk of material stress and thermodynamics than mismatch repair and double-strand breaks, Fortune credits his experiences at NIEHS with helping prepare him for the transition. As a trainee, he took advantage of career development experiences at NIEHS and elsewhere, especially in regard to communication and presentation skills. "It was a great experience," he said of his time at NIEHS, "and I am much indebted to Tom [Kunkel] for the opportunities and support provided during my time there."

Fortune transferred the kind of divergent, "outside-the-box" thinking he applied at the bench designing experiments to his new challenges in explosives protection and surveillance. He also built on his curiosity, his ability to be flexible and his willingness to tackle "steep learning curves" - in terms of both his technical work and the "different world" of government service, where his earlier lessons in collaboration and communication have proven invaluable.

"At NIEHS, trainees are exposed to some of the workings of government, which is very helpful," Fortune said, "but it's a different world here, and there is some culture shock in the beginning that's very hard to anticipate." These days Fortune finds himself "balancing different responsibilities at the same time" as he deals with budgets, new cutting-edge developments, politics and other competing responsibilities.

Although he misses the slower pace and less congested environment of the Triangle, Fortune said he's enjoying his exposure to different aspects of science and constantly learning new things. For those who like the idea of an alternate career path, Fortune recommends networking to get a feel for the culture of those who work in the field. Even the busiest people, he notes, such as congressmen and executives, are often willing to spend time with curious and motivated people.

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