Elizabeth Ambrose

Elizabeth AmbroseConducting Research to Address Real-World Threats and Emergencies

Associate Professor Elizabeth Ambrose grew up in a family of military professionals and civil servants.

So, it was natural that after defending her dissertation to earn her doctorate in chemistry one month after 9/11, she decided to dedicate her career to discovering ways to mitigate biological and chemical warfare threats.

“That was really a turning point for me,” said Ambrose.

“The more I looked into these threats, the more I realized a sense of urgency in trying to find ways to mitigate them.”

Today, Ambrose’s research program focuses on designing countermeasures to biological and chemical warfare agents, specifically Bacillus anthracis (the causative agent of anthrax), the ricin toxin, and organophosphate nerve gases such as sarin, soman and the nerve agent VX.

“It’s absolutely critical that we try to stay a step ahead of our adversaries,” said Ambrose. “Often, we approach this work as if we’re fighting the last battle, and chances are that the next terror attack will be something completely different. Those who wish to do us harm are always seeking new ways to circumvent widely known security measures.”

Bridging the fields of biochemistry and microbiology with computational sciences, Ambrose and her researchers are working on several projects, including designing small-molecule anthrax toxin lethal factor inhibitors for use as emergency therapeutics in a bioterror attack, identifying ricin toxin A inhibitors as counterterrorism measures, and engineering enzyme active sites to rapidly and effectively hydrolyze fast-acting nerve agents on the battlefield or in civilian terrorism scenarios.

“When anthrax spores enter a host, they germinate and start secreting large amounts of lethal exotoxin,” said Ambrose. “The vegetative bacteria are susceptible to antibiotics, but the toxin itself is not, and the initial symptoms of infection are often non-specific. That’s what makes anthrax so dangerous. Once a definitive diagnosis is made, the toxin may already have reached lethal levels; hence the need for fast-acting antitoxin countermeasures.”

Ambrose is grateful to be at a Biosafety Level 3 (BSL-3) and Select Agent research university, which allows her to safely focus on her counterterrorism research.

With a lifelong interest in electronics, Ambrose is certified in ham radio emergency operations. 

“My amateur radio emergency work connects closely to my interests in science and technology for homeland security,” said Ambrose.

Building and repairing both modern and vintage radios is a good fit for Ambrose’s work in emergency operations and her love of military history.

“Oftentimes in an emergency, cell towers go down and regular phone lines may not work,” said Ambrose. “When all else fails, ham radio is always there.”

Ambrose warns that civilian and military populations remain vulnerable to a bioterrorism attack.