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Stanford Report, September 11, 2002

Campus anthrax scares result in expedited biotesting procedures

On Oct. 22, 2001, only months after biosafety manager Ellyn Segal began her job, white powder was found in the mail at 651 Serra St.

"My initial response was to put on protective gear and go in and deal with the situation immediately. But I learned emergency responders have procedures. I had to be able to step back," says the former infectious agents researcher.

It took several hours for the groups at the scene -- which included law enforcement as well as Environmental Health and Safety specialists -- to assess the situation, form a command group and get into emergency gear. Causing further delay, inundated county laboratories in Santa Clara -- the official test sites -- said they could not accept samples. Segal eventually obtained permission to test some of the cultures herself at Stanford with the help of university biologists and chemists. The FBI also ran tests at the state laboratories in Berkeley. When the powder was identified as some sort of food substance, the office was reopened Oct. 24.

Segal has spent this past year trying to expedite the university's response to such threats as well as making the parties involved more scientifically informed. Stanford now has the ability to analyze cultures on campus, although these preliminary results still will only complement official tests. In addition, Segal has helped incorporate new bioterrorism measures into the university's general procedures for hazardous materials response.

"We're better off than we were a year ago," says Segal, cautioning that the university can prepare itself only as far as government guidelines permit. "We can only control Stanford. We can't control the rest of the world."

--Jia-Rui Chong

Ellyn Segal

Ellyn Segal