Chasing Paper: Adventures in Fiber Analysis

Mary Kombolias recently shared how she went from majoring in English to revolutionizing fiber analysis. Thanks to NIST for allowing us to cross-post Mary’s blog here. 

Growing up in New Orleans, Louisiana, I had no scientific aspirations as a child. I do remember being entertained by science, relishing public television programs such as Newton’s Apple, Bill Nye the Science Guy and Square One, but I never saw science as a career path. It was not for lack of encouragement or female role models; my own mother, an immigrant from Greece, at one time seriously studied chemistry before deciding to pursue a degree in archaeology. Even my high school chemistry teacher, Mr. Fonte, saw my potential, and in front of a classroom of my peers declared that I would become a chemist one day. But I simply had other interests in mind, and I declared myself an English writing major throughout most of my college days, with the goal of entering the publishing industry as a writer or an editor.

Toward the end of my undergraduate career, I had a change of heart and a change of majors. I never looked back and presumably shut the door entirely on the world of publishing forever. Or at least until December 2007, when I was hired as a chemist in the Testing and Technical Services Branch at the United States Government Publishing Office (GPO).

Just blocks away from the U.S. Capitol and under the aegis of the Legislative Branch, the GPO’s mission is to “Keep America Informed.” We produce all of the U.S. government’s official documents—everything from the Pocket Constitutions given out to permanent residents preparing for their citizenship tests, to the “Medicare and You” guides to assist seniors across the country in enrolling for their health benefits, to secure credentials such as the U.S. Passport.

In order to print these documents and countless others for agencies across the federal government, the GPO is responsible for procuring the paper and ensuring it meets certain technical specifications for each of these print jobs. This involves physical and chemical testing  of paper for printability, runnability, durability and permanence. Other than my abandoned publishing ambitions, I had zero background in either the paper or printing industries when I was hired. To be honest, like most ordinary people, I thought paper was pretty dull, and thanks to its ubiquity, I generally took for granted how much paper serves us in our daily lives. My graduate chemistry work was on elucidating the crystallographic transitions of cathodic materials used in lithium rechargeable batteries, which most folks would agree is way sexier. Admittedly, it took a while for me to gain enthusiasm for paper science and the technical side of printing and publishing, although perks like being able to access the subway under the Capitol building and the honor of working on high-profile projects like presidential inaugurations and performing analyses at the request of members of Congress did help.

Among the pieces of knowledge I had to acquire for my job at the GPO was something called fiber analysis, a process by which I had to certify that the paper we purchased was indeed manufactured with the fiber composition specified by the procurement contract. Fiber analysis is an important evaluation for high-value printing substrates. For instance, a paper with 50 percent cotton fiber is more expensive than one with 25 percent cotton fiber. In the case of security papers such as social security card paper and passport paper, fiber analysis takes on even greater importance. Ensuring the fiber composition is consistent and meets specifications is both a matter of national security and civil rights. If all people are equal under the law, the quality of the documents issued to them by a governmental authority should be consistently high, and the ability to authenticate the validity and origin of those documents borne by any two individuals should be equally simple.

Read the full blog on the NIST Site.

Originally posted as part of the NIST Taking Measure Blog.