Each May, the United States celebrates Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, during which we recognize the incredible contributions and achievements of AAPI citizens today, and throughout our nation’s history. In the State Department’s Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation (ISN), these accomplishments can be seen every single day of the year, in the work done by ISN’s AAPI patriots, individuals who have dedicated themselves to making the United States and our world a safer place.
ISN’s core mission is to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction, their delivery systems, and advanced conventional weapons, and to roll back this proliferation where it has taken root. While this mission may feel complex at times – after all, we address high consequence biological threats and emerging dual-use technologies – at its core, our success is built on one simple, critical component: ISN’s people. It is our people who make the achievement of our mission possible, and some of our most inspiring are Americans of Asian and Pacific Islander descent. These individuals wake up every day dedicated to making our world a safer place, and to addressing some of today’s most challenging security threats. Here are just a few of their stories.
Renee Sonderman leads the State Department’s efforts to curb the proliferation of destabilizing conventional weapons and related dual-use technologies. Renee brings years of experience and expertise in nonproliferation to her position as Acting Director of the Conventional Arms Threat Reduction (CATR) office. As the head of CATR, Renee is excited by the work she and her team do to prevent our adversaries and strategic competitors from using sensitive and emerging technologies to harm the United States or our partners and allies, and to ensure that the U.S. maintains our technological edge around the world. Prior to assuming her current position, Renee served as the National Security Council’s Director for Counterproliferation Strategy, where she advanced White House priorities on interdiction, proliferation networks, proliferation finance, and UN Security Council resolution 1540, and as ISN’s Director of the Office of Weapons of Mass Destruction Terrorism. She has also spent time overseas at Embassy Beijing and at the U.S. Mission in Vienna, where she represented the United States in engagements with the International Atomic Energy Agency. A child of immigrants, Renee is proud to be representing the United States as an American of Asian descent, in a career she describes as the American dream. When she thinks about where she wants to be in five years, Renee “wants to still be working international security and nonproliferation issues at my home – the State Department.”
Quang Nguyen serves in Indonesia, where he uses his expertise to improve border security and prevent proliferation. As the in-country advisor for ISN’s Export Control and Related Border Security program, Quang works directly with Indonesian officials to improve strategic trade controls and customs enforcement. Quang describes his work as being like that of the conductor of an orchestra, and he loves helping a wide ensemble of experts, government partners, and implementers play their individual parts in keeping Indonesia and its international partners safe. However, Quang’s career didn’t begin in government service. On September 11, 2001, he was working as a junior associate in a private law firm in Virginia. In the aftermath of that day’s horrific attacks, Quang felt compelled to make a difference, and he entered government as a member of the newly formed Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Over the next 18 years, Quang dedicated his career to public service, from working as a prosecutor at the U.S. Attorney’s office to serving as the TSA Representative in Bangkok, Thailand. When asked what he would want you, the reader, to know, Quang shared, “As an immigrant born in Vietnam, I am eternally grateful to my parents, who took tremendous risks and sacrifices to give me these opportunities, and to my adopted country for the freedoms and comforts we, too often, take for granted. I am proud to serve.”
Dr. Sapana Vora
Dr. Sapana Vora is a National Security Advisor and Deputy Team Chief for multiple programs in ISN’s office of Cooperative Threat Reduction – meaning her work ranges from countering weapons of mass destruction risks in Iraq to helping lead a biosecurity program during a global pandemic. Sapana was originally trained to be a cancer biologist, but found herself on a very different career path when she joined State as a AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) Science and Technology Policy Fellow, a program that recruits scientists, engineers, and other advanced degree holders into government to help shape evidence-based decision-making. Today, Sapana applies her scientific training to enact positive change on a global scale; for example, by making communities safer and more secure from the threats posed by state and non-state actors seeking to obtain dangerous biological agents. Sapana thrives knowing that her work makes a real-world impact on some of today’s toughest nonproliferation challenges, and is thrilled to be in a position to help lead what she describes as “a group of brilliant, dedicated, and innovative team members,” the majority of whom are early-career women.
Based in Manila, Ransom Avilla develops strategic trade programs not just for the Philippines, but for Cambodia as well. As Regional Advisor for the Export Control and Border Security (EXBS) program, Ransom brings his considerable expertise to strengthening these essential programs in the midst of a global pandemic. A retired Special Agent and former Attaché for Department of Homeland Security-Investigations, Ransom has previously served on the U.S. border, where he investigated drug smuggling cartels and human trafficking organizations, and as an undercover agent investigating the procurement of weapons and chemicals in violation of U.S. law. Ransom has extensive experience working overseas for DHS and State, in Abu Dhabi, Baghdad, and Amman, and domestically, including in his own home state of Hawaii. Ransom is a third generation Asian American of Japanese-Filipino descent. When interviewed for this article, Ransom shared: “I am honored that we celebrate and recognize Asian American and Pacific Islanders’ contributions. The recent brutal attacks against Asian Americans are troubling and worrisome. My hope is that AAPI Heritage Month will bring awareness of the contributions, both large and small, that Asian Americans have made for our nation.”
Dr. Janet Chen
Dr. Janet Chen began her career as an ecologist, and worked at the International Atomic Energy Agency as a climate change analyst before joining the Department of State. Today, Janet plays a leading role in coordinating U.S. policy to support the peaceful uses of nuclear technology – one of the three pillars of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Janet uses her scientific expertise to ensure this technology is applied to help other countries, be it in food and agriculture, human health, the environment, or energy. She loves the diverse array of topics that she gets to touch upon every day in her work – a typical day for her could include learning about the application of linear accelerators and electron beams in the medical field in the morning, coordinating U.S. support for projects that use irradiation to control insect pests in the afternoon, and then reviewing diplomatic statements at the end of the day. As a AAAS Fellow, Janet has always wanted to address sustainability issues. At ISN, she continues to do just that via American diplomacy. In five years, Janet hopes to still be using her scientific expertise to better the lives of people in the United States and around the world.
These are just a few of the stories of the incredible AAPI individuals working at ISN, and across the State Department. From Washington, D.C., to cities all across the world, these dedicated public servants devote themselves to making our world a safer place, and to preventing weapons of mass destruction, conventional weapons, and other items of concern from falling into the wrong hands. They do so in service to their country, and often without recognition. This Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, it is a privilege to have highlighted even a small portion of the incredible work our colleagues are doing in the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation.
About the Author: Nora Updegrove is a Foreign Affairs Officer in the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation at the U.S. Department of State.