Physics Alum Navigates Export Control for UW-Madison

Bethany Nelson and UW-Madison mascot Bucky Badger

To bring something in or out of the country means navigating a minefield of bureaucratic rules and regulations to comply with the policies of the U.S. government. Bethany Nelson is something of a minesweeper.

Nelson is a UWM alumna who majored in physics. After graduating in 2007, she attended law school at UW-Madison, earning her JD in 2010. Now she works in UW-Madison’s Export Control Office , helping faculty and researchers import and export the controlled materials they need to conduct their work.

She sat down with Letters & Science to talk about her work.

What, exactly, is an export control coordinator?

The government has a list of items that they consider ‘controlled’ for national security purposes. This is anything from lasers, guns, and tanks, to stuff like Ebola, brucella, and some nasty biologicals, all the way down to certain cameras, certain night vision equipment, and certain centrifuges. Even laptops and phones have a very low level of control.

The United States also has the ‘Deemed Exports’ rule. It states that if a foreign person has access to controlled technology in the United States, it is ‘deemed’ to have been exported to that person’s country’s citizenship. As you can imagine, most universities have a high population of foreign persons on campus. My job is to make sure that we are compliant with the large variety of rules and regulations across multiple different agencies.

Additionally, there are ‘restricted party lists’ that the U.S. government keeps which are essentially just lists of persons, governments, companies, or universities that we’re either not supposed to do business with, or can have only limited interaction with. Another aspect of my job is to make sure that we don’t violate anything on the lists.

What kind of materials do you work with at UW-Madison that need to go through export control?

We have a lot of stuff like lasers and centrifuges. We have select agents like Ebola and H1N1 that come across our desk – well, not literally come across our desk. We’ve had night vision goggles, cameras, chemicals you name it. The controls lists contain thousands of items, many of them used in research so it’s across the board.

One of the more unique ones was a place in Scandinavia that wanted to send some reindeer meat to campus to get some analysis done. There are sometimes bugs. We had to figure out how to get some vaccines to some cattle in Morocco because in theory it was cheaper to keep the cattle in Morocco than to keep them here, but trying to get the vaccines out was a really complicated process.

Do you have a stand-out request you’ve been asked to handle?

One of my favorites was when the Cartography Department wanted to purchase some maps for a book, and the maps were only available from the State Archive (of the Russian Federation) in Moscow. The State Archive asked for payment in the amount of $2,000 or so, but they would only accept payment through a particular bank that the Treasury Department says that U.S. citizens and companies may not use. So, there was a question of how to get the money there. I remember in a meeting saying, “Look, hand me a suitcase filled with the cash, and I’ll take it to the State Archives in Moscow and get the maps,” à la James Bond. That was roundly shot down as an option.

We managed to get an exception from the Treasury Department, but that was a long, on-going thing, all for some maps.

How did you come to your current position?

I worked for American Girl, the doll company, in their legal department for a while. I worked for the state of Wisconsin in unemployment insurance. I had a bunch of odd jobs before then, too. Then this particular position came up on a university job board, and my boyfriend said, you should apply for this. I looked at the qualifications and said, “I have never heard of this thing called export control; they’d never hire me.”
In retrospect, my boss said that I have a configuration of skills that work well in this job, which is the combination of a science background with the law degree. You’ll find a fair amount of people in this field with a law degree, but not too many that also have a science background. It’s kind of a weird combination, but it works well for what I do.

What are the best parts of the job? And the most challenging?

I think the best part is definitely the variety – there isn’t a typical day. It’s nice to have a large set of things that come up. I think another great thing is how much you can learn. A large part of that hinges on my boss, who is super-encouraging, wants me to get more experience, and is comfortable handing things off to me, which I appreciate.

One of the more challenging things is that there’s a perception among some in the industry export control community that universities don’t know what we’re doing in compliance areas or that we’re somehow lagging, (but) universities are different than industry. It doesn’t mean we can’t be compliant; it just means we’re going to approach things in a different way. I think the other challenging thing – and this aspect has gotten better – is making sure that people on campus know that we are not there to slow down their research or be an undue burden; we are there to help them. When I first started, I was sometimes met with skepticism from certain places on campus: “Why do I have to fill this form out?” But now that the researchers have begun to see export control more and more in their contracts and research, the vast majority welcome our input and will actively reach out with questions and concerns.

Do you have any advice for graduates on the hunt for their next job?

Don’t stress yourself out over not having all the answers. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t work hard or that you shouldn’t strive to reach your goals or do your best, but if something comes up in your path, do not beat yourself up over it. You’ll find opportunities in the most unlikely places, so open yourself up to areas outside of what you thought you were “supposed” to pursue.

By Sarah Vickery, College of Letters & Science