Dr. Kay Mereish has always been interested in what the eye cannot see.
Butterfly legs when she was a child in Jordan, exalting in the new worlds that opened to her with this gift from her father: A microscope.
An immuno-suppressant agent when she was a graduate student in Omaha, where she earned a doctorate in what at the time was called medical sciences.
Biological and chemical weapons agents, when she was a United Nations weapons inspector combing military storage sites in Iraq for dreaded and illegal warfare weapons.
Beyond her lifelong scientific curiosity was something else that not even a prized microscope could show – patriotism.
“She’s a fighter. She’s never lost her zeal for the U.S. She has believed in the military, she has believed in the legal system, and she’s a better American than I am,” said Pat Cleveland, a lifelong friend who met Mereish at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and is now a retired pharmaceutical research and development executive living outside Philadelphia. “She’s a real patriot through and through.”
Mereish has the resume to back it up: A professional career that put her in proximity to danger whether in war zones or laboratories with potentially fatal chemicals. She spent years in the U.S. Army, retiring as colonel, worked for the United Nations as a weapons inspector before and after the Iraq War, and remains in DHS Intelligence and Analysis.
In July, the department awarded Mereish with its highest civilian honor, the Distinguished Service Medal. It is for exceptional, distinguished and transformational public service – service that a DHS official described as “just groundbreaking.”
She’s a real patriot through and through.
- Pat Cleveland
She was credited with being a driving force in helping DHS confront emerging infectious diseases. One example was how she created a DHS Homeland Health Intelligence unit within the National Center for Medical Intelligence. This unit provided a new national capability blending all-source intelligence and analysis on infectious disease threats.
Mereish also has the kind of technical expertise and leadership that guided DHS through multiple crises: from the 2009 H1N1 pandemic to today’s COVID-19. On the novel coronavirus, DHS said Mereish “leveraged her extensive network” of government, private sector and international medical experts to conduct complex modeling to project COVID-19 cases in countries of interest.
Among her many roles, Mereish also has served the DHS Science and Technology Directorate that helps evaluate and select academic research hubs, called Centers of Excellence, of which NCITE is one.
Mereish is so well-admired that there is not enough room in cyberspace to list her many accomplishments and associations. But her life story seems to reflect the best of the American idea.
Born in a small town near the Jordan River, Kulthoum “Kay” Mereish grew up in a big family committed to education. She was one of 10 children, which made her father’s gift of a microscope so special. At a time when scientific professions were beginning to crack open to women, she took a leap of faith, leaving all that was familiar for the promise of an American education.
“I was always interested in research and wanted to find a cure for diseases,” she wrote in an email because – ironically – one of those diseases has stolen her ability to speak without pain.
She was diagnosed with cancer in 2016, and it has spread to her lungs.
But ever willing to serve, Mereish agreed to an email interview to tell her story.
She landed in Nebraska in 1977 knowing almost no one and in a field that to this day remains mostly male. After obtaining her doctorate, she entered the U.S. Army, often having to leave her family for assignments she could not reveal.
Her career took her to the biodefense facility at Fort Detrick, Maryland, where she published articles on biodefense, nonproliferation and verification technologies. She deployed on overseas tours in the Middle East and served on the U.N. Special Commission inspection team charged with ensuring Iraq’s compliance on weapons of mass destruction. She later became chief inspector of the U.N. Monitoring and Verification Commission from 2000 to 2008. She joined DHS in 2009, rising to senior level intelligence officer.
She holds so many titles, offices and responsibilities that it is hard to list them all. Her most recent educational background includes graduating from the executive leadership program at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and completing a Leadership in Homeland Security program at Harvard University’s Kennedy School. A tie that gives NCITE pride is her doctorate from the University of Nebraska Medical Center, just three miles away from the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
And Mereish is decorated: receiving the U.S. Army’s Meritorious Service Medal and Homeland Security commendations for public service in 2009 and unity of effort in 2019.
Mereish’s service extends beyond national security. Her family includes husband Doug Litke, daughter Sara, and over 40 nieces and nephews, most of whom live in the U.S. Holidays are big, happy gatherings.
“It is good to have a big family,” she wrote, adding that DHS has been “another great family.”
Mereish is proud of her accomplishments and life’s work. But it hasn’t come without sacrifice. It was hard to leave Doug and Sara for overseas assignments or week-long commutes to New York City during the eight years she worked for the United Nations. It can be hard to see little change over time in mostly male STEM fields, “still a man’s world,” as she put it, adding: “This needs to be changed.”
And it was hard to lead a weapons inspection team in Iraq, present findings and see politics take over the science.
“Almost all of the inspector’s findings and reports never impacted the views of the Security Council representative and actually they were ignored,” she wrote.
Through it all, was Mereish ever scared?
Not by chemicals, she said. She trusted her training and protective gear. In Iraq, she discovered most chemical weapons were destroyed in the early 1990s. The only agent she said her team encountered was mustard agent which was destroyed in 2003.
Not by war zones. She acknowledged feeling uneasy at night at the hotel in Iraq. But, ever the scientist, she knew she had a ready communication system and was in constant touch with the operations center.
Stay engaged. Be adaptable.
- Kay Mereish on what it takes to thrive as a center of excellence.
Mereish’s career offers insight to NCITE.
On the field of intelligence: She said intelligence relies on subject-matter experts in a host of fields but also on collecting, reporting and analyzing information, using past and current data to make judgments and draw conclusions. These are skills honed both in formal and real-world training. What’s essential? “Logic and critical thinking.”
On the changing threat landscape: Mereish joined the Army in the mid-1980s during the Cold War when nuclear, chemical and biological weapons were big threats. Biological and chemical weapons threats have diminished but are not eliminated.
How can DHS Centers of Excellence like NCITE help?
Mereish is on the board of the Center for Accelerating Operational Efficiency at Arizona State University. She said the federal government can gain from the academic atmosphere.
“Knowledge of open-minded academic thinking, solutions to problems that are out of the box and the formation of a new cadre of Homeland Security experts,” she said.
As a Homeland Security professional, Mereish said that interaction with academia was “like an infusion of fresh blood into my brain.”
There are 16 DHS academic centers of excellence. NCITE is among the 10 current centers; there are six centers with emeritus status. Their existence is mandated under the Homeland Security Act, but their future depends on building relationships between scientists and Homeland Security customers, and on adapting to an ever-changing threat field.
“Stay engaged,” she wrote. “Be adaptable.”
Mereish worries that not enough young people are interested in STEM careers or pursue the sciences professionally. But the array of opportunities fill her with hope. She sees in young people a generation far more adept at multitasking and quick to seize on important concepts. She called them “fast movers in multidirectional thinking” who need new systems, not old ones.
That said, there are a few old tools worth keeping.
That old microscope she got decades ago sits in her Virginia home.
It is a reminder of her father, who encouraged her to get her education, even if that meant traveling to the other side of the world. It is a reminder of a career that married academia with national security, using science to keep the world safe.
Most of all, that microscope is a window into worlds that are right in front of us, if only we look.
The microscope Kay Mereish received from her father that inspired a successful STEM and national security career remains a treasure in her home.