Research & Innovation

Stevens SRI Students Visit Port Newark’s Customs and Border Protection Facilities

Student researchers participating in the Summer Research Institute (SRI) at Stevens – an eight-week research program that engages undergraduate and graduate science and engineering students from a number of universities in the study of maritime domain awareness, emergency response and maritime system resilience – recently engaged in an eye-opening field visit to the Customs and Border Protection (CPB) facilities at Port Newark.

CPB is the Department of Homeland Security division responsible for keeping terrorists and weapons out of the U.S., enforcing immigration laws, drug laws and other regulations, and securing and facilitating trade and travel. At Port Newark, the East Coast’s busiest port, the ten SRI students heard an overview of CBP operational units and technologies from homeland security experts and working practitioners.

“It was very informative,” said Fernando Valverde, an SRI participant from the University of Puerto Rico-Mayaquez. “We learned about the general management of the port, including how officers manage security.”

“It made us aware of the security necessities on the port that is considered to the most high risk terrorist target site in the U.S.,” added Nicole Rodriguez, also from the University of Puerto Rico-Mayaquez.

The students received a hands-on tour of the facilities from CPB officers. Federal law requires all incoming containers to the U.S. to be scanned for radiation, and the students saw the areas containing x-ray equipment, cameras and other high-tech equipment for detecting threats. They also saw the customs area where containers flagged during initial scans go for further inspection by officers using handheld radiation detection devices.

CPB officers also described finding illegal drugs hidden inside hollowed out wood products and packed into car engines. They said certain counterfeit items like fake Gucci bags and designer hiking boots can contain hidden dangers, such as lead and other materials that are hazardous to the health.

“It was amazing to see the creative ways people come up with to smuggle in drugs and counterfeit products,” said Valverde. “The officers have to be really ingenious to figure it out.”

The students also gained an understanding of how the protective agencies would be affected in the event of a port closure or an increase of volume.

“It was interesting to learn that CBP agents from other locations could be brought in to help with the security checks,” said Grace Python, a graduate student in the SRI and a member of the Maritime Systems Fellowship Program at Stevens. Python has been working on a project that examines the susceptibility of ports.

According to Beth DeFares – director of education the Center for Secure and Resilient Maritime Commerce (CSR) at Stevens, which runs the SRI – experiential learning opportunities like the Port Newark field visit are a key part of the SRI curriculum.

“We want to provide our students with a real-world context in which they can better understand DHS and CBP needs and the broader impacts of their research projects,” she said.

As the SRI continues this summer, the student researchers will hear seminars and lectures by CSR researchers, maritime industry and government experts, and participate in collaborative multi-disciplinary, hands-on research projects to be presented to CSR researchers and DHS officials.