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Spotlight: Joannie Chin’s Early Milestone in Body Armor Standards

Joannie Chin stands with arms crossed, wearing safety goggles, in front of scientific equipment.
Credit: J. Stoughton/NIST

Joannie Chin, the acting director of NIST’s Engineering Laboratory, is still a polymer scientist at heart. Take a closer look at the lifesaving mark she made on body armor earlier in her career.

When a police officer’s body armor failed in 2003 — pierced by a bullet that it was expected to stop — Joannie and her colleagues at NIST set off to uncover the science that could explain how it happened. Rigorous chemical and mechanical analysis revealed that fibers in the officer’s armor were far weaker compared with ones from a new set of armor.

To tease out the cause, Joannie exposed new fibers to different stresses that come from regular use. Moisture rapidly degraded the fibers, making a large dent in the armor’s strength.

Cranking up the temperature didn’t seem to bother the fibers when applied alone, but when coupled with moisture, the materials broke down even faster.

The armor’s design also played a part in its own demise. Breathability allowed moisture from the air or user to infiltrate its insides.

Moisture. Temperature. Design. 

With this research as a foundation, the NIST Office of Law Enforcement Standards was able to develop a new body armor standard that, like none before it, tested the long-term performance of armor.

But there’s more to Joannie than this particular project. Read up on her career as a scientist and a leader.

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Released May 18, 2021, Updated May 24, 2021