You may remember the Syrian government’s chemical attacks on civilians. You may also remember the international deal struck to destroy President Bashar al-Assad’s weapons’ stockpile. What you almost certainly don’t know is how the deadly chemicals were actually destroyed, or who figured out how to do it. This is the behind-the-scenes story.

The unlikely solution would ultimately involve the cooperation of 17 countries, the warp-speed work of a small cohort of U.S. Army chemists, and squabbling and infighting within the highest echelons of the U.S. government. It headed off U.S. military intervention in Syria and helped earn the Nobel Peace Prize for the intergovernmental organization under whose banner it was carried out. But before all that, the kernel of the idea — to destroy Assad’s chemical arsenal on a boat in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea — and the duty of seeing it through began with a team of anonymous young women in a dismal office, burrowed deep inside an obscure federal agency.