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Robert Neubecker

I wanted to join my fellow Puerto Ricans in protest—but I’m far away for my Ph.D.

I sat alone in my room, glued to my computer screen, watching events unfold 3000 kilometers away. Back home in Puerto Rico in July, thousands were marching to Old San Juan, demanding that Governor Ricardo Rosselló resign, and I was proud of them. I, however, was in Vermont, pursuing my Ph.D. I had left Puerto Rico because of the academic opportunities available elsewhere—a trade-off many scientists make as we pursue our training and careers. But I still feel deeply connected to my home. I stayed up late following what was happening and talking with friends who were marching, including one who suffered violence at the hands of the police. I was furious at myself for not being there.

My first instinct was to buy a plane ticket home. I didn’t want to neglect my academic work, but before I’m a Ph.D. student, I’m a Puerto Rican. I have a responsibility to get involved in what happens there. But the tickets were too expensive. I couldn’t go.

I remembered when Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico 2 years earlier. I was not home to help my family and community—I had left for Vermont a month before the storm. Since then, I have sought counseling to deal with my feelings of isolation and helplessness about being away, and I have worked on building meaningful relationships with friends and colleagues in Vermont. But it only took the first protest to remind me that I have one foot here and another in Puerto Rico. I was desperate to participate in this historic moment.

I tried to focus on my dissertation proposal, but it was no use. I pushed myself to go to work every day, but even reading scientific articles was hard.

Speaking with my counselor helped me figure out the way forward. I realized that I was focused on what I wanted to do instead of what I could do. There were still ways I could help from Vermont.

I got in touch with my friend and colleague Bianca Valdés, a Ph.D. student at the University of Puerto Rico, whom I know through an initiative to train scientists to get involved in policymaking called the Puerto Rico Science Policy Action Network (PR-SPAN). We came up with a rapid, feasible way for me to contribute: write an online letter in which Puerto Rican scientists could express our support for Rosselló’s resignation. We wanted to emphasize that, although Rosselló is also a scientist, he does not represent the Puerto Rican scientific community or the values needed to govern.

The first protest [reminded] me that I have one foot here and another in Puerto Rico.

After a daylong flurry of writing and editing, and with the help of former PR-SPAN member Jesús Alvelo, who is currently a science and technology policy fellow with AAAS (which publishes Science Careers), we had the letter posted. In just a few hours, it got about 100 signatures. It was even picked up by the press.

I also teamed up with a few Puerto Rican friends in Vermont to take pictures with signs urging Rosselló to resign, which we posted on social media. We wanted to show our support for the protestors back home as well as make non-Puerto Rican members of our networks aware of what was happening there. I had thought of trying something like this before my meeting with my counselor but had not pushed hard enough. Now, I decided to just set a time and make it happen. Only three of us were able to make it, but it was still great to feel that sense of community, and I was happy about our small contribution to the cause.

Perhaps counterintuitively, taking these actions also helped me get back on track with my academic work. I felt I was doing my part—however minor—to support the people of Puerto Rico, so when I was at work, I was able to focus on my science.

As students and scientists, we cannot alienate ourselves from the issues that matter to us. We must be engaged. And the many of us who are far from home to pursue our scientific research can find ways to engage from afar.

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