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Robert Neubecker

I’m a scientist making a difference during the pandemic—as a letter carrier

“What would you do if you were not in science?” the principal investigator asked me during a postdoc interview in Denver many years ago. I hadn’t really thought about it before. Construction? I had spent some summers in college as a frame carpenter and gotten pretty good at it. A musician? Appealing—I’m not too bad on blues harmonica—but I knew I wasn’t good enough to make a living at it. “A mailman,” I blurted out, “so I could walk around all day and think about things.” I’m not sure where the idea came from; I had just flown from New Orleans—where I completed my Ph.D.—to the Mile High City, so I was probably a bit lightheaded at the time. Little did I know then that, after a 30-year career in science, I would in fact end up as a letter carrier, making a difference in a way I never would have expected.

I first became inspired by the idea that my work could make a positive, practical impact in the world after I transitioned from academia to biotech. I had initially been attracted to scientific research by the fun of solving problems and discovering something new. During my Ph.D. and postdoctoral research, that meant uncovering the mechanisms certain viruses use to replicate in cells. But as I started in biotech and my work became more applied, I realized that my research could lead to potential treatments for human disease. I worked on developing gene therapy approaches to treat osteoarthritis and restenosis, antiviral drugs against hepatitis B and C, and—in a late-career return to academia—a less costly vaccine for human papillomavirus (HPV).

Still, none of my projects resulted in anything tangible to help people. I also became accustomed to being bounced around by forces that felt outside of my control and to taking career opportunities as they came up. My first biotech job ended when the company restructured and my position was eliminated. I landed a job at another biotech company, but just 1 year in, it went bankrupt and I was laid off. Next, I secured a “senior postdoc” in academia—which lasted until Congress instigated sequestration in 2013, the grant that funded my project was cut, and I was out of a job again. Eventually, after some part-time consulting work with a few small startups, I decided I needed something more substantial and permanent.

I felt I still had some good years left, and that I had not yet made a difference in society, but I wasn’t able to find another full-time position in a science-related field. I started to ponder that question from my postdoc interview all those years ago. What else could I do besides science? How could I still make a meaningful contribution?

I’m trained as a virologist [but] it is in my new role that I am considered an ‘essential worker.’

I decided to completely change gears and get a job as a letter carrier for the United States Postal Service. Even by my standards of adaptability, this last change was pretty dramatic—and a little hard to get used to. I have a Ph.D. and 30 years of experience conducting scientific research, yet here I am, delivering mail. But I try to keep an open mind. Although I miss research, I do enjoy getting to walk around and think about things. What would my life look like if, after my first biotech furlough, I had taken that interview for a director of biology position in San Francisco? Will that HPV vaccine patent I co-authored ever amount to anything? Why is my car making that noise?

Lately I’ve been thinking about the COVID-19 pandemic and my career. It’s ironic that although I’m trained as a virologist—surely an essential skill these days—it is in my new role that I am considered an “essential worker.” I certainly hope I’m helping in the fight against COVID-19 by delivering election ballots, medicines, and checks (among the bills, too, of course). Truth be told, I believe I am making a more direct and positive impact on people’s lives now than when I was in science. Finding out that viral protein X interacts with cellular protein Y was cool—but it doesn’t touch the average person on the street the way getting the mail does.

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