Atomic Pulse

Diverse Voices in Global Biosecurity: Dr. Andrew Hebbeler on the importance of leading with humility

NTI is committed to highlighting and supporting LGBTQ+ voices in national security during Pride Month and beyond. Sarah Stern, NTI’s Global Biological Policy and Programs intern, had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Andrew Hebbeler, the inaugural Director of Biosecurity at the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and former Senior Director of Global Biological Policy and Programs at NTI, about the importance of diversity in biosecurity work and how he views his personal leadership style. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


What was your entry point into the field of biosecurity?

I think what prompted me was really the era that I came of age in. I was a child of the ‘80s and the HIV pandemic dominated my own consciousness. Some of my earliest memories, beyond being with my family, were seeing the news stories of the day which were about the emergence of HIV and the way society was contending with that pandemic. By the time I got to college I knew I was interested in biology and most of my focus through my undergraduate years was understanding the basic biology of HIV infection. That work propelled me into grad school and beyond.

After I completed my PhD, I did a postdoc at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco but quickly realized that academic research wasn’t the course for me. What got me into the biosecurity field specifically was the fellowship sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Their Science and Technology Policy Fellowship took me out of the lab and injected me into the U.S. government. It was really through the interview process for the fellowship that I learned about biological weapons, biosecurity, and non-proliferation. I ended up ultimately completing my fellowship at the U.S. State Department. It was that entry point that got me into this field and exposed these issues to me. Really the rest is history.


Awesome, thanks. The AAAS fellowship sounds like a great way to make the transition from scientific research to policy. How do you feel your training as a scientist affects your work now?

In biosecurity, having a technical understanding of virology and molecular microbiology is important because ultimately what you’re trying to do is promote safe and secure approaches to research involving high-consequence pathogens. But I think that one of the underappreciated ways scientific training contributes to this kind of work is that our minds are trained to think in terms of the scientific method. For a decade at the State Department, I was applying a scientific method way of thinking to foreign policy. That is not how people who traditionally do foreign policy work are trained to think about it. They typically come from international affairs, public policy programs, or security studies programs, and less so (but increasingly!) from science. And so, really, the benefit I was offering was a way of problem-solving and tackling challenges that was anchored in the scientific method itself. I’ve come to think that is my contribution a lot of the time. It’s thinking about policy in a hypothesis-driven, evidence-based, data-generating kind of way more than simply knowing the technical details about how viruses interact with people to cause disease.


I really like that perspective. It highlights the importance of collaboration and bringing diverse perspectives to the table to conduct biosecurity work. How do you view the importance of diversity and inclusion in your work at CEPI and throughout your career?

We’re in a field that inherently involves a number of different disciplines. And so, in biosecurity, in order to do it well, you’re interacting with a wide range of experts, whether they be in foreign policy, in security, in domestic public health, global health, homeland security, law enforcement, or traditional kinds of non-proliferation entities. And you’re also interacting with a wide range of people. There’s just a diversity of technical expertise and experience that are needed in order for you to do this well.

I’ll also say that a lot of my work has been in policy roles or even in program roles where you have to weigh a lot of different interests. For a given issue there’s an economic component, there’s a set of security considerations, there’s a set of health considerations, and there’s a set of political and foreign affairs considerations. At the end of the day, you have to weigh the pros and cons to determine what the appropriate course of action is and what is in the interests of the United States or the world, depending on my responsibilities. And so, again, there’s just an inherent kind of interdisciplinary, multisectoral nature to the work that we’re doing. It’s also important to work with people that have had a range of life experiences. People that have confronted problems in different ways and solved them. You need to be able to bring all of that decision-making power to bear. In my own experience, more diverse teams make better decisions. And making sure there is diversity in the process is critically important to having an outcome that solves the problem and importantly endures.


I’d love to learn more about your leadership style. How do your life experiences or identities inform the way that you choose to lead?

What I didn’t mention explicitly is that I was born and raised in Kentucky, and I don’t even think I knew the State Department existed growing up. I didn’t know careers in policy existed, and even leaving Kentucky to pursue science was very much an anomalous way of thinking. And so, for me, my approach to leadership now is very much rooted in my beginnings and anchored in an inherent kind of humility. I always assumed that I was catching up and that people were smarter or more effective or better, so as a function of my own background I like to think there’s an inherent humility in the work that I do and the leadership style that I have. But that’s coupled with a decisiveness and directionality that at the end of the day is born out of my own values and principles and the types of goals that are in the best interest of the world.

There are all different kinds of leadership styles. I think the words that would best describe my style are humble, decisive, collaborative, collegial, and driven by a desire to make concrete positive progress. Sometimes some of these qualities are more pronounced in certain scenarios and decisions than others. And maybe that’s another way to describe it – flexible and being agile and self-aware so that you can apply what’s needed to get whatever work needs to be done.


Definitely, that makes sense. Is there a leader you admire in your field, or someone who has inspired your career trajectory in some way?

It’s funny. I think for me there isn’t a single person who I want to be but rather traits, styles, and qualities demonstrated by the extraordinary people I’ve worked with that I want to emulate in myself. In many ways, I feel like I’m making the kind of role in life that I want and there’s not a good example of someone out there that’s already doing it. But there are definitely a few people that have guided my career and I like to think of them as my collection of mentors. I’m still in touch with one of my undergraduate professors, Siobhan Barone, who played an instrumental role in encouraging me to pursue a doctorate. I’m also very much in touch with the person that hired me at the State Department who you probably know – Beth Cameron. Many others have set important examples and/or continue to play an important role in my life: Demetre Daskalakis, Phil Dolliff, Pat Falcone, Richard Hatchett, Matt Hepburn, Laura Holgate, Nicki Lurie, Jonathan Margolis, Ernie Moniz, Alondra Nelson, Joan Rohlfing, Deborah Rosenblum, Vaughan Turekian, Andy Weber, and Carrie Wolinetz. Those are just a few that are top of mind. There are a wide range of people from all different aspects of my career that I frequently turn to for advice and guidance, or just as a sounding board.


I appreciate that answer. What advice would you offer aspiring biosecurity professionals, especially those who are part of the LGBTQ+ community or other groups that are not well-represented in the security field?

Be yourself and follow your interests – you know yourself better than anyone else does! A lot of people that I was surrounded by when I was trying to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up – their approach was generally to find someone who is doing what you want to do and just follow their trajectory, or at least to use that as a series of guideposts for the kinds of positions that you pursue. I’ve never taken that approach. I’ve always just gravitated toward following my interests and trying to surround myself by people that I enjoy being around. We spend a huge portion of our lives working, why wouldn’t you want to be with people you like being around? You should seek counsel but recognize that the advice you get from others is more reflective of their values and priorities than it should serve as specific marching orders for you. Be self-aware. Have an understanding of the things that you’re good at and that you like.

My parents instilled in me self-confidence from the beginning, and I think that’s what has helped me believe in myself and trust my gut. A lot of people don’t trust their gut. Follow your interests, find interesting problems, and surround yourself with people that you feel like you can learn from, and the rest will work itself out.

I think it’s also important to find organizations that value diversity – not just as a talking point, but as a core, practiced value. I feel particularly lucky to have worked at organizations like NTI and CEPI where diversity and representation are core elements of not just how they do their work, but infused throughout their missions and vision for the world they’re trying to achieve.


Thanks so much. I will reflect on that myself. I appreciate your taking the time to chat.

That’s great. Take care.

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