Alumni Profile: Andrew M. Hebbeler, Ph.D. ’99

Alumni Profile: Andrew M. Hebbeler, Ph.D. ’99

Article reprinted from Moreover spring 2013

At some point, every child wants to be a hero. Perhaps the innate desire to save the world is something everyone is born with but most of us lose as the mortal demands of being an adult become a stronger force. The capes simply end up getting stashed away with the worn-out toys of childhood and long forgotten dreams of yesterday. It’s hard to imagine anyone really being a hero in this day and age anyway. Unless, unless … you consider someone who powers his ambition with a desire to protect the innocent, to discover a cure, to enhance public health around the world, to make a difference. Trade the red cape for a white lab coat and a resume that’s more impressive than leaping tall buildings in a single bound, and you might have just found your hero.

Meet TMC alumnus Andrew M. Hebbeler, Ph.D. Andrew graduated from Thomas More College in 1999 with degrees in biology and philosophy. He credits the skills and experience he gained at TMC for setting the trajectory for his career, which has involved traveling all across the globe in an effort to keep the United States safe from the potential of biological threats, chemical weapons and mutating viruses, just to name a few (a.k.a., “saving the world” in superhero terms). Currently, he’s “on loan” to The White House and serves as senior policy advisor in the National Security and International Affairs division of The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, reporting directly to the President’s Assistant for Science and Technology, Dr. John P. Holdren. Andrew’s work in Washington, D.C., supports many important decisions regarding the development of policies that affect national security on a daily basis. Armed with an intense desire to put his passion for science to good use, this TMC graduate is using the skills he developed in a small corner of northern Kentucky to impact lives around the world.

Prior to his position at The White House, Andrew managed and oversaw the U.S. State Department’s Biosecurity Engagement Program (BEP), which is an important component of the broader U.S. Cooperative Threat Reduction effort. The BEP works to reduce the threat of bioterrorism by preventing terrorist access to potentially dangerous biological materials, dual-use infrastructure and expertise. It also supports efforts to combat infectious diseases and enhance public and animal health worldwide. Andrew worked with governments in other countries on issues related to biosecurity and infectious diseases.

Andrew described his current role within the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), “It’s a dynamic and exciting job, and each day is different. My primary responsibility is to provide OSTP leadership, including Dr. Holdren, with information that allows him to give the President a comprehensive view in making decisions that are related to science and technology issues.” He regularly serves in an advisory role on decisions pertaining to biological and chemical weapons, including issues related to the conflict in Syria late this summer. He also served on a team that examined the potential biological threat of the recent Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) coronavirus in Saudi Arabia. He explained how his responsibilities at The White House are different than those at the State Department, “Before, I oversaw the implementation of a program. Now, I have a more central role in policy. Here, it’s more about how science and technology are being considered in the development of national security policies in the national security phase.”

Andrew reflected on his experience as an undergrad, “Thomas More College framed my world view. It set the trajectory for my life. Many people in my field went to college to get degrees in molecular biology, but I wanted a broader perspective. My experience at TMC has helped me in my current role today, and I use the skills I learned there every day in my work at The White House,” he said. “Thomas More was exactly what I was looking for because it offered a well-rounded liberal arts education. I declared majors in biology and philosophy because I wanted to go into the bioethics field, but I really fell in love with biology, specifically immunology,” he said. Another thing TMC gave Andrew was the advantage of the faculty/student interaction. “I wasn’t sure what to do with that passion, but my discussions with the faculty, especially Dr. Barone, helped me to figure out the right path. I remember speaking one-on-one with many professors, including Drs. Lorentz, Bryant, Ferner and Hageman, as well as Drs. Twaddell and Cronin.”

“Thomas More College framed my world view. It set the trajectory for my life. Many people in my field went to college to get degrees in molecular biology, but I wanted a broader perspective. My experience at TMC has helped me in my current role today, and I use the skills I learned there every day in my work at The White House.”

Like many people who earn a liberal arts education, Andrew said the other skills he learned outside of science gave him an edge as his career progressed. “I applied some of those skills later through my role with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA).” Andrew served as 2009-2010 AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow. (AAAS is the world’s largest general scientific society and publisher of the journal, Science.) He was also elected to the board of the NPA, supporting national efforts to enhance the postdoctoral experience, including extending retirement benefits to post docs, among other issues.

As a student, Andrew’s enthusiasm for scientific research was coupled with a desire to explore international public health issues. After graduating from Thomas More College, Andrew completed his doctoral work in the laboratory of C. David Pauza at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, where he focused on understanding an unconventional lymphocyte population that is important during immune responses to infectious disease and cancer. There, he was awarded a fully-funded, two-year training grant from the National Institutes of Health and National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases. After earning his Ph.D. in Molecular Microbiology and Immunology, he completed a short postdoctoral fellowship at the Institute of Human Virology (IHV), which was founded and directed by Dr. Robert Gallo, the eminent scientist who became world famous in 1984 when he co-discovered HIV as the cause of AIDS. Andrew said that experience was critical to his career and development. “I wasn’t just gaining knowledge in a science vacuum. More importantly for me, I was working in the real world, helping treat real patients,” he explained.

After earning his Ph.D., Andrew was faced with more decisions. “When you get a Ph.D. in this field, you’re normally set for an academic track and looking at spending the rest of your career overseeing research. I wasn’t sure if that was the path I wanted to go,” he said. Andrew still wanted to explore international public health issues, so he applied for postdoctoral work and was awarded a competitive, three-year, fully-funded A.P. Giannini Medical Research Foundation Fellowship at the Gladstone Institute of Virology and Immunology, located on the University of California San Francisco campus. There, he performed basic research to help find new ways to purge HIV from infected individuals.

While Andrew enjoyed his years at the research bench, he continued to search for positions that provided the right mix of opportunities which would permit him to study more global issues related to infectious diseases and public health issues. In early 2008, he learned of a highly competitive program designed to provide accomplished U.S. scientists and engineers with the opportunity to participate in and contribute to the federal policy-making process, while learning firsthand about the intersection of science and policy. He said that when he read the requirements for the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowship, it was as if it were written specifically for him. “I had gained exactly the type of experiences that someone would need to be successful for this fellowship. This opportunity offered me a whole world outside of the laboratory, but it was also anchored in the things I loved studying the most – science, infectious diseases and public health.”

Andrew Hobbler shows his TMC spirit during a Skype interview with the biology senior seminar class.

Andrew spent the first two years at the State Department as an AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow. The timing of this position was fortuitous because President Barack Obama had recently been inaugurated and his Administration was rolling out national policy directives focused on countering biological threats, whether natural outbreaks (like MERS or influenza) or acts of bioterrorism. Andrew said the fellowship at the State Department enabled him to see his public health work through the security lens. “It allowed me to do the kinds of things I wanted to do concerning pubic health and see how that applied to international security,” he explained.

TMC Chair and Professor of Biology Dr. Siobhan Barone shared her experience as Andrew’s professor, “Although I try not to have ‘favorite students,’ Andrew Hebbeler is one of those students that you simply can’t forget. I taught him several courses, but it was the immunology course he took with me that I remember best. As an immunologist myself, I am always excited when I see one of my students acquire a love for the field, and Andrew was one such student. He was not only bright but also so enthusiastic that it was simply fun to talk with him and see where the conversation would lead. I have followed his career path with interest (and just a little bit of pride), and by all accounts it is clear that he chose the right profession. As much as I enjoyed Andrew as a student, I am even more delighted today to have him as a friend and colleague.”

Among other places, Andrew traveled to Central and Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. “I met with officials from Ministries of Health, Agriculture and Foreign Affairs as we worked together to identify areas that would strengthen biosecurity. I would visit national laboratories responsible for diagnosing and reporting infectious diseases in these countries. Our goal was to strengthen global security across the world,” he explained. He went to a variety of laboratories discovering different ways to partner with other countries to achieve common goals. “For me, it was an amazing experience. I was finally in a position not just focused on basic science, but also broader issues related to international public health and security,” he added.

At the end of the fellowship, Andrew was promoted to overseeing the entire global program (Biosecurity Engagement Program – BEP). For a short period, he served as the acting deputy director for his office, during which he gained experience in chemical and nuclear security as well, adding to his well-rounded skill set and broadening his ability to make a difference in the world. Andrew’s current position at The White House allows him to play a key role in predicting and addressing threats to national and public health security and helping improve the quality of life in the United States and beyond. He’s been able to utilize all the skills he has gained since graduating from Thomas More College, where his career path began on a solid foundation of examining the world and determining how he could contribute.

Like any true hero, humility overshadows boastful bragging when it comes to talking about his “super powers,” so chances are likely that if you met him for coffee, Andrew would remain low key about the important people he has met during his career and the steady, upward climb his resume has traveled. He said that during a recent phone call to his mother, who still lives in his hometown of Park Hills, Ky., he told her that what keeps his feet on the ground is the right mix of humility, confidence and anxiety, with just enough anxiety to feel like he’s failing. For those of us who still remember those childhood dreams of wanting to “save the world,” we can look to Andrew and realize that heroes don’t have to be faster than a speeding bullet or more powerful than a locomotive. They can simply follow their dreams, keep learning, use the skills they’ve honed and find their place in this world where they can make a difference.