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Meet Virologist Richard Watkins: A Scientist Willing To Say: I Don’t Know

Richard Watkins has always moved in multiple circles. 

As a child he was surrounded by college sports and college life. His father was the baseball coach for North Carolina A&T State University, and Watkins would travel with the team as a bat boy. He competed nationally as a speed skater before he started playing football in high school. Fayetteville State University recruited him to play on their varsity team, but he also earned a full-ride scholarship for his good grades. In college, he almost had two separate identities: he spent countless hours on the football field, but he was also heavily involved in several academic groups on campus.

He went on to get his doctorate in microbiology and immunology, and now he is building a career as a connector of the different worlds in which he operates. Watkins is the CEO and founder of the Science Policy Action Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to bridging the gap between the scientific community and the general public. He is also the program coordinator for the Chancellor’s Science Scholars program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. There he works to open up science for people of color and connect students to mentors. Watkins joins host Frank Stasio to talk about his career path, his run for U.S. Congress in 2018 and the lessons we can learn from the coronavirus pandemic.

Interview Highlights

On what worries him most about the coronavirus pandemic:

My biggest fear overall is that we don't learn lessons from COVID-19, because there's no reason to believe that a virus with increased mortality won't be the next pandemic or won't be the pandemic after that — because there's one thing that is guaranteed is that we will experience other pandemics. COVID-19 will not be the last. It’s not the first, and it will not be the last.

I really do think that this can give us an opportunity to step back and reexamine our society and a lot of our infrastructure so that we can be prepared for the next pandemic.

On his first research experience working on hypertension:

That's when I started realizing: Okay, I can do basic research and really, really make an impact on the world. … But ever since [I was] a little kid, I had been interested in how this kind of micro-environment works inside your body, and how bacteria and viruses are actually always at constant odds and the evolutionary arms race with your immune system that's working really, really hard to keep you healthy. And at that time, the biggest thing everybody was — it was in the face of everybody was HIV. ... And I felt that if I could work on that, then I could have some sort of impact.

On why he founded his nonprofit, the Science Policy Action Network:

Science doesn't exist in a vacuum. It exists in a broader context of society. And I felt that as a researcher, I was called to understand that broader context and to work to improve it, because science interfaces with every single aspect of our life. And if we are able to nurture the network of science and all the people who interact with it, society is going to thrive. And so I wanted to be part of that effort.

You don't know who holds the idea that is going to cure cancer. ... So we have to enhance diversity, because diversity is synonymous with excellence. And that's the only way we're going to find cures and save lives.

On the theory that the coronavirus was created in a lab by humans:

We're not the scientists that Mother Nature is. Mother Nature is already doing a good enough job at introducing viruses into people. I mean, the way that viruses evolved with humans to emerge randomly, because we interact with places that we've never been. Mother Nature can do it on its own. And I just don't think we're as good at this point. We don't know enough about viruses to really make mutations in a dependable way that could generate pathogenic viruses. We can, but we're just not that good at it.

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Amanda Magnus is the editor of "Embodied," a weekly radio show and podcast about sex, relationships and health. She's also the lead producer for on-demand content at WUNC and has worked on "Tested" and "CREEP."
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.