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Conversation with Dr. Ricardo Rosselló Nevares on Ph.D. in Bioengineering, Science, Being the Governor of Puerto Rico (2017-2019), and Resignation and Lessons Learned: Former Governor, Puerto Rico (2)


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2021/03/15


Ricardo Rosselló Nevares holds a PhD in Bioengineering and Biotechnology. He graduated from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) with a Bachelor’s degree in Chemistry and Biomedical Engineering with a concentration in Developmental Economics. Rosselló continued his academic studies at the University of Michigan, where he completed a master’s degree and a PhD in Bioengineering and Biotechnology. After finalizing his doctoral studies, he completed post-doctoral studies in neuroscience at Duke University, in North Carolina, where he also served as an investigator. Dr. Rossello was a tenure track assistant professor for the University of Puerto Rico Medical Sciences Campus and Metropolitan University, teaching courses in medicine, immunology, and biochemistry. Dr. Rossello’s scientific background and training also makes him an expert in important developing areas such as genetic manipulation and engineering, stem cells, viral manipulation, cancer, tissue engineering and smart materials. He discusses: moving past a Ph.D. into becoming governor of Puerto Rico and resigning from the position.

Keywords: academia, bioengineering, biotechnology, governor, Puerto Rico, resignation, Ricardo Rosselló Nevares.

Conversation with Dr. Ricardo Rosselló Nevares on Ph.D. in Bioengineering, Science, Being the Governor of Puerto Rico (2017-2019), and Resignation and Lessons Learned: Former Governor, Puerto Rico (2)

*Please see the footnotes, bibliography, and citation style listing after the interview.*

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: So, you finished your education, you are away from your parents, you get your Ph.D. in bioengineering. Most people think, “Okay, this is a great capstone. I can get going with a straight tenure track job, do some research, and coast into retirement.” More things have happened!

Dr. Ricardo Rosselló[1],[2]*: Yes.

Jacobsen: What is the thought process following from the Ph.D.? Because these are the highest levels of education attainment that any national system provides. So, what was the thinking for you, once that was accomplished?

Rosselló: I love science. Although, I struggle: There’s this strict analytical side and then this emerging observational type of new complexity being observed. I enjoy both of them. I think they are at odds at some points. I’d say: when I was done with my Ph.D., I though that I wanted to continue an academic career – just move forward.

Then I stumbled upon this idea right after my Ph.D. to try a startup. It was very exciting. I must admit. It was new for me. Ultimately, it was not successful. I think the idea was fairly good at the time. Now, you can get all this information without that.

It was a way of extracting more information out of public opinion polling being had at that time. I stayed. I gave myself a year to try that. It didn’t quite work. I sold my part in the company. I sort of need to reconnect with the pure science part of it.

I went to Duke to do a post-doc and get some grants, and practice before I applied to an academic position. Focusing on bioengineering principles, I focused on neuroscience, particularly this phenomena of the vocal learning pathway.

To this, it shows the beauty that I was speaking about before. There are all these connections. There’s even an explanation for evolution, and so forth, but there are some traits that skip some phylogeny. Vocal learning is one of them.

To briefly define it, not to make it about this, though, I find it interesting. Humans are vocal learning. Someone tells us something often enough; eventually, you’ll spit it out. Our closest relatives are not. If you go back, bats are vocal learners. Whales are vocal learners. Songbirds are vocal learners. But close phylogeny to them are not vocal learners.

So, how did this property from really similar brains evolve? There’s many theories. We were looking into them a lot. It is this concept of emergence. Evolution keeps tinkering, tinkering, tinkering, and then all of the sudden finds a way. Vocal learning was a very interesting stepping stone for me to comprehend all of this.

Because I don’t think I’ll ever be able to tap into this question. Obviously, to keep the curiosity juices flowing, the concept of consciousness is really the most complex version of these complexities that emerge. I did that for a while. I was in the States all throughout.

I finished it. I went and applied for an academic position in Puerto Rico. I got it. There’s another parallel track, which is s thing that impassions me. It is the civil rights situation in Puerto Rico. Basically, to reduce it crudely, we are a part of the United States, but not an equal part.

We are a colonial territory. I was passionately linked to that. My family was linked to that. Up until that point, I was really engaged in politics whatsoever, but that issue in particular, to this day, sparks emotion and passion.

So when I got to Puerto Rico, naturally, worlds collide, I start getting involved in this question of how Puerto Rico, from our view, can become a state. My preferred solution is Puerto Rico becoming a state. The tough solution would be becoming something different that what we are not.

Ultimately, we have a say in what happens to the people of Puerto Rico. Then, as I got involved in it, I started seeing all the problems in the island. I started looking around at political cycles. My brain, using my scientific preparation, started seeing that really every political cycle that came and went; there were these promises. The promises were, essentially, the same, even from opposite ends of the political spectrum. For instance, everyone wants a better economy and everyone wants a better education.

The devil is in the details on how it goes. But based on how limited the public discussion is, you could argue there are more ways to get that, but you could argue there are more inaccuracies. Seeing that, unless, we broke with that way of doing things.

Things were going to be the same. Using Einstein’s old adage, ‘Madness is defined by people who do the same experiments and expect different results.’ Not thinking about jumping into politics, I said, “What seems to me, there are complex problems in Puerto Rico. Nobody is touching them.”

If I veer off, take a hold of me, I will try to come back. In the case of Puerto Rico, it had a fiscal and economic collapse. That not only wasn’t like anything seen, barring Greece, in the world. It is a precautionary tale for countries moving forward and states if we’re looking at the United States.

It is complex. It is not just going to be saved by the moxy of somebody saying, “We need more jobs. I’m going to create more jobs.” We really need to dig in deep and question, “How are we going to do this?”

I said, “Let me set up a framework, so whoever runs can buy into it.” The framework was as follows. Let’s start preparing a long-term plan for Puerto Rico, that’s based on a 4-year path identifying the root cause problems.

People say, “The economy is a problem.” Sure, but what is the root of the problem? It is a symptom of other things occurring. Let’s land on these root problems, the second one was: Let’s see if we can go elsewhere, once we identify those problems, in the world, and see what are the best practices.

Even though, the idiosyncratic behaviour is different in the government structures. We can learn something from it, at the principle levee. Some of the guys and girls, and I, went to different countries. We went to Singapore, for example.

There, we studied a few something. Something called the T Government. What is called Urban Redevelopment Authority, which is really cool, we’re talking about how everywhere else infrastructure is falling down.

In Singapore, those guys solved it. They solved it 50 years ago. It is a long-term problem. You need long-term institutions to solve that, not those that change on the whims of politics every four years.

We went to Estonia to see, at the time, e-government. They were at the forefront at the time. We went to Finland to seen the education system to get best practices. We decided to do something, which was the turning point for me in running for office.

It was civic engagement. We went. The idea was: Let’s present what we think are the root-cause problems, and how they connect to what they feel everyday, let’s present what some other places are doing to tackle those problems, and let’s, maybe, present what we can do in Puerto Rico to see if it fits or not.

It was more a call for papers saying, “Hey, look at these things. Why don’t you help us find proposals for the island?” We did. I think it was very successful. At that point, when I decided to really go ahead and run for office, I was running against a guy who was a two-time congressman incumbent, clearly the leader of the party.

But I said, the crystallization moment, “I think this is a critical moment in the history of Puerto Rico. I think there are a lot of things that need to be done. A lot of those things may be hard to explain. But they need to do anyways.”

I don’t think anybody else will buy into this plan for Puerto Rico that we were doing. Long story short, I, through the moxy of that and engaging citizens, was able to squeak out a victory in the primaries by about 2%. I was able to squeak out a victory in the general election by about the same margin.

So, but what I had, which nobody else did before, was a great starting point to start executing reforms, I made everybody in our party sign a document saying that they would support the reforms. Otherwise, they would be kicked out of the party.

The problem: Not a lot of people read them, but they signed them because it was the thing to do. The first part of the administration, we were successful in enacting reform. We were able to push forward some external entities that have said that we were able to do more reform in 100 days than the previous 16 years combined.

It was, essentially, because we had the willpower before rather than arriving over there and starting to figure out what we wanted to do. It started moving along under the most challenging of circumstances. Puerto Rico, at that point, had a little under $300,000,000 in the bank. To give a sense that pays for two payrolls, for about a month’s worth of payrolls in Puerto Rico.

We have to figure out how get more money. We have to figure out how to kickstart the economy. At the same time, with our colonial history with the United States, six months before my administration; there was a fiscal oversight board, which was imposed in Puerto Rico.

So, lots of haggling, lots get done, by the end of Summer, as we were moving along, a black swan or a black elephant event occurs. We get struck, by not one but, two major hurricanes in Puerto Rico.

The first one was September 6, 2017. It was Hurricane Irma. We were able to bounce back quickly from that one. We were able to rescue 5,000 people from the neighbouring islands to give them support, help, and so forth.

The next was Hurricane Maria, which was, by all accounts, a 500- or 1,000-year storm. The strength of it, breadth of it, the complete devastation that it cost. It really set us back. As this thing was unfolding, I felt I had to work on three parallel tracks.

One, the immediate response, people were going to be dying, struggling for their lives. How do we stabilize that element? How could we provide food? How could we provide all these things? That lasted about 2 months, that period.

A typical storm lasts, maybe, a day. For us, it lasted two days. We had no electricity in any parts of the island. No way to communicate with anybody. Roads were clogged or broken down. Different to if this occurs in Vancouver or in Florida, neighbouring parts can come to the aid.

Neighbouring parts were disconnected by a sea. So, it took longer for them to get to Puerto Rico. That was the first phase. The second phase: How do we restore normalcy or a new normal? How do we recover from it?

That meant: When do we start schools? When does everybody have electricity again? The third phase, in my mind, the most exciting phase: the rebuild, how do we take this awful act of nature and try to turn it into something that we can build from?

The truth of matter is we now, or then, have the opportunity to rebuild effectively, to get a lot of federal funds more than ever, and redo our energy grid, redo our education system. That happened when we were getting to the normalization phase.

We went through a second phase of fundamental reforms on energy, on insurance, on poverty, on education, and so forth, to leverage the rebuilding and embed it into this new opportunity. I saw Puerto Rico. Some might find it crude. But we have a blank canvas now.

Pace-wise, instead of building Puerto Rico little by little, we can take a fell swoop at things and fix them. As things are moving forward, we’re stabilizing, reducing the size of government, making some social reform changes.

We abolished – or I had to abolish – conversion therapies in Puerto Rico because the Congress didn’t want to do it. So, I had to do it via executive order. We made equal pay for equal work for women. A lot was happening at the same time.

There was a sort of under-layer of resent and anger for, maybe, things I did, but also because of the environment. Some people didn’t have energy for a year. That’s just ludicrous to think about in the 21st-century.

That was the situation through it all. With the impetus of trying to do reforms, I think I created a lot of enemies. I did an energy reform that would shift energy towards renewables. The petroleum companies were not too happy. Let’s put it that way.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Rosselló: Similar to a lot of things, coming through to the Summer of ’19, some communications that I had with my government officials, close government officials, had inappropriate language. Of course, I regret using it.

Filtered out, all of the sudden, there was this perfect storm of things happening. Two months before, polls came out saying I would, essentially, win fairly easily if there was a re-election. Two months later, I had to take the determination to resign because of two things.

Number one, I was concerned about the safety of my family because there is a lot of emotion. I don’t blame anyone. It is just what happens. I realized, even if I stayed, I couldn’t do what I was supposed to do.

I did not have the wherewithal to execute the changes that I wanted to. So, if I stayed, I was, essentially, holding the island hostage for two more years. When push came to shove, obviously, after that, there were very unflattering things.

Obviously, part of my effort is correcting some of the record that were said. I made the decision, stayed about a week after – or 10 days approximately – to make the transition to give the opportunity for Puerto Rico to move forward.

Since then, I have stayed away. My mentality, I wanted to removed myself from the equation. Challenges still remain. Hopefully, things can move forward. It has been an interesting life. Obviously, during this process, I’ve reconnected, somewhat, with academia as well – doing some other things.

One of the things that I want to do based on my experience: share those experiences and tackle some of the mistakes I made, so other people can learn from them. Hopefully, Puerto Rico can be a cautionary tale for other jurisdictions of how these things unravel very quickly if you’re not paying attention to them.

That’s a longwinded – sorry if I overextended – account of what happened. There’s many other ways to spiral this. Of course, I will answer any questions coming to mind. That’s, essentially, an overview of what went along.

Appendix I: Footnotes

[1] Former Governor, Puerto Rico.

[2] Individual Publication Date: March 15, 2021:; Full Issue Publication Date: May 1, 2021:

*High range testing (HRT) should be taken with honest skepticism grounded in the limited empirical development of the field at present, even in spite of honest and sincere efforts. If a higher general intelligence score, then the greater the variability in, and margin of error in, the general intelligence scores because of the greater rarity in the population.


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


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