Political chemistry: Scientists running for office in age of Trump

Scientists to run for Congress to resist Trump
Scientists to run for Congress to resist Trump

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Scientists to run for Congress to resist Trump 02:31

Story highlights

  • Several people with STEM backgrounds are looking to get more involved in politics
  • President Donald Trump's ascent to the White House has galvanized many in the scientific community

(CNN)Geologist Jess Phoenix says she doesn't mind being an underdog.

"The work I do, working on volcanoes, you're always an underdog when you're in a dangerous situation like that. You're working with and sometimes against a force of nature," Phoenix said. "I don't mind long odds."
But the force of nature Phoenix is currently up against is unlike her past scientific endeavors. She's facing a new kind of unpredictability: voters.
    Phoenix is running to represent California's 25th district, and she's just one of several people with science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) backgrounds who have raised their hands looking to get more involved in politics.
    President Donald Trump's ascent to the White House has galvanized many in the scientific community who oppose his administration's policies on health care, climate change and research funding. The sentiment was on display on April 22, when people in more than 600 cities around the world gathered for The March for Science.
    "We can't rely on Bill Nye and Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Regular, everyday scientists have to get excited about their work in a public facing way," Phoenix said.
    Trump's win was what sparked Harvard-educated pediatrician Mai-Khahn Tran to run.
    "As a mother, as a daughter, as a woman, I didn't want to get up the next morning," Tran said about the day following Trump's victory.
    "But, you know, I did."
    Tran said the first patient she met on the day following Trump's victory was a child who had been diagnosed with a brain tumor.
    While meeting with the patient, Tran said she and the child's mother cried in her office together, knowing her patient's health care was most likely going to be affected under the policies of the new administration.
    "We just didn't know how quickly or how much," Tran recalled.
    Congress' handling of health care reform is ultimately why Tran said she decided to change course -- she's now challenging Republican Rep. Ed Royce for California's 39th Congressional District.
    314 Action -- "314" after pi -- is a political action committee aimed at recruiting and assisting scientists to run for office as Democrats.
    Naughton, the founder of 314 Action, was a "chemist by training," and she worked in breast cancer research and drug discovery before changing course to work for her family's business. In 2013, she decided to run for Pennsylvania's 8th Congressional District. However, Naughton said she found it difficult to tap into traditional political resources and party funding coming from a non-traditional political background.
    In need of outside funding, Naughton looked to the STEM community for support.
    The 314 Action network now consists of more than 225,000 people, including STEM professionals, grassroots supporters and political activists, according to the group.
    "I think voters are hungry for authenticity and are hungry for real people," said Joshua Morrow, the executive director of 314 Action.
    The organization launched a training program in January, and since the start of the program, 314 Action said it has had more than 6,000 individuals show interest. The group said it initially expected around 1,000 by April.
    One of those 6,000 was Hans Keirstead, a neuroscientist who most recently has been working on stem cell research and is now looking to unseat Rep. Dana Rohrabacher in California's 48th Congressional District.
    "I think scientists are extremely well-suited because we work in a very complex problem in very complex dynamic systems ... and that's what you do in Congress," Keirstead said.
    Health care and defunding of the Environmental Protection Agency are two issues Keirstead said he thinks are at risk under the current administration and Congress.
    314 Action has now endorsed Keirstead for Congress, as well as Chrissy Houlahan, who is running for Congress in Pennsylvania's 6th District against Rep. Ryan Costello.
    Houlahan's background includes an engineering degree from Stanford and a master's degree in Technology and Policy from MIT. A retired Air Force captain, she was also a high school science teacher, among other things.
    "Politicians are unashamed to meddle in science and I think the way we push against that is to get more scientists into public office and claim a seat at the table," Naughton said.