Why women in science cannot achieve equality when the president presides over chants of “LOCK HER UP!”

By nature and training, most biomedical research scientists are reductionists. For those non-scientists who are reading this, what I mean is that organisms and cells are so complex, with so many things going on simultaneously, that it is extremely difficult to attribute cause and effect to any singular factors. To do so, many scientists “break things down” to simple systems: we use the bare minimum of factors thrown together in a “test tube” so that we can specifically determine what impacts what. Normally this is a solid approach—but it doesn’t work for everything.

For example, the reductionist approach is not viable for understanding why women, who are entering biomedical science in numbers that approach or even exceed the number of men, are still not achieving parity with men beyond graduate training. It does not explain why fewer women succeed as post-doctoral fellows, go on to faculty positions, and climb the ladder to full professorship. Yes, it is a complex issue with many factors, and yes, there are many possible (although not necessarily acceptable) explanations. But we must not adhere to a reductionist approach.

Last evening in Council Bluffs, Iowa, just across the Missouri River from my city of Omaha, Nebraska, the president of the United States, arguably the most scientifically developed country in the world, presided over a rally where people—including many women—were raving and chanting “Lock her up, Lock her up!” Who is “her? In this case, probably Senator Diane Feinstein, who Trump falsely accuses of having leaked the letter from Dr. Blasey Ford accusing the newest Supreme Court judge of sexual assault. But the “her” is more ominous than Senator Feinstein, or Hilary Clinton, the other frequently attacked woman in the “Lock her up!” chants. It is a generic HER. That HER represents every women who has ever been mocked, abused, mimicked or bad-mouthed by this president. Or any woman who has publicly disagreed with him.

It makes no difference that one by one, those surrounding Trump are being investigated, pleading guilty, cutting deals with the special counsel and prosecution, and earning jail terms. Just as it makes no difference how successful young women are in science, and in what numbers they are entering the biomedical workforce. What matters is the principle. What matters is that the supposed role model for the US and the world is disparaging women—specifically women (okay, and minorities of all sorts as well)—for the sole purpose of repressing. Pushing the old order. The male-dominated order. Male victims. White victims. And while one can somehowenvision how a certain type of older white male might be attracted to this type of populist garbage, I am appalled at how many women don’t see through it.

Yes, new polls are showing that in record numbers, women are appalled by what is going on. Roughly two-thirds of the women in the country are deeply upset by what is happening—regardless of politics. One can still be an avid conservative and be appalled by the attacks on women. Or so I’d like to hope. But one cannot support this president and be a supporter of women’s rights. That would be a complete contradiction in terms. Unless you believe in “Alternative Facts.”

It’s time for the American public, and particularly American women, to take charge. We need a female president and female vice president. We need female congresswomen and female senators. And we need respect for women. Only once this occurs, will we be able to really properly push forward women in science. I’ve done my bit and submitted my early ballot for Kara Eastman, democratic representative of Nebraska’s 2nd District, and sent a campaign donation. I call on all those who are able to vote in this crucial election—please get out and vote.

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Sometimes science needs to take a backseat

Science is based on fundamental, objective truth. So sometimes, in support of science, it is necessary to step back and take a moral stand. Here is my letter to Nebraskan Senator Ben Sasse (republican, Judiciary Committee). Since I have no other way to reach out to Dr. Blasey Ford, I will tweet this link to her in full support of courageous testimony this week.

Sept. 29, 2018

Dear Senator Sasse,

As a constituent and fellow Nebraskan, I feel it is my duty to write and convey my deepest dismay at your vote on the Senate Judiciary Committee, in favor of confirming Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the United States Supreme Court.

On the day of the hearings, I sat riveted to my computer screen, watching, the compelling evidence of Dr. Blasey Ford. Like most Americans, I feel that it is inconceivable that this woman committed perjury; she had absolutely nothing to gain from wrecking her life and exposing herself to the deep hatred, death threats and everything else she has put her family through. As an academic myself, I could her love for her research and graduate students, and I know that this hearing has disrupted her entire life. No woman (or man) would lightly consider doing this, or taking a lie detector test, for that matter.

On the other hand, I was deeply upset by the belligerence of the supreme court nominee. Obviously, someone accused of doing something he didn’t commit would warrant a vehement denial. However, Judge Kavanaugh’s bellicosity and utter hostility, his unhinged attack on “The Clintons” and half the country, and his condescending behavior toward the female senators who were questioning him raised serious concerns as to his fitness to be an impartial, balanced, responsible Supreme Court Judge. If you have any doubts as to the accuracy of my assertions here, I ask that you please watch the hearing again. And for reference, please compare his hearings with those of Judge Gorsuch, who had zero allegations against him.

In addition, there is little doubt that Judge Kavanaugh has told a significant number of lies or untruths, depending on how serious one considers certain misrepresentations. There is mounting evidence from eyewitnesses that he was a serious drinker in high school and college years. Would that in itself disqualify a nominee who may have a stellar career post-college? Probably not—although I submit that the Supreme Court should have the very highest standards. However, lies about his past are, in my view, disqualifying, and potentially perjury.

Notwithstanding everything else, it is very clear that both Dr. Ford and Judge Kavanaugh cannot be telling the truth. And while this is not a criminal trial, the following reasons lead many to deeply question the fitness of the nominee: 1) Dr. Ford was extremely credible, and absent ridiculous conspiracy theories, had no reason to lie and every reason not to come forward. 2)  Judge Kavanaugh had reasons to lie; if true, his position is in danger. 3) Dr. Ford has clearly made her accusations known to others years before this nomination. 4) Dr. Ford has taken and passed a lie detector test. 5) Judge Kavanaugh has not taken a lie detector test. 5) Judge Kavanaugh has told a number of lies about his past and at the least, misrepresented himself. 6) Additional women have come forward; while their credibility has yet to be determined, this is something that needs to be done.

As my junior senator and representative in the senate, I am deeply disappointed in your decision to vote to confirm the nominee without further FBI investigation and calling additional witnesses to testify. Although my political views differ somewhat from those of your own, I have always respected your independence and general tendency to support what is ethically “the right thing to do.” A couple years ago, I recall corresponding with George Will of the Washington Post, regarding a column that he wrote just before the 2016 elections. In that e-mail, he wrote to me that he considered “writing in” your name on his ballot. He viewed you as the new brand of empathic conservatism. But today I feel numb and disoriented that only a single Republican senator stood up and asked for a very minimal FBI investigation. Unfortunately, you were not that courageous senator, and I ask you why not? And how could you possibly think that it was morally right, not to subpoena the only other witness allegedly involved, Mark Judge, to testify?

While I can understand some frustration at the possibility of potentially having to withdraw a nominee at the last moment, whatever unhappiness there is about Senator Feinstein’s decision-making and whoever leaked Dr. Ford’s letter, all of that pales in comparison to the sacred duty of ensuring that the next Supreme Court Judge is a person of the highest moral caliber. Your decision not to spend any additional time considering this matter is deeply disturbing to me and many Nebraskans/Americans.

As my senator, even independently of the FBI investigation, I ask that you carefully consider whether this nominee has moral values that are consistent with those of a worthy Supreme Court Judge. Whether you think his record is truly “unblemished” or whether there are serious and potential concerns. I think most non-partisan people would come to the conclusion that this nominee is truly not a good fit, and ask that you work toward finding as more appropriate and worthy nominee.

Sincerely,

Steve Caplan, PhD

 

 

 

 

 

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When truth meets “feelings”

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And behind the curtain is…?!!!

As human beings, we are taught (perhaps except in the era of Trump) about the importance of respecting others, and being sensitive to their views and feelings. Overall, this is a GOOD thing, and while money may make the world-go-round,  empathy certainly makes the world a better place. But respecting sensitivities, as important as it is, should not usurp the truth.

I will assume that no reader has a clue why I am including a photo of a purple curtain, but there is a method behind my madness. This photo is at the Nature Museum in Jerusalem, Israel, and behind the infamous curtain, hidden away from the patrons is an exhibit on evolution and Darwinism. Why is it hidden behind the curtain? Because this is the policy of the museum (i.e., government)–when kids from religious schools come to the museum, seeing such an exhibit upsets their sensitivities.

This is a classic example of a case where sensitivities should NOT be accommodated. Scientific truth is not for sale. It should not be tampered with, muted, whittled down or hidden just because of someone’s religious beliefs. If one chooses not to “believe” scientific fact–well, that is hypocritical–because we are alive as part of the process of science, and we stay alive longer due to the science and medicine.

The time has come for scientists and those who support science to become more vocal, and less “sensitive” to the “feelings” of those who oppose science. Contrary to what the current Trump administration would have people believe, science and truth are not negotiable.

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UGG: The Undergraduate Guide for Graduate School

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It’s been a fast-paced and hectic summer, but I am pleased to have finally completed and published a new e-book/e-manual titled: UGG: the Undergraduate Guide for Graduate School*  

Sensing that many graduate students enter biomedical research graduate programs without really knowing what to expect, and that many undergraduate students are in dire need of more comprehensive information on how to apply and get accepted to such programs, I finally put together this information in a comprehensive manual/book.

Unfortunately, I was only really able to address the US system, which may not be particularly helpful to those in the UK, continental Europe and across the globe, but I hope I have contributed my little share to helping out undergraduates who are considering a Ph.D. in the biomedical sciences within the US.

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Once upon a time there was respect for scientists…

Some families sit together and watch sitcoms, entertainment, or sports. Not my family; we are the classic science geeks. Two parents who both are researchers with a lab to run, one adult child who is a sophomore microbiology/biochemistry student at university, and a high schooler with a love for all things math and physics and an interest, potentially, in medicine. What do we watch? Recently we began a fascinating series called “Charite,” named after the famous Berlin hospital, and dealing with the lives of the doctors, researchers and nurses who worked there toward the end of the 19th century.

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Robert Koch is visited in his laboratory by the German Kaiser and his entourage. A scientist in that era was accorded the highest respect.

I read somewhere that this German-made miniseries has been described as a sort of Downton Abbey of the medical sciences, with the professors and doctors likened to the wealthy Crawley family, and the nurses and assistants paralleled to the servants living on the lower level of the Downton Abbey manor. But personal stories and love affairs aside, the series brings to life three of the most significant researchers of this era: 1) The famous bacteriologist and immunologist Robert Koch, who laid the groundwork for the causal relationships between bacteria and diseases. Koch, famous for his Koch’s Postulates, a series of conditions that he deemed necessary to formally prove that a disease was caused by a specific microbe, made groundbreaking discoveries in tuberculosis, anthrax and cholera research. 2) Paul Erlich, who despite contracting tuberculosis, had a long and fruitful career in which he developed anti-sera and drugs against a variety of bacteria and parasites. 3) Emil von Behring, who made tremendous discoveries in the area of diphtheria and tuberculosis.

The apex of all three of these fathers of immunology centered in the miniseries around their common work at the Charite, bringing to life their strengths and weaknesses as people, their tempers and intimacies, their humanity. The story is compelling, and while one will not necessarily come away with a better understanding of the science behind vaccines, bacterial infections and immunology, that is far from the point; it is easy to pull up the information online. The beauty of Charite is in the recreation of the era–a time when electricity was barely available and yet these dogged researchers were carrying out controlled experiments in animals, and even testing their anti-serums on themselves and each other–to test safety before their antidotes became public.

Perhaps the most intriguing part of Charite is the depiction of the scientists in the eye of the public at the time; the visits from the German Kaisers to the hospital, the degree of respect and honor accorded to the scientists for the work. The promises of more money for research, new institutes, new hospitals. The general adulation of researchers by the public-at-large. Indeed, Robert Koch was essentially pursued by an up and coming pretty young singer/actress who–at least in the miniseries–seems to have fallen as much in love with his research as with the man himself.

I do not bemoan the lack of adulation by young actresses for my own research career–but honestly–some respect and more support by the government would benefit the research community and the public at large. More than border walls and military parades. Will someone please take note?

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The best experiment

It has been a long winter, but spring is finally here. It’s a beautiful day, starting from breakfast on the deck, watching the birds over the lake.

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And it’s time for someone who hasn’t done an experiment in a dozen years (at least with his own hands) to pick up–not a pipette–a garden trowel.

For years now I have been the fortunate recipient of delicious summer vegetables from colleagues who have second careers as backyard farmers. Now, finally with a little backyard space of my own, it’s time for this nearly-flunked and unwilling student of botany to throw in his trowel. And so I did!

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I purchased 7 tomato plants: 3 “Park’s Whoppers” (recommended and approved by an experienced colleague), a Nebraskan Cornhusker cherry tomato plant, a grape tomato plant, a “heirloom tomato” plant and one other larger tomato species.

The fun thing about this “experiment” is that I can make it as subjective as I like! I can “quantify” how much I like each type of tomato, balanced by the hardiness and time for each plant to come to fruition, coupled with a factor for the yield from each plant–and come up with a mathematical equation for what to plant next season. Or not. Perhaps I will just decide subjectively whatever tastes the best.

For now, all I can do is wait it out. In the time it takes for a submitted grant to be reviewed, I will (hopefully) be able to indulge in delicious ripe tomatoes.

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Another school shooting–will anything change?

It is becoming increasingly difficult to keep one’s nose to the grindstone and carry on in America of 2018 as though everything is okay. That’s because it isn’t.

I have to be optimistic—and despite Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman’s wariness of optimists in his great book, “Thinking Fast and Slow,” I remain optimistic on several accounts. Just as an aside, Kahneman noted in his book that he never met a scientist without an optimistic and over-inflated view of the significance of his/her project. Point taken.

Why and how can I be optimistic when 17 teens were just gunned down by a 19-year old who legally purchased a semi-automatic assault rifle? Yes, it’s hard. But I feel that change is coming. Slowly. Surely. And guess what? Guess what may be catalyzing the rate of change in this country? Still guessing? How about a narcissistic, ignorant and highly unqualified president, with below level intelligence, and the ethics of a 3rd-world country dictator. And did I mention small hands?

Yes. The same man who needs cue cards to try and fool people that he feels empathy for others. Empathy? Narcissists only empathize with themselves. The little cue cards, photographed in his little hands and blown up to show was written, show-cased his mental acuity, introspection and tremendous empathy:  “I hear you” and “What do you want me to know about your experience?” This probably reflects what we’re dealing with in the White House as much as anything else the public has seen in the last crazy year.

This less-than-stable and certainly a far cry below-average-intelligence-president, has proposed, in the wake of another horrible school shooting—as his solution—to arm teachers with guns. And the net result, I predict, will be a rallying cry for change that has not been possible for many years. In other words, in the aftermath of such a terrible president, we will be getting a regression to the mean…

Why is this such a terrible idea, the arming of teachers in schools? After all, in a raving, ranting speech in front of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), National Rifle Association (NRA) president Wayne LaPierre not only supported this idea, but also accused anyone other than himself of being a European socialist (that European jibe—really gets those nationalist juices flowing) and a traitor to (white) American ideals—if the 1950s were a good time for you. It’s worth listening to the speech just to see how out of whack he is with reality. But back to the idea of arming teachers.

First, it seems that the whole notion of arming teachers is an exercise in distraction—from the number one issue and most obvious problem that we have: the availability of assault-style guns for purchase. Let’s leave aside hunting rifles and personal hand-guns and focus on these assault rifles: what rationale is there for them to be sold? Such rifles are made for the military, not self protection or hunting. Their only purpose is to kill as many people as rapidly as possible. Why would any-law abiding citizen think such a weapon should be available outside the military? So why are they even sold in this country? They are illegal in every other western democracy.

I witnessed Senator Marco Rubio argue against banning them. Why? Because he maintains that a ban would not block the sale of 200 other types of very similar types of weapons with similar capabilities. At least Rubio addressed the problem—but what a silly argument! The father of slain high-schooler Jaimie Guttenberg, Fred Guttenberg, possessed immense personal courage and responsibility for the future of children in this country when he replied to Rubio in a town hall meeting after the Florida school massacre: “So ban them too!” Is it really that complicated? And can anyone deny the irrationality of selling such weapons? The so-called 2nd amendment aficionados know that “the right to self defense” does not include the purchase of a bazooka, a grenade launcher, mortars, tanks, or artillery pieces. Or for that matter, nerve gas or weaponized anthrax. Do we even have to spell out “common sense?!”

In addition to major changes in gun control, I agree that other issues should also be addressed. Obviously mental health comes to mind, data bases and background checks for any weapons, and so on. But guns for teachers? Let’s examine that more carefully.

In the little Trump brain, he envisions a heavily armed attacker coming into a school, firing indiscriminately with an assault rifle in every direction, and a teacher materializing out of a classroom to neutralize the gunman. Presto. Really? I think someone needs to wean him off television. Or better yet, lead him out of the Oval Office.

Such a scenario, of an armed teacher being able neutralize a gunman with an assault rifle in the midst of a horrific and chaotic attack is extremely unlikely Even a trained guard outside the Florida school failed to act and prevent or limit the tragedy in real time. Trump called him a “coward–” easy said, coming from Mr. Bone Spurs, who never served in the military. But the truth is that until tested in combat, it is difficult to know how even the very best-trained soldiers will react or perform. Don’t believe me? Just go back and read Kahneman’s book, on the section about the difficulties in predicting successful future army officers.

I served 3 years in the military. Only the most intense basic training, including how to react after significant sleep deprivation and having responses drilled into one’s very being, help prepare one for a combat-like situation. And this is on the battlefield—where one knows and identifies where the enemy is and where they are coming from. The training I received doesn’t even compare to that received by special-forces—which can number several years—and would be needed to reach the level required for successful action in such a complex scenario as a school attack. How could one possibly think that a teacher, even with some basic training (and shooting accuracy is only a small part of what training would need to be), could possibly move into a smoke-filled corridor, packed with screaming students and teachers, horrific noise, and identify and accurately neutralize a shooter? Wishful thinking, I’m sorry to say.

None of these issues take into consideration many of the other problems with this idea: the cost of arming teachers, the emotional and educational impact of having teachers with guns on the students and school atmosphere, the safety issues of having weapons circulating in a school (potential negligence/errors in teacher judgment), and so on. Because in any case, this is just a stupid idea.

So why do I remain optimistic? Because Trump, in his narcissistic stupidity and lack of empathy is generating a slow tidal wave—a tsunami perhaps—among the younger generation, and causing people the younger generation in particular to abandon inert and lethargic lives in favor of new found activism. The tide is turning, and beware to those who inhabit or pretend to dry swamps.

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Even scientists have birthdays

Scientist bday

What do you get for a scientist who has everything? Except, perhaps, all the grants and papers he wants….

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This is NOT the America I know

This is NOT the America I know

I am an American by birth, although until the age of 34, I never lived in the United States except as a baby. Thus, I am here by choice. And I am saddened by what Donald Trump has done to this country—because this is NOT the America I know.

I did not choose Donald Trump. I did not choose his “Shithole version of America.” I did not choose his overt racism and bigotry. I did not choose his favorable attitude to white supremacists. I did not choose his incessant and often ridiculous lies. I did not choose his narcissistic ways and complete lack of empathy for anyone other than himself. I did not choose his cruelty. I did not choose his personal attacks on individuals from the office of the president. I did not choose his inherent bullying nature. I did not choose his crudeness or vulgarity, and his attacks on women and their appearance. I did not choose his attacks on Mexicans or Haitians, and I did not choose his contempt for African American sports stars. I did not choose his failure to understand the constitution. I did not choose his failure to comprehend the meaning of free speech. I did not choose his attacks on the press. I did not choose his ignorance, his lack of morality, his complete inability to grasp complex concepts, and his non-existent attention span. I did not choose his bragging. I did not choose his cronyism. I did not choose his corruptness. I did not choose his nepotism. I did not choose his tendency to make every issue, first and foremost about himself. I did not choose the way he brings out the very worst in the people of this country. And most importantly, the majority of American voters did not choose Donald Trump.

It is necessary for me to reassure myself, and explain what I DID choose, and why I did come back to the United States for my adult life. Trump’s America is NOT the America that I see. I chose a country that rewards hard work and sacrifice. I chose a country where people are respected for their work ethic (regardless of their job) and their kind behavior to others. I chose a country made up of immigrants and sons and daughters of immigrants from around the globe. I chose a country where people are equal before the law, and where all are free to practice their own religions or belief systems (as long as they do not impose them or interfere with the rights of others). I chose a country of tolerance. I chose a country where my children went to a multi-cultural pre-school with children from a variety of nations and religions, who had every conceivable shade of skin color, and diversity was celebrated. I chose a country where science was encouraged and respected. A country that other countries worried would attract their best people and cause a brain-drain. I chose a country filled with people who are the most philanthropic in the world. I chose a country that respects the rule of law, the court system, and judges. A country that has and respects a free press. I chose a country that sends aid to less fortunate countries and people, a country that helps other countries when they have crises, national disasters, and refugees. I chose a country whose people are courteous, kind and helpful.

I never considered any of the reasons for my choosing the United States to be partisan, relating to one party or another. I always considered these reasons as values held by and large by the majority of Americans; I STILL do. It’s time for the people of this country to unite—not regarding political issues such as taxes and healthcare and other legitimately debatable issues—but on one very specific point: the ignorant, malevolent, narcissist in the White House, Donald Trump, is concerned only with his own immediate gratification and self-adulation.  All good people in this country must unite to reject the degradation of the presidency and the ruination of American values and morals, and everything that is good in this nation.

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Run with Science, Dr. Julia Biggins!

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Dr. Julia Biggins, Democratic candidate for Representative of Virginia’s 10th District

One of the few positive outcomes of the Trump presidency, is that some people have become so fed up with the quality of those in elected office, that they are willing to leave careers that they love behind in order to challenge and replace some of the appalling current politicians in Congress. Indeed, I have read that there is a new trend of scientists who have decided to run for political office.

According to a recent CNN article, a handful of candidates who are either active scientists or physicians, have decided to place themselves on the ballot to combat the damaging anti-science and anti-truth White House. The “war on science” begins, first and foremost, with a brutal assault on the truth. As the administration tells full-out lies at an amazing rate, and brandishes its communications machinery to support those lies (which include the size Trump’s inauguration, whether Trump won the popular vote, whether the election was a ‘landslide,’ whether Obama wiretapped Trump at his home—just to bring a few early examples of the lies), they use the absurd Orwellian method of claiming that those reporting the truth (journalists and the media) are “fake.” Call others what you yourself are. Just like the “No puppet, no puppet, you’re the puppet!” tic-like bellow by Mr. Trump in his debate with Mrs. Clinton, when she argued that he was acting like a Putin puppet. If you call others what you really are, then that absolves you of your sins, and places them on others. Or so a stable genius thinks…

But the war on science goes beyond the broad attack on the truth. Trump’s pick for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) director, Scott Pruitt, has been especially damaging to science and the quality of the environment in this country. A climate-change denier, Pruitt has done everything he can to prevent EPA scientists from publishing data on climate change, attending meetings, etc. There has been an exodus of scientists from the EPA, and Pruitt has pushed to overturn regulations that until now prevented dangerous toxins that can cause childhood cancers from being used.

In addition, the Trump administration called for a 20% cut in funding to the National Institutes of Health, showing not only a lack of concern for the development of new drugs and treatments for diseases that afflict the American people, but also a lack of understanding of how scientific research is an economic engine that has helped the US become (and stay) a global leader. At least until now.

Of course, let us not forget that the Trump administration recently put a ban on the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and forbid this institute from using such tainted and terrible words, as “evidence-based, science-based, fetus, transgender, vulnerable, etc.,” in their upcoming budget. The words ‘science-based’ in a budget for the CDC? How inappropriate! Only an administration bent on destroying science and truth could possibly dream up banning the use of these words!

For these reasons, I was delighted to read that an active scientist, Dr. Julia Biggins, has signed on to run for Representative of Virginia’s 10th district as a Democrat in the 2018 mid-term elections! Dr. Biggins is an infectious disease researcher, and she has noted that not only will she fight for science and against the current administration’s anti-science policies, but she will bring all of her scientific training to Congress to fight for rational and common-sense policies to the complex issues facing this country.

I cannot stress how much respect and credit Dr. Biggins deserves for her willingness to step into the quagmire of federal politics. To leave behind what was undoubtedly years and years of training and dedication to her field to hopefully provide much-needed support for the rest of American scientists shows that she has broad vision and commitment to the scientific enterprise as a whole. I am certain that she will do a spectacular job if elected, and will fulfill an urgent need to bring “science-based,” “evidence-based,” and “truth-based” discussion back into the national discourse. Run, Julia, run! You have earned my support.

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