Nurses, nuclear engineers, computer scientists and biochemists all over the country are bidding for seats in Congress. These candidates share a commitment to bringing evidence-based decision-making to government and a desire for elected officials to better reflect the varied backgrounds and professions of their constituents. (Unlike the average citizen, most senators hold law degrees.)
Many of these candidates are newcomers to politics, bolstered by groups like 314 Action, which provides resources to aspiring politicians with scientific backgrounds. Others have already launched political careers at state and national levels. Regardless, their scientific training has grounded them throughout their professional lives, a sensibility they hope to bring to government.
1. Sean Casten
Where he’s running: Illinois– 6th district
Science Background: Biochemical engineer
Prior position: Clean energy entrepreneur
How did you come to work in the clean energy sector?
For my whole professional career I’ve been concerned about climate change. I went to graduate school to work on biofuel research and fell in love with the idea that you could make industrial processes more efficient with pretty simple technological changes. That basically informed everything I did afterwards.
How did your work in energy expand into politics?
If you are working on a problem, my mentality is to figure out where the bottleneck is and focus on that. At first, I thought the bottleneck was basic science. Then, I realized there is a lot of low-hanging fruit in efficiency that’s not being done. That led to founding a number of businesses. In the course of building those companies, we kept running into these policy barriers, blocking action that made technical, economic, and environmental sense. That’s what got me involved in clean energy advocacy. I joke with friends that you can’t change the laws of thermodynamics, you can’t chance the laws of economics, but you can change the laws of the United States.
How has your scientific background informed running your businesses and now, running for office?
If you’re trained in the sciences, you are taught to be skeptical in the scientific sense of the term. When we used to hire young engineers or financial analysts, I would encourage them to read the philosopher Immanuel Kant, which sounds totally nerdy. But Kant had this thing that you can’t prove anything is true, all you can do is prove things are false. If you are trying to make the case for investment or using some new technology, I would encourage my staff to build a model trying to prove that it doesn’t work. If you can’t prove something won’t work, it’s probably a good thing. But if you are just trying to prove that it does work, then we’re going to fall into some bad decisions.
In the political world, that’s far too rare. Just doing things like saying, what is the basis for making decisions? If the answer is anything other than observable, knowable truths, then holy cow are we in trouble.
What motivated you to run for office?
Facts matter. Arguing on the non-factual side of issues like climate change or the existence of voter fraud is unbelievably stupid. If you commit resources based on something that is objectively false, you are making decisions that would never last in a scientific lab or a business environment.
Regarding climate change, we have a real problem if we don’t deal with climate change yesterday. But there are a lot of potential solutions: carbon dioxide is the only pollutant that costs money to release. You can’t make carbon dioxide without burning fossil fuel, and nobody gives away fossil fuel for free. The result of that is there are tons of opportunities to reduce carbon dioxide by making clean energy cheaper, creating jobs, and growing the economy. I know that from experience. Even if you don’t care about the environment, but you do want to see a growing economy, you should be focused on making us more energy efficient.
2. Steve Ferrara
Where he’s running: Arizona– 9th district
Science Background: Endovascular surgeon
Prior position: Chief Medical Officer for the U.S. Navy
What is endovascular surgery and what initially attracted you to the field?
Endovascular surgery is minimally-invasive, image-guided surgery. We use a lot of catheters and wires through arteries and veins to get to hard-to-reach places using imaging—mostly x-rays, but also ultrasound and cat-scans— to guide us. Most of the stuff we do doesn’t even involve stitches, but you can do huge procedures—like replacing someone’s aorta—and they can go home in the same day. It’s a very cutting-edge, technology-driven specialty.
We do a lot of outside-the-box thinking and a lot of peer problem-solving. Some people say we’re the cowboys of the hospital—we’ll do a lot of things that haven’t been tried before. That’s what always appealed to me.
How did you become a medical officer in the Navy?
I joined the Navy when the first Gulf War broke out in 1991 after I had already applied to medical school. My dad is a Korean War veteran, so I thought I could take care of people like him on the battlefield. I ended up serving in the Navy for 25 years.
Were you able to practice endovascular surgery in the military?
A decade ago, there were only a handful of endovascular surgeons in the Navy, so they didn’t typically send us out. I volunteered to go to Afghanistan and ended up working at one of the only NATO hospitals in the country. When I started there, I found there was a great need for addressing things that my specialty lends itself really well to, like injuries caused by blasts from explosives.
I wasn’t able to get the equipment I needed from the Army, so I wrote to a colleague back in San Diego and asked her to mail me this stuff—about $ 100,000 worth of supplies. Even though I wasn’t sure if it was entirely legal at the time, I said I’d rather go to jail doing the right thing than sit here and watch people die or lose their limbs when I know I could save them. So I got the equipment and started doing endovascular surgical procedures. Within a matter of weeks, the combat commander said, this is an incredible improvement and we need to have these folks here all the time. We’ve had this speciality on the battlefield since then.
What do you see as the overlap between your career in medicine and in politics?
When you’re a physician or a naval officer, you care about service. For me, that’s what going into public office is all about. The other thing is, when I’m on the battlefield or in the operating room, you get the world as you find it, not as you’d like it to be. You have to just deal with the problem and move forward. That’s what we really need in Washington, DC. I think people across the ideological spectrum appreciate that.
Why do you want to see more doctors in Congress?
Healthcare is our most important domestic issue because it’s the biggest sector of our economy, yet there are only ten physicians in the House of Representatives. It’s important to have people in office who really understand healthcare and can put patients first.
3. Chrissy Houlahan
Where she’s running: Pennsylvania– 6th district
Science Background: Industrial engineer for the Air Force
Prior position: Non-profit executive and chemistry teacher
What was your role as an engineer in the Air Force?
I worked on anti-ballistic missiles and defense programming before studying how to apply manufacturing techniques that the Japanese had learned in the auto industry to the airframe industry.
What did you learn from your engineering background that has carried over throughout your career?
Everything I do is through the lens of being an engineer or a scientist. After I served in the military, I grew a number of businesses. I was in the operating role in all of those businesses and was able to apply my industrial engineering experience to all of them—from a basketball apparel and manufacturing company to most recently a non-profit that focuses on early childhood literacy. Implementing all of the processes and information systems is directly applying the way that I think to a business.
How does that scientific thinking apply to politics?
One of my bigger motivators in running for elected office is I don’t think that sensibility is very prevalent in Congress. A lot of the challenges of our nation are very technical—they’re data-oriented and require a different set of skills at the table to complement the ones that are already there. An example, of course, is climate: we’ve known for a very long time that human activity has caused major changes to our climate and we need to be doing something about it, both from a government perspective and our individual behavior. I haven’t seen enough movement and sense of urgency on that issue from Congress.
I decided to run for national office instead of statewide office because I’m also really concerned about cyber-security and biosecurity. I think those issues also aren’t keeping up legislatively with what’s happening in the real world.
Did your experience as a science teacher affect your outlook on education policy?
I taught 11th grade chemistry and I realized it’s pretty hard to teach chemistry if high school students aren’t able to read beyond a 3rd or 4th grade level. I couldn’t be more passionate about the importance of STEM education, but it really doesn’t matter if we are not properly preparing our kids to be able to embrace that education. That’s why I’ve spent a lot of time worrying about early-childhood development and literacy.
4. Elaine Luria
Where she’s running: Virginia– 2nd district
Science background: Naval nuclear engineer
Prior position: Small business owner
What was your role as a nuclear engineer in the Navy?
I served for 20 years on six different ships, deployed in the Middle East and the Western Pacific. Many of those ships were powered by nuclear reactors. I was responsible for supervising the operation of the nuclear power plants onboard and training hundreds of nuclear operators. One of the biggest ships I served on, a 100,000-ton aircraft carrier, was powered by eight nuclear reactors.
How does your experience at sea transfer to the political world?
When you talk about ships, they’re a city at sea. They really have to be self-sufficient: you make your own drinking water, create your own electricity, and if something breaks, you have to figure out how to fix it. Once you have lived that and understood how important every person is to making that ship go, you can translate that into the bigger world.
As a leader on a ship like that, my job was to create an environment where people could succeed. As a representative in Congress, it is incumbent to create an environment where people in our communities can succeed.
What inspired you to run for office?
On the first day at the Naval Academy, you learn the mission statement, to develop leaders for the “highest responsibilities of command, citizenship and government.” It’s always been in the back of my mind that there is an expectation to continue to serve the country in other ways after the military.
In this district, we have the largest concentration of veterans in the country, the fourth largest concentration of active duty military, and the largest Naval base in the world. I felt compelled to take my experience and not just sit on the sidelines.
5. Jacky Rosen
Where she’s running: Nevada — Senate
Science Background: Computer programmer and software developer
Prior position: Congresswomen for Nevada’s 3rd district
What first attracted you to computer programming?
I love working with computers because I love the problem-solving aspect of it. When I first started out in the 1970s and 80s, you couldn’t buy software off the shelf. For companies that had an issue, we had to figure out how to write a code that would solve their problem. We did everything: we designed and wrote the software, tested it, trained on it, and maintained it. It sure was fun.
What lessons from you experience in the tech industry translate to your work in politics?
When you write software, you are working with big databases and you have lots of teams and end users. Every piece has to merge with each other or the system isn’t working right. You work smarter, not harder, by listening to what the clients’ needs are. I bring that with me to Congress and everything I do.
In your time in Congress so far, how has your science background come into practice?
I put forth a bill called the Building Blocks of STEM Act that creates programs encouraging young girls to pursue computer science. It also allocates funding for research in science education, with a special focus on early childhood, to teach kids the analytical skills that you learn in STEM—because you can use them anywhere. Learning how to solve problems is a universal thing.
Why is STEM education so important to you?
We want to give young folks the confidence that they can go out and tackle the problems and challenges of the future. We are on the precipice of a lot of job growth in all areas of technology, but we need to do some good training to get all of our young folks up to speed.
People should not to be afraid of science or technology or computer science. It’s really exciting and innovative and creative—it’s the furthest thing from boring. You can think of it like building puzzles. There’s a really great satisfaction when you are able to take a problem, tackle it, and see your result.
6. Hiral Tipirneni
Where she’s running: Arizona– 8th district
Science background: Emergency room physician
Prior position: Cancer research advocate
What attracted you to emergency room medicine?
As an emergency room doctor, you’re the first one to see the patient. You’re the first line of defense. A patient presents to you as a bit of a mystery and you’re the one that needs to solve it. Frankly, it’s one of those things that gets your heart racing and your palms a little sweaty. You have to stay calm and focused in those chaotic situations.
How did you become interested in public policy more broadly?
Early in my career, I joined the staff at one of our largest intercity hospitals in Phoenix. Every patient you see is not just a medical problem—sometimes they have mental health issues, they may be homeless, suffering from addiction, or have complications related to poverty.
Seeing the constellation of things that people came in with made me more aware of the need to provide better support mechanisms for those patients. That’s where, as a legislator, I could bring positive change so that some of those issues don’t fall on physicians or hospitals, they are actually just managed by smart, good policy.
What made you decide to run for office?
The day after the 2016 election, I was speaking with my daughters about where we go from here. I felt like we had to pull ourselves up and dust ourselves off. One of the things I said was more women should run for office. My oldest daughter looked me dead in the eye and said, ‘Well mom, if not you, then who?’ The next day I applied for a program that helps teach and train women to run for office.
Why is it important to have more candidates from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences?
When people run from more diverse academic and educational backgrounds, and different ethnic backgrounds, all of that leads to richer policy creation. I am thrilled that I am just one woman with a STEM background that is able to potentially have a seat at the table.
7. Lauren Underwood
Where she’s running: Illinois– 14th district
Science Background: Nursing and public health
Prior position: Senior Advisor at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
How did you first become interested in nursing?
As soon as I learned how to spell, I knew I was interested in being involved in healthcare. In elementary school I was diagnosed with a heart condition and ended up making quarterly visits to my pediatric cardiologist. Over time, that interest evolved to public health, learning how to improve the health and wellbeing of entire groups and communities of people.
When I got to college, I took a course in politics and nursing. All of a sudden, at 8 a.m. on Monday mornings, my two interests collided and I discovered this field called heath policy. I knew from that moment on, that’s what I wanted to do.
How did your clinical experience impact your work in public policy?
As a clinician you see people whose lives have been touched by their social or economic status. You send them home with some discharge instructions and you know they may not be able to exercise because they can’t afford a gym membership. Or, there is no grocery store in their neighborhood to allow them to get access to those low-sodium foods. The idea of food deserts was a reality, not just in a textbook or written into some policy paper. This was something we saw with our patients every day.
When I began my career at the Department of Health and Human Services, we were literally changing our healthcare system. Under the Affordable Care Act, we had the opportunity to offer the American people vaccines and screening and contraceptive coverage—a whole range of preventative services for which cost would no longer be a barrier. That kind of work was really important to me because I had that clinical grounding. Oftentimes I would be the only clinician in the conversation.
What made you decide to run for office?
I went to the one and only public event of my district’s representative, Randy Hultgren, in 2017. It was a question and answer session hosted by the local chapter of League of Women Voters. That night, he made a promise: he said he was only going to support a version of Obamacare repeal that lets people with pre-existing conditions keep their healthcare coverage. This was important to me as a nurse because so many folks need access to medications and procedures, especially when they have a chronic illness. And, like so many Americans, I have this heart condition myself. So what’s easy for a politician to speak about in these abstract terms, like pre-existing condition coverage, is really personal to me.
When Randy Hultgren made that promise, I believed him. Then, he went and voted for the American Health Care Act, the version of repeal that did the opposite and denied people with pre-existing conditions guaranteed coverage. When he went and broke his word, I was really upset. I said, you know what? It’s on, I’m running.
8. Randy Wadkins
Where he’s running: Mississippi– 1st District
Science background: Biochemistry
Prior position: Professor at the University of Mississippi
What’s the focus of your research?
I’ve spent 30 years in cancer research, developing anti-tumor drugs. I’m still running my lab and teaching a full load of classes this fall at the University of Mississippi.
Why do you think scientists are well-equipped to work in government?
You’re trained your whole career to work with very complicated, difficult systems. You understand that you only know a little chunk, part of a much bigger picture. That’s what’s sorely lacking in Congress.
Before running, did you have any experience in politics?
I was the healthcare staffer for Steve Cohen, a congressman from Tennessee, in 2015. In the congressional offices, everyone has a television turned on above their cubicle– I certainly watched more C-Span than I ever have or ever will. I watched my representative, the person who I’m running against in November, vote against what I consider the best interest of Mississippi, over and over again. That was really puzzling to me. I couldn’t understand why on earth a guy from Mississippi would vote this way. I realized he was just voting the way the party told him, it didn’t matter if it was good or bad for the district.
What made you decide to run for office?
I used to work at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis. In those days, you had to walk through the lobby of patients to go up the research tower– that meant seeing sick and dying children every morning. If you want a motivation to go to work, man is that a good one.
When Donald Trump released his budget last year, it proposed massive cuts to science funding, from climate change research to basic science, including a 25 percent cut to cancer research. That was the final straw. I thought, somehow, some way, I need to do something to stop this.
Just as I declared I was going to run for Congress, I heard an interview with Bruce Springsteen on the radio. They asked what made him start performing on stage, because he had been known as a pretty shy person. His answer was, my desperation was greater than my fear. That quote resonated with me, because that’s where I found myself as well: My desperation was greater than my fear.
What are some of the issues you’re hoping to tackle if elected?
First, repairing the damage done to the Affordable Care Act, and repairing the Affordable Care Act itself. Second, getting 21st century jobs in north Mississippi in industries like clean energy, computer programming, aerospace and healthcare. Third, criminal justice reform. In much of Appalachia, the opioid and meth crisis is off the charts. Right now, the solution is to lock up addicts. But they don’t get treatment in jail– it’s a revolving door. I believe drug addiction and criminal justice reform go hand-in-hand.
9. Steve Watkins
Where he’s running: Kansas– 2nd district
Science Background: Systems engineering for U.S. Army
Prior position: Independent contractor for U.S. Department of Defense
How did your interest in the sciences begin?
As a child I was fascinated with mechanics, the physical world around us, and the natural sciences. I wanted to know how things work. I often would break my toys and and unsuccessfully reconstruct them, and my mother would get angry at me. That was the kind nerdy kid I was. Then I studied systems engineering at West Point.
What was your role as an engineer for the Army?
I fortified urban facilities to mitigate physical risk imposed by terrorists. Later, working as a civilian, I managed an engineering and security company that provided quality assurance and project oversight in support of larger engineering efforts, mostly in Iraq and Afghanistan.
What made you want to transition to politics?
I had served for ten years in the Army and I missed serving my country directly. I was too old and broken to do so militarily anymore, so I turned to public policy. While I was getting a masters in public administration, the representative from my district announced her retirement. I went back to Kansas to listen and learn about the political landscape there and decided to run.
How do you think your science background would serve you in Congress?
Most politicians don’t have a background in STEM. But I don’t know how they do their job without it. I use science as a starting point to problem solve. I like looking at big data and interpreting the story that it tells. I see that as providing great insight into the effects of public policy.
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