A Scientist in Politics, Part 1: Growing up Democrat in a red state

By Sheeva Azma

This blog is part one of a seven-part series about how I got into the policy world as a scientist. You can also read parts 23, 4, 5, 6, or 7.

Says @SheevaAzma: I have been attuned to politics my whole life, looking for opportunities to make an impact.

My whole life, I’ve juggled my interests in science, writing, and policy. People often ask me how I got involved in politics as a scientist, since most people working in Congress have a political science degree, not a science one. The answer is that I have been attuned to politics my whole life, looking for opportunities to make an impact. Juggling my different interests hasn’t always been glamorous or even easy, but it has always been meaningful and super rewarding. These days, I am a freelance science writer and communications strategist developing key messages for political figures and campaigns (among my many other roles as a science communicator and writer).

I wrote this blog series to chronicle over 20+ years of my experiences in the political world and share how I got involved in science policy. I hope to show my fellow scientists that anyone can get involved in political organizing – and that there is a huge need for scientists to be involved in the US political process.

Growing up Democrat in a Red State

“Michael Dukakis!” I yelled from the back of a taxi cab. I was probably about six years old, and jazzed about the Democratic candidate for president, whom I found more relatable than his challenger, George H.W. Bush. The cab driver looked at me puzzlingly, then looked at my parents, as if to say, “What’s wrong with your kid?”

a photo of a young sheeva azma
Me as a young kid sometime in the 1980s. Growing up, I loved sandwiches and long road trips like this one. In a few short years, I would be yelling about Michael Dukakis in the back of taxi cabs and to everyone I knew. Oh, yeah, I would also later become obsessed with the brain, and would declare to everyone that I wanted to be a brain surgeon. Fun times.

My parents were used to my random yelling about Dukakis by now. Everywhere I went, I tried to get people in conversation about Michael Dukakis. Sometimes, I would find other Oklahomans who supported him, and that would be really exciting. Sometimes, though, as with the case of the taxi driver, not so much. Dukakis ended up losing to George H.W. Bush in that 1988 election, but unbeknownst to me, that event was just the beginning of my political aspirations.

As long as I can remember, I have been engaged with politics, trying to find other people with my same views (always exciting!), and trying to learn more about politics as a way to understand the world. This was in parallel to my interests in science, especially brain science, and my career goals (at the time) of becoming a brain surgeon. Given that I’m now a neuroscientist who spent 10 years studying the brain noninvasively using MRI, I say…”close enough.”

In 1992, I became hopeful again when a young, moderate Democrat named Bill Clinton won the presidential race. It was a tumultuous time and Clinton was president from the time I was in elementary school through middle and high school. I found Bill Clinton so personable and relatable as a communicator. “Bill Clinton camouflaged a fulgent brain behind folksy Arkansas aphorisms about hogs,” wrote the New York Times in 2008. Listening to Bill Clinton, I felt called to public service. Perhaps it was because I, too, was a red state Democrat.

Over the next few years, I would informally lobby my family and friends to vote for the candidates I liked best. In high school, I began formally working on political campaigns. One of my earliest political canvassing memories is going door-to-door for a Democrat candidate running against Jonathan Nichols for the Oklahoma State Senate in 2000. My friends and I knocked doors and made the case our candidate. We were determined to put more democrats in local government, but despite our best efforts, Nichols won. It would be the first of many disappointments I would face as a red state Democrat.

In high school, I also attended political debates sponsored by our local League of Women Voters. I would talk about politics with my high school teachers and watch C-SPAN with my family. I also helped start my high school’s chapter of Young Democrats, which was formally founded by my friend, who I can only describe as one of the most Democrat people I know. Some of our classmates, who were friends with us, also started Young Republicans that year.

One day, I spent some time outside our high school holding up a campaign sign for Al Gore and Joe Lieberman, who were running for president in 2000. I waved to the cars as they drove by. On election night that year, it was another red state Democrat disappointment. I went to sleep that night with Al Gore declared the winner, and wake up to George W. Bush as president. Most everyone in our red state was happy, while I felt pessimistic about the future of the Oklahoma Democratic Party.

A few months later, I got into MIT, and was excited to move to a state that was as Democrat as Oklahoma is Republican. It was a major selling point for me, beyond MIT’s high college rankings. Weirdly enough, it didn’t change my political views, but at first, it was a huge culture shock.

At MIT, I had friends who were political nerds like me, but I was the only person I knew who actually dreamed of working in Congress. It made me feel like the odd one out. While my friends aspired to work at huge tech companies with huge salaries, I sought to get into the political world, with low pay, long hours, and work that is often both incomprehensible and disliked by the general population. Since 2005, Congress’ approval rating has been hovering at just under 30%, according to Gallup. Oddly enough, just a few weeks after I stepped onto the MIT campus, Congress garnered its highest approval rating ever: 84% in October 2001! 

Growing up, I didn’t intentionally pursue politics because that’s what I wanted to do with my life. I naturally gravitated toward it because talking about politics was one of the things I loved. As an angsty teen, I felt frustrated with the status of women in society, and I found like-minded people in local political organizing. At MIT, talking to voters via phone banking was a convenient, wonderful respite from mind-breaking problem sets. In my mind, it was an “extra” thing I was doing as someone pursuing a career in science. While I knew other scientists with my same political inclinations, they were not pursuing politics at the same zoomed-in level as me.

If I would have known about MIT’s rich science policy history – including its status as a defense technology powerhouse that helped win World War 2 and the numerous presidential advisors tapped from MIT – my love of science policy would have made so much more sense and I would have felt much less weird. Maybe all of us MIT students would have become more politically engaged! That’s why I am grateful to the movie MIT: Regressions, produced by two MIT students, that unpacks the complex and sometimes painful history between science and policy at MIT from the 1940s onward.

Learning about the links between science and policy at MIT in the early 2010s propelled my science policy ambitions. It reminded me that science and policy must interface for our world to be successful, and that scientists can be just as powerful beyond the halls of academia. That’s one reason that I recommend that anyone who is in college or grad school for science to read up on the history of science policy and to specifically look into ways their institution has shaped the science policy landscape. Finally, a perhaps obvious reason to look to the history of science policy is that it holds tons of lessons for how we should tackle future science and technology challenges in the years ahead.

Being a red state Democrat is a huge part of who I am, perhaps because I’ve been one my whole life. As someone interfacing between two political worlds, I love those seemingly rare times when bipartisanship is possible and Democrats and Republicans get along. As a scientist, it’s heartening to see people working across the aisle to leverage science to improve our lives. Working to achieve bipartisanship is what’s helped me be successful in my work as a political communications strategist and in life. At a time when our nation is more divided than ever, I’m excited to apply my skills and expertise to help bring the focus back to our shared values as a nation.

This post is part one of a seven-part series called “A Scientist in Politics.” Read the other parts:
Part 1: Growing up Democrat in a red state
Part 2: Political organizing as a break from MIT
Part 3: A science PhD student in Washington, DC
Part 4: Leaving academia but not science

Part 5: Running the political gamut and working in Congress!
Part 6: Why can’t I stay away from politics?
Part 7: The 2022 midterm elections

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