A Scientist in Politics, Part 2: Political organizing as a break from MIT

By Sheeva Azma

This blog is part two of “A Scientist in Politics,” a seven-part series about how I got into political campaigns and science policy as a scientist.

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“I started working on political campaigns from the moment I arrived at MIT, pretty much.” @SheevaAzma

I arrived on the MIT campus in late August 2001. It was my first time ever traveling via airplane. It was just a few weeks later that 9/11 happened, which changed the United States policy trajectory entirely.

photo of mit's killian court
Don’t let this scenic view fool you: MIT is a very tough place. I can’t tell you how many times I walked through this building wishing that I had already graduated. This photo of MIT’s Killian Court was taken in 2019, but I can say that this view has not changed too much in the past 18 years since I first landed on campus. Photo credit: Mys 721tx – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

I was lucky to have arrived in the land of Michael Dukakis, for whom I had developed an incomprehensible affinity from a young age. I started working on political campaigns from the moment I arrived at MIT, pretty much. There were tons of high-profile Democrats in Massachusetts, including iconic ones like John F. Kennedy. The political atmosphere was much better for Democrats, it seemed, in Massachusetts than back home in Oklahoma. 

In my first few months as an MIT student, I volunteered for former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich’s campaign for Massachusetts governor. He was running against a guy named Mitt Romney in the 2002 governor’s race for Massachusetts. I would see Mitt’s name on the TV at the campus food place when I would go pick up dinner near my dorm – it was like MIT with an extra “t,” which I found bizarre. As a newcomer to the Bay State, I had no idea who Mitt Romney was, but he ended up becoming our Republican governor. As of writing, Mitt Romney is much more famous, having run for president, and represents the state of Utah in the Senate.

I also did phonebanking for Massachusetts Republicans as an MIT student. Massachusetts Republicans and Oklahoma Democrats actually have a lot in common; both are somewhat rare in their states, for starters. In 2004 or so, a Persian-American candidate, Dara Pourghassemi, was running for state office and needed people to help with phone canvassing to win the Republican primary. Excited at the chance to elect a Persian-American to public office, I signed up. Even though I was a Democrat working on a local Republican campaign, it wasn’t too hard to find common ground. I mentioned that the candidate was for limited government to one constituent; this elicited an ‘amen.’ It took me back to my days of growing up in Oklahoma surrounded by political conservatives.

I spent the summer after my freshman year in Oklahoma doing science research. Since I was in town again, I also reached out to the local Democratic party to see if I could attend any local events. I think it was that year that I attended a local Democratic Party meeting and met some local candidates who I had heard of growing up.

My sophomore year, back on campus at MIT, I felt sad that I spent all my time doing homework and various science research projects. I had no real connection to what I perceived as “the real world.” I wanted to tap into my lifelong love of politics, too, especially since I had been told that Massachusetts is so super Democrat. I had never been surrounded by so many Democrats before. One day, I had some free time, so I popped over to the Harvard Institute for Politics on the other side of Cambridge, to attend a talk by Rep. Mike Capuano.

Rep. Capuano was a lifelong Somervillian and had the thick Boston accent to boot. He talked about public service and I listened intently, hoping that I would someday join the Ivy League elites who made up the majority of attendees. He ended up being unseated by Ayanna Pressley in the “Blue Wave” elections of 2018, but back then, listening to him speak, I found him to be a dedicated public servant in those immediately post-9/11 times. I remember walking up to him and listening to someone else ask him a question, all the while thinking, “These people are so much more into politics than me. I’ll never be able to follow my dreams of working in Congress.” Looking back, I kind of felt like Ariel in The Little Mermaid: “I want to be / part of their world.”

I also got into Parliamentary Debate around this time. MIT Parli, as we called ourselves, was actually relatively established amidst a sea of Ivy League teams. We had some star debaters that could beat some of the more seasoned Harvard and Yale debaters. Ted Cruz had famously debated on our circuit when he was an undergraduate at Princeton. The people who were the best at parli ended up being important lawyers, and some people with whom our team debated went on to serve on Mueller’s legal team. 

One cool thing about Parli was that we’d get to visit different schools, often (but not always) Ivy Leagues, every weekend for our tournaments. Though I was clearly not a star debater, I liked coming up with arguments, and exercising the debate skills I had learned in high school debate. It was cool to exercise my right brain as a break from tough science and engineering classes. My classmates complained about writing and the humanities, but I loved it. I didn’t have their engineering mind, though. I had a curious scientific mind which sought to make sense of big, complicated issues. Feeling frustrated that I was slow to understand some scientific concepts, I wanted to help others understand them, too. Science felt very isolating.

In the summer of 2003, I stayed on campus to do cancer research at Massachusetts General Hospital, which was a short walk across the Longfellow Bridge from my dorm at MIT. The next summer, I went back home to Oklahoma and did both science research and more campaign fieldwork. 

In fall of 2003, about three weeks into my junior year(!), I changed majors from Chemical Engineering to Brain and Cognitive Sciences. I spent the next year and a half ensuring I’d have taken enough classes to graduate on time. Summer 2004 I spent at home in Oklahoma. I took a statistics class at my local university that summer that would count for MIT credit. I also volunteered in a zoology lab at my local university, volunteering on a pilot project for a professor, because I liked science research and wanted to gain new skills.

Summer 2004 was the epitome of pursuing my different interests: I did both science and policy independently, and while neither system was set up for it, I made it work that year and in ensuing years. 

That summer, I also worked on the US Senate campaign for Rep. Brad Carson. He had served in the US House and had decided to run for US Senate. I worked almost full-time for the Carson campaign as an unpaid volunteer. My responsibilities there included canvassing across the Oklahoma City metro area (both by telephone and door-to-door), data entry, and training other volunteers to be proficient in both tasks. I also planned a fundraising event, an outdoor barbecue, for about 300 people. While Rep. Carson didn’t ultimately win the Senate race, he clinched a government position in the Obama administration, and was a Harvard Institute of Politics (IOP) fellow like Rep. Capuano.

Elections analyst Stuart Rothenberg has called Rep. Carson’s campaign “one of the best-run” political campaigns of the 2004 elections cycle. I like to think it was because of my and my fellow campaign staffers’ work that this is the case. We worked hard to elect him, and he won the primary, but he ended up losing the general election by just less than 12%. This was still a huge feat for an Oklahoma Democrat of that time.

That summer, I spent most of my free time calling people and talking to them about their values and reasons to vote for Carson. Mostly, I talked to conservative Republicans, who make up most of OK. One woman told me she would vote for “whoever Jesus wanted” to be elected. She sounded super Republican, so I knew it would be a tough sell to get her to vote Democrat. Sometimes I called people I knew; I remember convincing my high school math teacher to vote for my candidate, and I obtained her support. One of my classmates from high school, who had started Young Republicans when we had started Young Democrats, had a high role in the competing candidate’s campaign, Tom Coburn, a conservative physician who was a political outsider. Oklahoma politics was a small world at that time, and still continues to be.

When school started I had to go back to Massachusetts, so I stopped being able to work on the campaign in September. By November, the candidate was trailing, and he lost by just a few percentage points to Tom Coburn. I visited Sen. Coburn’s office when I was a Society for Neuroscience Early Career Policy Fellow (back then, the program was called something else) and they were very friendly and receptive to hearing about the merits of science funding. It was kind of a devastating loss, though, because it was probably the closest OK has been to electing a Democratic senator in recent history. Oklahoma’s US Senate seats have been dominated by Republicans ever since.

2004 was also the year John Kerry faced off against incumbent George W. Bush, who had gained the nickname “Dubya” and was, unfortunately, cast as an idiot by progressive democrats. I could never escape the criticisms of him in the media that he played golf too much as a wartime president. The political atmosphere was polarized, but since 9/11 had just happened, there was also a sense of unity and rebuilding. Still, you’d be hard-pressed to find a Dubya supporter in uber-liberal Cambridge, MA (at least, as far as I knew).

It became one of my tactics as an MIT student to try to steer conversations with my professors’ towards the politics of the time, and their widespread disgust with the president, so that they could stop criticizing me. LOL! I didn’t judge the president for his golf habits, because in my mind, I would choose a president that knew how to set boundaries over a workaholic president any day. Still, I was a huge John Kerry fan. I was convinced Kerry and Edwards would bring an end to political discord, because there would be no George W. Bush to make fun of anymore. 

While working towards MIT graduation, I was also a voracious consumer of Kerry/Edwards memes at that time – political memes, usually in JPG form, were a huge thing for young people in 2004, but they were largely underground, in case you did not know. Remember, Facebook had been a thing for less than a year at this point, and it was slowly being rolled out, first to students at elite colleges, then to students at all colleges, then eventually to everyone over the next few years. Twitter arrived in 2006, and Instagram did not exist until 2010. While LinkedIn launched in 2002 and had existed for about two years at that point, I did not know anyone who was a power-user of it the way people are today. Online communication for college students, especially MIT nerds, back then was via low-tech memes, flash videos, and AOL Instant Messenger (also called AIM).

Anyway, in a while, it would be revealed that Edwards was actually having an affair while his wife was fighting cancer, but in the 2004 election, the friendship between Kerry and Edwards and their Democratic ideals gave me a lot of hope at a time when many things seemed hopeless.

photo of john kerry and john edwards
John Kerry and John Edwards in the 2004 presidential election cycle, before Edwards’ downfall. They look so happy to be side by side! Source: NBC News

As the results rolled in on November 2, 2004, I assumed Kerry/Edwards would win handily. After all, I was in cobalt blue Massachusetts, Kerry’s home state, and we all loved him, or so it seemed. I even donated a few bucks to his campaign, though I didn’t have time to canvass for him. Sadly, though, he was defeated and George W. Bush got another term. 

Watching the results in my dorm, I was devastated. I tried to make myself feel better by looking at photos of cute cats. LOLcats, pictures of cats with cute text captions like “I can haz cheezburger?”, were an up-and-coming internet meme of that time. 

My friend was walking by and glanced over my shoulder. “Are you looking at LOLcats?” I guess my LOLcat scrolling must have seemed weird for someone who was not into political organizing as much as I was. After Kerry’s loss, I decided I would never donate money to political campaigns again. I would only donate my time, which, as I reasoned, was much more valuable.

I graduated from MIT in 2005 with my degree in Brain and Cognitive Science. Next, I accepted a research assistant position in the Massachusetts General Hospital’s Radiology department. Politically, I found my workplace to have a distinct Bernie Sanders vibe. That meant something a bit different back then as it would now, as at the time, he was just a Congressman from Vermont. In 2007, Sanders became Vermont’s senator, and later ran for president, giving the whole state of Oklahoma that same Bernie vibe when he clinched the state in the 2016 Democratic presidential primaries.

On the other hand, in 2007, I was a hardcore Hillary Clinton stan. I wanted, more than anything, to see Hillary as the first woman president. Back then, there was a unknown senator from Illinois named Barack Obama who was considering a presidential run. One day, sitting around a lunch table, my colleagues mentioned that they were voting for Obama, who, from what they said, seemed a progressive, pro-science candidate. I mentioned that I had been a Hillary Clinton fan since I was a young supporter of her husband, Bill, and that was met with some weird looks. I found that bizarre, since we were all Democrats. To me, my colleagues had a very unusual view of the world, and to them, I also had very strange political views. “Oh well,” I thought to myself, “It would be dumb to miss out on the Obama momentum.” My colleagues persuaded me to vote for Obama (see, these random lab conversations are really important!). Later, in grad school, I would attend his 2008 inauguration in DC, and canvass and phone bank for him to re-elect him in the 2012 presidential election.

I worked as a research assistant for three years, doing all the behind-the-scenes work at my lab. I loved science but I was doing way too much as the only research assistant. Luckily, our lab landed a grant (thanks, in part, to my copyediting skills!) and could hire a couple more research assistants to lighten the load. It was all great experience for my grad school aspirations.

photo of a shirt i got working at massachusetts general hospital
My workplace was The Scientist’s best place to work in academia in 2007! I ended up giving this shirt to a friend who later also worked there, but I went running in it a couple times in grad school.

I hoped to get a PhD in neuroscience to become a neuroscience researcher. While I was not sure how women in science did it all, any perceived sexism did not hold me back from trying to reach my goals.

I would end up starting graduate school in the midst of the Great Recession, which I did not really even notice was happening. By 2009, this turned out to be a great choice, economically. The more established scientists said everyone struggling in the bad economy were also wanting to go to grad school to upskill.

This post is part two 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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