February 22, 2018

Meet the scientists running to transform Congress in 2018


No matter how effective social media might be at reaching voters, it can’t replace the blood, sweat, tears, and face time that a candidate must put in. And for many science candidates, that has meant abandoning or dramatically reducing their professional activities to take up politics.

Last summer, for example, physicist Elaine DiMasi gave up a tenured position at the Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York, to run in the first congressional district of New York on Long Island. (As a federal employee she couldn’t do both.) That was a gamble, as election handicappers say she is a long shot in her bid to win the Democratic nomination and take on two-term incumbent Representative Lee Zeldin (R).

DiMasi works on deciphering the structures of biological materials using Brookhaven’s National Synchrotron Light Source. It requires persistence and attention to detail, traits that have also proved useful as a candidate. “Politics is about showing up,” DiMasi says. “I would go into a room of influential people, and the first three times I showed up they didn’t care. But on the fourth time, they’d say, ‘Oh good, Elaine’s here.’ A scientist might well wonder: ‘What did I do differently?’ I simply offered myself.”

Such persistent networking is part of the interpersonal skills—she calls them the “politics part of a campaign”—that are separate from the nuts and bolts of running for office. And it doesn’t come naturally. “You can only learn it from experience,” she says.