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Allies gather to celebrate science

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2018 - Spring


Wyatt Salmon is 11, lives in East Haven, and wants to be an astrophysicist when he grows up.

“I love science,” Wyatt said as he dabbled in hands-on demonstrations of magnetism and electricity, transmission of radio waves, and extraction of DNA from strawberries at Beyond the March for Science. The April 15 event, organized by students at Yale and the University of New Haven (UNH), was one of hundreds of events around the country on the anniversary of last year’s nationwide March for Science that rallied supporters of evidence- and fact-based policies.

Wyatt is just the kind of youngster the organizers hoped to draw to their event at District New Haven, an office and event space on James Street in Fair Haven. For the grownups, there were talks by students and faculty from both universities in topics including biology, neuroscience, and gene editing.

“Last year we marched and made our voices heard,” said organizer Sarah Smaga, a graduate student at Yale who looks for proteins that can thwart HIV infection. “This year we wanted to start a dialogue about what science is and how we could support it.”

“We really want to bring science into the community and find ways to engage,” said organizer Andrea McCarthy, who’s working on her master’s thesis in environmental science at UNH. “It seems like there are people who see science as outside what their daily life entails. Really, science is part of their daily life.”

Smaga and McCarthy met through Action Together Connecticut, a grass roots progressive organization formed after the 2016 election.

“There is a backlash or some kind of resistance to using science and evidence-based policies to better the communities,” McCarthy said. “If we make the effort to bring science into the community this will help promote evidence-based policies.

As an example, McCarthy cited fuel emissions—the Trump administration is rescinding standards implemented during the Obama administration. “Now the Environmental Protection Agency under the new administration wants to roll those back,” McCarthy said. “It is going to hurt the public good and increase emissions and pollutants that lead to breathing issues like asthma.”

Among the speakers was Mark Abraham, director of DataHaven, which collects data on towns throughout Connecticut and makes it available to the public. Abraham voiced a concern regarding the 2020 census, which will include a new question that asks respondents their citizenship status.

“This was against all recommendations of the Census Bureau, including the government’s own experts,” Abraham said. A recent test of the survey in Rhode Island found resistance among many immigrants to the question. Some refused to answer questions or just walked away from interviewers. An inaccurate count, Abraham said, could lead to reduced federal funding for such programs as Medicare, Medicaid, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. “Funding is based on how many people are living in Connecticut,” Abraham said.

Lonnie Reed, who represents Branford in the state legislature, offered scientists advice on how to interact with legislators.

“It’s always a smart move to talk about people rather than petri dishes,” said Reed, co-chair of the General Assembly's Energy & Technology Committee. “Don’t forget to talk about the people whom you want to help. When you’re speaking to legislator or other civilians, it is important to humanize your stories. Paint a compelling picture.”

Nikodem Poplawski, PhD, a senior lecturer in physics at UNH who prepared a physics demonstration, said, “Science is the driving force behind all technological progress. The more people know about science, the more they will be electing people to promote science.”