Featured Force: Chris Tokita

Chris Tokita. Credit: Sameer A. Khan/Fotobuddy

Chris Tokita is an NSF Graduate Research Fellow and PhD student at Princeton University in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. He works in the field of mathematical and computational biology, where he studies the self-organization of division of labor in social systems, such as ants and humans. He is a former science policy fellow at the IDA Science and Technology Policy Institute in Washington, DC. He also helped plan a trip to DC for Princeton graduate students and postdocs to meet with policy makers. 


What have you done to be a Force for Science?

I took a two-year gap before graduate school to work as a Science Policy Fellow at the IDA Science and Technology Policy Institute in Washington, DC, which is a Federally Funded Research and Development Center (FFRDC) tasked with supporting the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Since enrolling in graduate school in 2016, I’ve joined the Princeton Citizen Scientists, an on-campus group of graduate students devoted to science advocacy and evidence-based policy making.

What science advocacy activity are you most proud of?

As a member of the Princeton Citizen Scientists, I helped plan an advocacy trip to DC for graduate students and postdocs. It was long day—we hit the road at 5am and didn’t get back until 11pm—but it was exhilarating to meet with representatives and senators on both sides of the aisle to discuss science-related issues, like research funding and climate policy. I was extremely happy to see how empowered the participants felt; until then, many couldn’t imagine presenting their research to policymakers, let alone calling into a legislator’s office to schedule a meeting. 

Chris Tokita visits DC with the Princeton Citizen Scientists. | Courtesy of Chris Tokita

Tell us about a hobby or passion related to science advocacy

In my spare time, I intern for my local New Jersey State Assemblyman, Andrew Zwicker, who is also a PhD physicist at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. I mostly help the assemblyman and his staff research state-level policy related to science, technology, and the environment. It’s a great reminder that many important, science-relevant policies also happen at the state and local level.

Read a book you are dying to tell your peers about? Give us a brief summary and why you love it.

Any book by Edward Tufte is a must-read. Data is ubiquitous, but often I see findings muddled by poor visual representation. I think any of his books (The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Visual Explanations, etc.) will not only teach you the “dos and don’ts” of making graphs and charts, but will also give you an appreciation for the pure art of data visualization. Therefore, I think whether you are a researcher, an art enthusiast, a history buff, educator, or an avid reader, you will find something to enjoy in his unique series of books.

What advice do you have for those who’d like to get started advocating for science?

Find a group to join forces with. It can be hard to start advocating on your own, especially if you’ve never done it before, but taking the collective plunge as a group is much easier. Set aside a half-hour and location that you and your friends can call legislators from every week. Find a local organization that is doing something you think is valuable. People are social by nature; leverage that for the betterment of society!