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As a plant biologist, Hallie Thompson has focused on the role a plant’s root system plays in its resilience and survival. As a fledgling politician and fourth-generation Missourian, Thompson also appreciates the significance of her own roots, of a life spent among the people she is running to represent in the August 7, 2018, Democratic primary in Missouri's 4th Congressional District.
If she's successful in the primary against fellow Democrat Renee Hoagenson, Thompson will face either incumbent Vicky Hartzler or her Republican challenger, John Webb.
Thompson, who is still working on her Ph.D. at the University of Missouri in Columbia, said her own passion lies “at the interface of science and society.” She believes scientists like her belong in the halls of Congress, as well as in state legislatures across the country.
“I've done a lot of advocacy, and time and time again, I've seen that we're not being listened to by the folks who are our representatives,” she said.
Thompson, whose research focuses on how corn responds to drought, co-founded the Missouri Science and Technology Fellowship to put scientists to work in the Missouri legislature as staffers, advisers and researchers, so their scientific knowledge can inform governance. The program was inspired by the AAAS Science & Technology Fellowship program to the United States Congress and the California Council on Science and Technology.
“Scientists are good listeners, they love to learn, and they have an appreciation for what they don't know,” she said.
Thompson has traveled to Washington, DC, to speak with members of Congress about plant science and the importance of supporting research as director of legislative affairs for the DC-based nonprofit the National Association of Graduate Professional Students, which advocates for improved conditions for graduate and professional students, and also as an early-career representative of the American Society of Plant Biologists.
Thompson has drawn on the resources of AAAS and similar organizations in her own advocacy efforts. “If you're with a grassroots organization based in Missouri, or wherever you are, it’s important to make those connections,” she said.
Until she was 14, Thompson lived on what she calls “the home place,” a farmhouse from the 1900s on her family’s large farm in High Point, in central Missouri. Her family raised beef cattle, but her interest in plant science was piqued by her grandfather’s side project, studying a resilient, drought-resistant sorghum called milo. To this day, Thompson is interested in finding ways to conserve and diversify plant-based foods.
Thompson's early years were not all idyllic, however. Some of her most formative experiences came when her family had to leave the farm when she was in high school. Her mother and sister had pre-existing medical conditions that were not covered by the individual health insurance policy Thompson’s father had as a farmer. The family moved to St. Charles, near St. Louis, so he could work at a job with Walmart that provided group health insurance, she said.
Even though a lapse in health insurance coverage caused a major disruption in her family’s life, Thompson said she didn't think about the incident much until 2015, when she was in graduate school, and her cohort of students summarily lost their health insurance after the Internal Revenue Service ruled the university could no longer subsidize their premiums.
“It all came rushing back, how challenging and life-changing it can be not to be able to go to the doctor as you normally would,” she said.
Thompson was then the president of the UM Graduate Professional Student Body, which represented graduate students/employees, people who taught classes, graded papers and conducted research, in addition to furthering their own education. She helped the group’s members line up alternative coverage, and then headed up a campaign that led to the reinstatement of their health insurance.
“This story had a happy ending, and I'm glad for that, but not every story does,” she said. Health insurance is so vital to modern life that some of those graduate students might well have had to walk away from their careers, Thompson said. While her own research suffered during the fight, "it was worth a few months of me focusing on this one issue,” she said.
The crisis in healthcare coverage has “actually gotten worse, in a lot of ways, since I was a kid,” she said. That issue, and “the affordability and accessibility of college,” especially for farm families who have not sent their children to college before, are good places to start talking about the federal government’s role in people’s lives, Thompson said. In addition, the farmers in her district are concerned about changing weather patterns.
“It's something that naturally comes up with folks who are close to the farm, because they see it. They see changes in rainfall patterns that may be different from when they were children,” she said. Missouri has had an unusual number of severe floods in the past few years that have wrecked crops and devastated the economics of whole areas. Rural voters tend to be conservative, Thompson said, “and the conservative position is to just kind of pretend it’s not happening, but [farmers] certainly can’t be in denial themselves.”
Thompson said she’s talking about these issues and how they affect people in her district She said, “I see myself as having a unique perspective, not just as a scientist but also having been a farmer, and having grown up in this district.”