Disclaimer: AAAS is a nonpartisan organization and does not endorse any candidate or party.
Half an hour north of Los Angeles, past the point where the greenery of the city turns to sand, Jess Phoenix stood up in front of the Vasquez Rocks last year and announced her candidacy for Congress.
The site served as a location shoot in the original Star Trek for an episode in which Captain Kirk fought a lizard-like creature called Gorn.
Phoenix, a member of AAAS, picked the spot for her announcement because the sharp, jagged edges of those rocks are the remnants of a violent seismic event.
The 36-year-old geologist, who runs a nonprofit research group, said that she is running, in part, to protect the interests of researchers. She sees politics as “an opportunity to change people’s minds with new evidence.”
It was last January, after a talk at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, that she first considered running for office.
“Some other scientists came up and said, ‘It’s a shame we don’t have scientists in government,’” Phoenix said. “To say that science is not political is not true. We need scientists who are used to looking at things logically.”
In running for office, she is going against the conventional wisdom that politics and science cannot mix. But Phoenix decided to run because she perceives a difficult political climate for scientific research.
She brings qualities that aren’t often found at the lab bench: She is as comfortable on camera as she is in the field. Reporters don’t frighten her. And her background falls into equal parts science and liberal arts — she has a degree in history from Smith College and a master’s degree in geology from California State University, Los Angeles.
Further, she said, her field work could come to a quick end as the prospects for funding research has declined.
The time she used to spend on field research and on television shows such as “What on Earth?” on the Science Channel and “Trailblazers” on the Discovery Channel is now spent knocking on doors, asking for votes, and raising money.
In 2013, Phoenix started a nonprofit organization called Blueprint Earth, which takes students on expeditions to the Mojave Desert to catalog the biology, geology, hydrology, and atmosphere of a square kilometer of land. So far, more than 150 students from throughout the United States have catalogued more than 8,000 observations.
The idea is to create a model of the land that can be replicated — a “desert in a box,” Phoenix said — and to eventually create a method for “terraforming,” which would create a blueprint for a detailed duplication of an Earth-like habitat on another planet.
She became interested in terraforming after spending several years helping mining companies conform with regulations in Australia, with an eye toward restoring the land after it was mined.
Her organization has been funded by crowdsourcing and private donations. Phoenix was preparing to apply for a National Science Foundation grant as a special program. But she thought the new administration’s budget request left her with diminished prospects for funding.
Phoenix is running as a Democrat in a crowded field in her district. Currently, eight Democrats and the incumbent Republican are in the race for the district that covers the exurban reaches of northern Los Angeles County.
Phoenix has positioned herself with a message focused on environmental conservation. She has been encouraged by the reactions from voters as she has gone from door to door. When she tells people she opposes the death penalty, she said, many of them say they cannot support her. But after she gives statistics about the expense of death row, their responses are more positive, she said.
She said, “They say, ‘I still like you because you have reasons. I like people who have reasons.’”
Her campaign has garnered thousands of dollars in support from scientists throughout California. The list of donors to Phoenix’s campaign is filled with physicists, engineers, geologists, and professors — professions that are not commonly found in campaign donor filings.
She has received endorsements from Patton Oswalt, Wil Wheaton, Marina Sirtis, and Gates McFadden. While it’s not uncommon to see actors endorse political campaigns in Los Angeles County, it is uncommon to see so many who have worked in the Star Trek franchise.
In a YouTube video with Phoenix, "Star Trek: Voyager" actor Bob Picardo said that his support for a scientist running for office tracks with the message of the show, which is that "man is empowered by science, and ennobled, and ultimately survives because of science." In another video, actor John Billingsley of "Star Trek: Enterprise" said that because of Phoenix's "optimism, her intelligence and her enthusiasm," he wanted to introduce her to "a broad section of Star Trek's community."
The district where Phoenix is running, operates under California’s so-called “jungle primary” system. The top two vote-getters face off in the general election, which means that two Democrats, if they defeat the incumbent, could vie for the seat.
“If you have what I think we’re going to have this cycle, we’re going to have much greater diversity in Congress,” Phoenix said, “along with people who have diverse professional experience.”