Fellows Launch Groups to Protect Women and Science and Boost Community Involvement

Note: The following interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

While many STPF fellows stay active in policy areas following their fellowships, two fellows have recently organized groups to encourage community building. One group was created to support women scientists and do outreach in support of science. A second is focused on getting STEM professionals involved with their local communities.

T. Jane Zelikova is a 2015-17 Executive Branch Fellow at the Department of Energy, and one of the organizers of the group 500 Women Scientists. She is on leave from a position as a research scientist at the University of Wyoming where she researches the effects of climate change on plants and ecosystems.

Q: What prompted you to help form 500 Women Scientists?

Jane Zelikova: The group formed very organically. It came out of my friends and I text messaging each other following the election about what it meant for science, for women, and for women scientists. We’re really worried about the…kind of rhetoric that got normalized very quickly during and following the election.

Within a day, our texts moved to an email string with 100 of our friends, and we realized that our concerns were shared with many other women scientists. So we started drafting an open letter to give a voice to our concerns, but also reaffirm our strong commitment to each other and to support science and to support women in science in a really inclusive way.

We posted it on a website within a week after the election. We were hopeful that we would get 500 signatures – that’s why we called ourselves 500 Women Scientists. We surpassed that goal within hours. As of February 15, we have more than 16,000 signatures of women scientists, plus more than a thousand supporters who are not identifying as women scientists.

Q: And you also came together at the Women’s March on Washington in January.

JZ: Yes. When the Women’s March was announced, we knew we were going to march. A lot of people who had signed our letter wanted to march together to reaffirm our commitment in a very public way. We all were wearing lab coats with signs talking about the importance of science, and the importance of women scientists. It was a really positive experience, and we got a lot of public attention for these issues.

Q: What do you have planned going forward?

JZ: We are forming ourselves as a nonprofit so we can fundraise and offer training. We want to continue to provide support to women scientists and help them find mentors. Many women have no women role models in their lives.

We have also begun creating local pods – satellite groups – where women can physically come together and talk about the issues that are relevant to their communities, and organize events, organize action, but stay in touch with the global group. We already have more than 40 across the U.S., Europe, and they’re starting up in Central America too.

Thirdly, we have been thinking about how we can engage with the public that we’re not currently reaching. We are going to build a science literacy outreach program to send teams of women scientists into communities where science skepticism is rampant. We’re going to embed small teams in those communities for a week and do a bunch of activities like hosting a movie night, going to local coffee shops or the local bar – giving people a chance to see that we’re just normal, nice humans.

A lot of people mistrust science, and don’t know scientists. It’s been my experience – I’ve worked all over rural America on coal and climate change – that when people meet me and hear I what I work on, people have a lot of questions. And if you listen, and meet people where they are instead of trying to push an agenda, it’s actually really fruitful. 

Arti Garg is a 2009-2010 AAAS Legislative Branch Fellow. She is now a data scientist specializing in industrial applications, and is serving a second term on a city task force called “Keep Hayward Clean and Green.”

 Q: What prompted you to create Engineers and Scientists Acting Locally (ESAL)?

AG: I have used an STPF alumni fellows’ listserv in the past to get information to help my city government, and I realized we could formalize that type of communication to help people become more involved in local issues. I’ve heard from STEM-trained professionals who want to be more active in their communities, but they lack the knowledge of how to do it. ESAL was designed to give people more information about ways to be involved and to build a community of people interested in local civic engagement for sharing and discussing ideas.

Q: What kinds of things can people do?

AG: People can start by applying to join a city commission – that’s where I started. It’s not so hard to run for city council or a city or local office, like a school board. We have former fellows who are serving as advisors to their city governments on a volunteer basis. Some people volunteer with after-school programs – the potential for how people can be involved is very diverse. [We also want] to make people more aware of local issues and how they might have some intersection with their work, like digital government.

Q: What have you learned from serving on the Hayward city task force?

AG: It’s been an interesting lesson for me, because as a member I contributed ideas, but I’ve also been called on to just contribute a set of hands, like everybody else on the task force. We organize monthly events, and you literally just have to show up and do things. I think it’s valuable to recognize that my contributions don’t have to be unique or about my technical background – it’s about being part of the community.

Q: Do you plan to work with other groups that are encouraging scientists and engineers to run for office and help defend science? 

AG: We have been in touch with other groups, but ESAL is focused on community-building rather than consensus-building. So while we may be a venue for them to reach a broad group of scientists and engineers who may want more information or ways to focus on a particular issue, I want to differentiate between getting people engaged and focusing on a specific outcome. We shouldn’t underemphasize the importance of doing the first.

Q: Have many people have joined ESAL so far?

AG: We’ve mainly focused our outreach efforts in the AAAS community so far – we’re just getting off the ground. Our mailing list is about 100 people. We had our first event last month in Oakland. Our next event will be at San Francisco City Hall.