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A Science and Technology Fellow Throws his Hat in the Ring

Randy Wadkins. Credit: Tenola Plaxico

Disclaimer: AAAS is a nonpartisan organization and does not endorse any candidate or party.

While Congress never embraced the Trump administration’s proposed  budget for 2018, that doesn’t mean it had no effect.  For instance, it drove Randy Wadkins to run for Congress.

Wadkins, a biochemist at the University of Mississippi and a former AAAS Science and Technology Policy fellow, has thrown his hat into the ring to challenge his current representative. He said President Trump’s proposed cuts to federal health and science agencies—including the National Institutes of Health, NASA,  and the Environmental Protection Agency—and other government offices that help people in Mississippi would mean “complete devastation” for his state, which depends heavily on federal funding from Washington.

“It was just doomsday, really, for those of us who looked at that budget said ‘This is where he’s trying to go. This is where he wants to go, and this can’t happen. It just cannot happen.’ So I decided to run,” Wadkins said.

Wadkins, a Democrat, has qualified to run against the Republican incumbent in Mississippi’s First Congressional District, Trent Kelly. Kelly is seeking a second full term after winning the seat in a special election in 2015.

The district is a largely rural landscape of low, rolling hills that stretches from the Memphis, Tennessee, suburbs to river country around Columbus. But it’s also home to Oxford, which houses Ole Miss; a large Toyota factory near Tupelo, the birthplace of Elvis Presley; and an Orbital-ATK plant that builds solid-fuel rockets in Wadkins’ hometown of Iuka.

Wadkins credits childhood reruns of “Star Trek” with spurring his interest in science.

“I thought it was the coolest thing ever, and I wanted to learn about science and engineering and technology,” he said. He started college with plans to go to medical school, “But while taking chemistry classes, I found out I liked chemistry a lot better than I liked biology.”

The bulk of his work at Ole Miss involves cancer research, trying to find ways to deliver drugs to a tumor more accurately—using DNA and the cancer cell’s own markers to trigger the release of a drug, “sort of like a jack-in-the-box.”

 “We’re not quite where we’d like to be,” he said. “But at some point, it’d be nice if we could use cell-surface markers to open that jack-in-the-box.”

Wadkins got a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Ole Miss in 1990 and did post-doctoral work at St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis. He said cancer research has lessons that can be applied to politics.

“It definitely requires a certain amount of patience and understanding that things are often more complicated than they appear,” Wadkins said. Like some drugs, a public policy may look like a promising way to solve a problem, but may have unforeseen side effects.

“That’s not uncommon at all in the cancer research world, and it’s kind of that way with government … It’s much bigger and more complicated than you give it credit for, and even your best ideas sometimes fail miserably.”

Wadkins’ run looks like a longshot: The district has sent Republicans to Washington for all but a few of the past 25 years, and Kelly has out-raised and out-spent Wadkins by an order of magnitude. Wadkins is banking on raising funds from allies beyond Mississippi, while mobilizing a coalition similar to the one that produced a Democratic upset in a December Senate vote in neighboring Alabama, another deeply Republican state.

“If you look at the demographics of the First Congressional District, it is almost exactly the demographics of the state of Alabama, percentage-wise,” he said. “People said Doug Jones couldn’t win in a red state like Alabama, but he did, and he did it with a coalition of the folks that wanted to see him elected.” 

Politics isn’t completely unfamiliar territory for Wadkins. His father spent 12 years in the state House of Representatives and brought his son down to Jackson to serve as a page one year. And the younger Wadkins took a year off from his current work at Ole Miss to work in the Washington office of Memphis-area congressman Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) as a AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow.

Wadkins said he signed up for the 2015-16 fellowship largely to learn more about how federal agencies like the National Science Foundation fund research. But he soon found himself the office’s resident expert on health care.

“It is a very different thing between proteins and DNA structure and Medicare billing codes,” he said. “I got to see some of the craziness. It’s not hard to understand how fouled up our health care system is in the United States once you see the whole thing in action. You realize it’s almost as if there’s nobody in charge, it’s just this thing that’s run amok.”

And while monitoring votes on the House floor, Wadkins “became very frustrated” with how politics can drive individual decisions.

If he does succeed, Wadkins said he hopes for a seat on the Space, Science and Technology Committee or Energy and Commerce, which oversees health care.

The race so far started on a civil note: Kelly and Wadkins met briefly at an Oxford restaurant last year, through a chance encounter with a mutual friend.

“We didn’t talk about politics,” Wadkins said. “He and I were actually fraternity brothers. We were at the same fraternity at Ole Miss in 1987, my last year to be in the fraternity and his first. We didn’t talk politics, we just talked about the old days in the fraternity.”


Matt Smith

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