Q&A

Ex-DOE scientist on starting activist group, opposing Trump

Jane Zelikova helped launch a grass-roots science advocacy group in the wake of President Trump's election last fall that has attracted more than 20,000 women.

It began with a pledge published immediately following the 2016 election by Zelikova and three women she had met in graduate school at the University of Colorado, Boulder. She said they felt compelled to speak up for science and marginalized groups, including immigrants and people with disabilities.

When the letter went live, Zelikova was a Washington-based scientist working on carbon capture and storage in the Energy Department's Office of Fossil Energy.

The letter drew signatures from around the globe, representing women in disciplines ranging from accelerator physics to zoology. And the group, 500 Women Scientists, took off as the founders promoted the cause. Zelikova co-wrote a February op-ed, for instance, calling on U.S. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to reconsider his stance on climate science.

Zelikova then decided to head West and would eventually walk away from her two-year American Association for the Advancement of Science fellowship.

"Meet Jane, a climate scientist who fled Trump's government," was the headline on a profile of Zelikova published by the nonprofit news organization High Country News, which detailed the Ukrainian immigrant's decision to quit.

Zelikova talked to E&E News last week on her final day at DOE about the rewards and challenges of working in the federal government, the frenetic pace of her days and what makes it worthwhile.

Tell me about how 500 Women Scientists was launched.

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It started as a text message string between four friends who met in Colorado in grad school. We all sort of spread out all over the world after graduating, but we stayed in touch, and we text messaged each other almost every day — updates of what we were up to, pictures of our kids and our dogs. And then as the election neared, those text messages became more political. Because I was in D.C., people were asking me to sort of update them on what was happening.

The night of the election, the text messages took a more concerned tone. For a couple of days, we were just mostly texting about being worried. At some point, we decided that we were going to write an open letter expressing all of the concerns that we had been expressing to each other. We published it in Scientific American, hoping that we could get 500 signatures from other women scientists that agreed with us and felt like the message resonated with them. Within just a matter of hours, we had reached our 500-signature goal, and it kept growing. Within another week, we had thousands of signatures. So the letter sort of became the banner under which we organized and created a grass-roots organization for women scientists to come together to speak up for the things that matter to us, like science and empowering women and pushing for diversity and inclusivity in science.

What was your career path in the federal government? And how did you arrive at the decision to quit?

After earning a Ph.D. in ecology, I was hired as a postdoc at the U.S. Geological Survey in Utah, and I started working on a climate change experiment. I then received a two-year Mendenhall Research Fellowship, working on topics related to climate change, carbon and livestock grazing across the U.S. Then I moved to the University of Wyoming for another postdoc to look at different climate change experiments and mostly focus on the impacts to plants and soil. About eight years after I graduated with my Ph.D., I started as an AAAS Science and Technology Policy fellow at DOE on leave from my position as a research scientist.

I hadn't ever really worked on energy before. Carbon capture and storage involves very interdisciplinary science that brings together innovation, technology and geology with subsurface science and basic biology. It was definitely a new learning topic for me. I also started learning more about how the federal government works in D.C. There were a lot of meetings, and I got to meet a lot of great people. We work a lot with [nongovernmental organizations] and with Hill staffers to sort of explain the technology, answer questions and sort of link the work that we do with the benefits of the technology and the science behind it. It got at all the different parts that are interesting to me: the science, the technology and how it can really help people.

What does life look like post-DOE?

I spend my days thinking about, researching and talking about climate change. I usually need to take a break in the middle of the day and go for a bike ride or a hike or a run, because the topic is pretty difficult to get through a solid eight hours of. So I try to get outside as much as I can — usually every day. Because now I live in Colorado, that's a really easy and accessible thing for me. I spend a lot of my evenings working on 500 Women Scientists, and weekends are sort of split between getting outside and climbing or biking and working on 500 Women Scientists stuff.

It really does feel like running a startup, while having a full-time job. It sucks up a lot of my time that isn't my full-time job time as a researcher scientist. I work very hard to squeeze in time to get outside or see my friends or do the other things that I'm supposed to do as a normal, well-rounded human. The last six months have definitely felt like a startup schedule, which, you know, we did not sign up for and we did not expect, but that is what happened. It is a blessing because it resonates with people and it helps people all over the world. That part is really incredible. I would have never expected that, and it was not what we were trying for, but it's what happened. That's kind of undeniably powerful.

Do you define this as activism or advocacy?

It really feels more like activism. Although I feel like we advocate for things that should be self-explanatory: equality for women, a rightful place for science and innovation in our society, diversity in general. Those things are worth advocating for, and we do. I think, at least initially, a lot of what we were doing felt to me like activism because I was devoting so much of my time. I was rallying around points that were important to me, both as a scientist and as a woman, but also as an immigrant and a person who has close friends who are immigrants and refugees and close friends who are LGBT — people that felt threatened by both the rhetoric during the election and the outcome of the election.

That sounds like a full schedule. Is it ever too much?

A lot of times it feels very overwhelming. Then we will get an email or a message from someone. A lot of times it is from dads who are like, "Thank you so much for doing this; you guys are role models to my daughters." Or we'll get messages from women scientists who thank us for starting something they've been thinking about or that's so needed. That makes it meaningful in the times that it's really challenging. It's just a reminder that it matters to more than just us. It's kind of an incredible thrill and privilege to start something from nothing and to see it take off and to see people sort of relate to and value it.

Do you have advice to a woman who wants to get involved?

Go to 500womenscientists.org and click on the "Pods" button. Pods are sort of our local chapters. Find a pod in your area. I'm sure that there is one, because we have over 150 pods all over the U.S., but if there isn't one, then you can start a pod, and we make that very easy, too. Then you can be sort of the catalyst to bring together other women scientists in your area to have a community and a network and to think about and act for your community.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Twitter: @ha_nah_nah Email: hhess@eenews.net

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