WE ARE for Science takes advocacy message to Washington, D.C.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When she’s not working on her research, Virginia Marcon is busy converting the neighborhood children to future geologists.

Marcon, a doctoral candidate in geosciences, co-founded the science advocacy group WE ARE for Science last year in part to help bridge the divide she saw widening between scientists and the public. Sometimes that work starts close to home.

“The little kids who live around me say they want to be scientists when they grow up,” she said. “They have their rock collections. It’s a great way to engage them in science.”

Macron and the other members of WE ARE for Science will take the message to a wider audience this weekend, hitting the streets of Washington D.C. for the March for Science.

The group has been instrumental in bringing Penn State voices to the march, organizing bus trips the past two years to take University and local community members to Washington.

“I think it’s a matter of voice,” said Chloe Stanton, a graduate student in geosciences and incoming co-president of the group. “I think it’s important that scientists, in a fact based way, help people understand we’re not trying to push an agenda. We need to show that side of us, without a filter.”

March organizers bill the event as an opportunity to show support for the scientific community at large and particularly for science-based policy decisions.

The event began last year in part as a response to proposed federal budget cuts to sciences and rollbacks of regulations aimed at protecting the environment or addressing climate change, and amid what some feared to be a growing public distrust of scientists.

“Today there is this distrust, and we are realizing more so than the generation before us that we need to work on this issue,” said Helen Gall, doctoral candidate in geosciences who co-founded the group along with Marcon and served as its co-president. “The only way to do that is to become involved and reach out to the public and build it again.”

Since Gall and Marcon founded the group in 2016, its members have tried to make connections in their own backyards, like staffing an “Ask a Scientist” booth at the Centre County Grange Fair and doing K-12 outreach at schools.

The group is also striving to provide science communication training for graduate students, so they can better explain their research to the public, a skill Gall said has sometimes been lacking.

“For some reason people see this as an extra-circular,” Gall said. “It’s our job as good scientists and good citizens to spread our knowledge and help citizens on a local and national scale. That’s an exciting thing to do.”

Group members also promote science diversity and science policy initiatives. Members have hosted phone banks, organizing calls to state and federal lawmakers, and have organized panel discussions and events on campus.

Stanton, a first-year graduate student at Penn State who found the group by word of mouth in the fall and is now set to become co-president, said she hopes to continue the group’s science policy efforts.

“I don’t find myself upholding my role as a citizen unless I’m involved in policy,” Stanton “As a scientist who is a citizen, that’s one of my main goals; engaging and connecting those lines of communication between scientists and policy makers. That’s important to me.”

As they near graduation, Gall and Marcon are transitioning out of the group’s leadership. They both said they are proud of what they accomplished, and what the group has done in a little more than a year.

“I feel like it’s really broadened my experience,” Marcon said. “Coming here, you know you are going to get a great education and use world-class facilities. But Penn State opened doors by allowing us to grow WE ARE for Science. I grew more as a scientist than I would have if I had just come and done my research and left.”

Gall said her last acts are aimed at solidifying the group’s future at Penn State, making sure it can help scientists face new challenges in years to come. 

“That’s my last big mission — I want to make sure it continues long after we are gone,” Gall said. “This is an organization that can grow as things in science change. In five years, there may be totally different things we are marching for.”

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Last Updated April 13, 2018