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As scientists erupt in protest, a volcanologist runs for Congress

Jess Phoenix, a volcanologist running for local office in California, is part of a growing movement of scientists turned politicians hoping to combat the Trump administration. (Video: Alice Li/The Washington Post)

LOS ANGELES — Volcano scientist Jess Phoenix is in her element in the otherworldly landscape of Vasquez Rocks. She points out the way the rock formations jut at a steep angle toward the sky — evidence of the earthquakes that have rocked California — and the texture of the burnt orange sandstone, which was laid down during a long-ago flood.

“There’s hundreds of thousands of years of history here,” she says, recalling the lessons she was taught when she visited this site as a geology student more than a decade ago. “You learn to look at the evidence and figure out what happened.”

Vasquez Rocks still ranks among her favorite places in California’s 25th Congressional District, a diverse region north of L.A. that encompasses wealthy suburbs and farming towns. Soon Phoenix will return here to do something she never imagined as a student: declare that she’s running for Congress.

For now, she surveys the site, searching for an appropriate spot from which to make her announcement, and considers what’s she’s about to give up: trips to volcanoes in Iceland and Hawaii; work with her nonprofit, Blueprint Earth, which brings minority college students to the Mojave to study desert ecosystems; time with her husband, with her horses, by herself.

But then she thinks about her district, which has seen droughts, wildfires and a natural gas leak in recent years. Phoenix feels that its current representative, Republican Steve Knight, has mishandled environmental problems and disregarded the science needed to address them. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has moved to roll back environmental regulations and cut funding for research.

“The whole thing is really hard to just sit there and watch,” Phoenix says. “That’s why I’m like, okay, it’s time to get to work. Because if not scientists, if not people who really understand what’s at stake, then who is going to step up?”

This group wants to fight 'anti-science' rhetoric by getting scientists to run for office

She’s not the only scientist asking that question. Researchers have traditionally shied away from politics, worried that the appearance of partisanship could taint the objectivity of their work. But lately, alarmed by an election cycle that popularized the terms “fake news” and “alternative facts,” galvanized by an administration that casts doubt on the scientific consensus on climate change and vaccines and has proposed to cut billions of dollars of federal funding for research, and inspired by the groundswell of activism that’s emerged in recent months, scientists are leaving their labs and jumping into the political fray.

Rallies have been added to the schedules of major scientific conferences. Groups of researchers have collaborated to preserve government climate data that they fear might be deleted. Several scientists, including Berkeley evolutionary biologist Michael Eisen, are among the hundreds of people with nontraditional backgrounds who have announced they're running in elections that won't be held for another 18 months. Sterling Clifford, a veteran democratic consultant working on Phoenix's campaign, said he's never seen this much interest in congressional races this early.

And on Saturday, a predicted 75,000 people will flood Washington for a March for Science; hundreds of thousands more have said they’ll attend one of 500 satellite demonstrations around the world. Phoenix is scheduled to speak at the rally in L.A.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said physicist Rush Holt, chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a former Democratic representative from New Jersey. Holt said he used to get one or two inquiries a year from fellow scientists interested in entering politics. But in the past five months, more than a dozen people have reached out. “I want to do something,” they all tell him.

“There’s a widespread and deep concern that there is an eroding appreciation of science. That didn’t start in November,” Holt said, “but now it’s reached a crescendo.”

This same concern drove the political action committee 314 Action to launch a new initiative to get scientists to run for office. The group is named for the first three digits of pi (3.14159…) and bills itself as an “Emily’s List” for people with backgrounds in STEM. The goal is to connect researchers with consultants and donors so they have a better shot of getting elected.

“Politicians have shown us that they are unashamed to meddle in science,” 314 Action founder Shaughnessy Naughton said. “I think the way to combat that is to get a seat at the table.”

In January, 314 Action put a form for interested candidates on their website, expecting a few dozen people might fill it out. Instead they heard from more than 4,000. One of them was Phoenix.

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Phoenix could be a character out of a comic book: a red-haired volcanologist whose last name is a mythological bird born in fire. She wears her hair long and shaved on the sides, and for special occasions — like a dinner of the Explorers Club, of which she is a member — she fashions it into a mohawk. Her wardrobe consists largely of jeans and science-themed T-shirts. “They’re just going to get dirty,” she says with a geologist’s practicality.

Phoenix isn’t the stereotypical introvert scientist. Her research has taken her to volcanoes in the depths of the Pacific and the heights of the Andes. She has worked in coal mines in Australia — the only woman among dozens of men. In her spare time, she rescues and retrains former racehorses. She's given a TED Talk and appeared on TV. The week before declaring her candidacy, Phoenix was on a boat in Hawaii filming a volcano-themed special for the Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week.”

And unlike many of her colleagues, Phoenix entertained notions of running for office before Nov. 9. Both her parents were FBI agents, and she majored in history in college. The impulse to run strengthened during crises in her community, like when natural gas began leaking from the Aliso Canyon storage facility in 2015, triggering health problems and prompting the evacuation of several thousand residents of the district.  Knight didn’t respond quickly enough, Phoenix says, and she’s disturbed that regulators are considering allowing the facility to reopen when they still don’t know what went wrong. Another leak was discovered at the site during an inspection last month.

A representative for Knight rejected the charge that he mishandled the disaster, pointing out that Knight wrote a bill establishing federal safety standards for gas storage facilities in the wake of the incident.

Phoenix already had a career that she loved. There were field trips for Blueprint Earth to plan, new volcanoes to explore. Any thoughts of jumping into politics were set aside for “someday.”

But then Donald Trump was elected president. Two months later, Phoenix turned 35, the age at which a person can legally hold any office in the land. “There was no more waiting for someday,” she said. “I realized there is no better time than now.”

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Phoenix started attending city council meetings and reaching out to activist groups. A few weeks after she filled out the 314 Action form, she got a call from Erik Polyak, the group’s director of campaigns. The group is interested in trying to unseat three Republican members of the House Science Committee it considers “anti-science,” including Knight, committee chair Lamar Smith (Tex.) and Dana Rohrabacher (Calif.) Knight has called California’s actions to mitigate climate change “rash” and has a zero percent rating from the League of Conservation Voters.

In response to a request for comment, Knight's representative said that he welcomed Phoenix to the race and was confident that his views match those of his constituents.

Naughton called Knight's stances “incredibly problematic.”

“He has a record of not using the scientific consensus to influence policy,” she said.

It's a common refrain in the scientific community. Asked what they hope for as a result of their recent activism, most researchers will respond, “evidence-based policymaking.” As a catchphrase, it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. But evidence is the foundation of all science, and the leaders of 314 Action think they can make the idea appeal to voters as well.

Which is why they were excited to hear from Phoenix. Though the California 25th has been held by a Republican since 1993, Hillary Clinton won the district by seven points last November. The 25th was considered one of the most competitive congressional districts in the country in 2016, and it's exactly the type of seat Democrats need to win if they want to take back the House in two years. Naughton and Polyak want to flip it.

Did Phoenix think she was ready for that, Polyak asked at their first meeting.

“Well, yeah,” she recalls answering. “Go big or go home.”

Phoenix is not the only Democrat with the same idea. One candidate has already declared her intention to challenge Knight for the seat, and Bryan Caforio, who lost to Knight in November, is considering another run.

When asked whether she’s nervous about the possibility of a crowded primary and a long and bruising campaign, Phoenix brushes it off.

“I walk into active volcanic eruptions,” she says. “Congress? Come on.”

During a tour of the district the Saturday before her announcement, Phoenix offers a scientist's perspective on nearly every issue facing her region. On L.A.'s smog problem: “That's why you need regulations.” On drilling and mining in the district: “I think it's possible to balance the way we deal with natural resources.” She says there's a need to draw the movie industry back to the area: “'Star Trek' was filmed here, did you know?”

But then the conversation veers toward the less exciting aspects of a political campaign: hiring consultants, fundraising, learning to ease off the bad geology puns (“tough schist"). She mentions that friends keep asking her if she’ll have to grow her hair out. Briefly, her bravado falters.

“I’m me. I’m not a politician,” Phoenix says. “I know when I call people to ask for donations I’m going to have to say the same thing over and over again. I get it. And that’s fine. … I will take a certain amount of polish because you need it. You need it to be professional. But it also is nice to be like, ‘Yeah, I’m a person.’ ”

She pushes her hand into her hair and shakes her head. “I’m sure it’s going to be worth it, but it’s going to be intense.”

The day of the announcement dawns cloudy and cool. Phoenix sends her husband, Carlos, ahead of her to Vasquez Rocks, so she can drive out alone. Along the way, she says later, she practices giving her speech to the empty car: “Hi, I’m Jess Phoenix, I’m a scientist who studies volcanoes … ”

By the time Phoenix arrives at the rocks, a small group of friends and a few local reporters are waiting for her. The wind has picked up, and Carlos is attempting to keep her sign from blowing away by tying it to a boulder.

“This is science, this is how we solve problems,” she jokes.

A friend shows up astride an impressive brown mustang, and Phoenix immediately walks over to say hello. The friend asks Phoenix if she wants to ride him.

“I guess I have to ask the campaign staff,” she says. “I have to ask people to do things now.”

She doesn’t ride the horse.

Phoenix’s speech is short and earnest. She hits all her main points. The weights that Carlos Jerry-rigged for her sign hold steady.

Once it’s over, the reporters pack up their equipment. The friends congratulate Phoenix, then scatter. Under any other circumstances, she might go for a walk among the towers of rock and sweet-smelling creosote bushes.

But Polyak reminds Phoenix she has meetings to attend, fundraising calls to make. She’s officially a candidate now.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Phoenix was a government major in college. She majored in history. 

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