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Saturday, May 27, 2017

City

Thousands march downtown against Trump’s policies


March for Science

Thousands of Houstonians mobilized downtown Saturday to support science and evidence-based research. | Traynor Swanson/The Cougar

Symptoms of mitochondrial syndrome include muscle weakness, fatigue, hearing loss — and for one Houston resident, a lifelong interest in science.

Alejandra Ruley has spent the past 30 years in and out of emergency rooms with a rare medical condition, but for the last three months she has served as half of the organizing team for the Houston satellite of the March for Science.

Along with co-founder Madison Logan, Ruley organized one of more than 600 rallies held Saturday to champion support for the science community amid President Donald Trump’s plan to cut federal funds to scientific agencies and organizations like the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Institutes of Health.

“Science is huge for me,” Ruley said. “Since I was a kid, medical science wasn’t something that I was afraid of. I was actually really interested in learning about the conditions that have affected me.”

Houstonians began filing into Sam Houston Park at 11 a.m. Saturday with pro-science messages like “I had to leave the lab for this!” and “keep your tiny hands off our NIH funding.” By 11:30, the crowd was marching through downtown streets, passing the CenterPoint Energy Plaza and One Shell Plaza before finishing at City Hall.

‘First step’

The event did not end after the mile-long procession. Tulipfinger, a rock band made up of neuroscience graduate students from Baylor College of Medicine, greeted marchers from a stage in front of City Hall as they filed into the park for the rest of the day’s events.

The band’s performance was followed by speeches from 13 students and scientists from a wide range of fields, including Dr. Huda Zoghbi, the winner of the 2017 Breakthrough Prize for her research on Rett syndrome.

“Determining how science is funded is a political decision that affects our daily lives, and so our whole community must play an active role in influencing that decision,” said Zoghbi, the director of the Jan and Dan Duncan Neurological Research Institute at Texas Children’s Hospital and the event’s keynote speaker. “Scientific knowledge is only the first step. We need smart decision-making to allow that knowledge to benefit mankind.”

Zoghbi said that she left Lebanon during her first year in medical school because of the country’s civil war. Thanks to a sympathetic immigration system, she was able to switch her tourist visa to a student visa, allowing her to study medicine at Meharry Medical College in Tennessee.

“Sensible immigration policy allowed people from all over the world to come to American universities to study, teach and make amazing discoveries,” Zoghbi said. “My lab alone has had members from over 25 countries over the years, and the different cultures and life experiences of immigrants add to the creativity of our science.”

It will be dangerous, she said, if Congress follows through on Trump’s plan to slash funding for the NIH by 20 percent because it would eliminate 28,000 research projects and remove 75,000 people from the scientific talent pool.

“When a lab shuts down, students lose a place to train and the opportunity to fulfill their dreams of becoming scholars who give back to the world,” Zoghbi said. “Hundreds of diseases will remain a mystery. Hundreds of potential treatments will never see the light of day.”

To keep the event family-oriented, organizations such as the American Chemical Society and Rice University postdoctoral student groups set up tables to offer teach-ins to children and anyone interested in learning more about science, Logan said.

“I think that’s our biggest thing is that these teach-in tables especially are aimed towards children, because children don’t necessarily want to listen to everything the scientists want to talk about,” Logan said. “So, these teach-in tables are a way for us to bring in the entire family and to show that science is important for everybody and fun for everybody.”

Improving welfare

Patrice Yarbough, a senior scientist at NASA Johnson Space Center and a University of Houston alumna, spoke about the importance of diversity and inclusion in the scientific community. She serves as an advisory committee member for the Association of Women in Science, which advocates for more inclusion of women in science.

“Let’s face it — women are half of the population,” Yarbough said. “For over 45 years, AWIS national has been promoting equal opportunity for women to enter into the science work force but to also sustain careers in the workforce … In order to show support of science education, we need our kids to know that they can be educated as scientists, they can have careers in science, and they can make the world a little bit of a better place.”

Science matters, she said, because it leads to discoveries that improve everyday life.

“We are explorers,” she said. “We are constantly asking questions. We are looking for answers, and then we want to put those answers to good use. It plays a role in everything we do. We engage in it for our health, for our education and for our welfare.”

At least one science and math student was encouraged by the march to continue down the path he is on. Christian Williams, a mathematics major at Texas A&M University with plans to attend graduate school at the University of California-Riverside in the fall, said that although the Trump administration’s policies are worrisome, the public’s support for science is encouraging.

“Just being ignorant and greedy with thinking that this short-term economic growth is really what’s important right now (is a threat),” Williams said referring to the Trump administration’s proposed cuts to the EPA. “He’s so far gone that I don’t even know how to talk about him … Today is an awesome testament that we have 5,000 people here and people in so many locations around the world. It’s just awesome.”

‘Blown away’

When Ruley began organizing the event in January, she had no idea what to expect. But thanks to the hard work of her co-organizer, the march far exceeded her expectations, she said.

“Madison’s motivation and resourcefulness drew me to her, and I knew she was the person I wanted beside me to lead this mission,” Ruley said. “From our calculations, we expected about 5,000 people, but according to (the Houston Police Department), there were 15,000 marchers. I was blown away, and I have to say, it was beyond our wildest expectations.”

Ruley said that she and Logan plan to move forward in their efforts to increase more community involvement focused on science and the environment.

“There is so much to be done,” she said. “The march may be over, but it will not end here.”

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