ESAL launches new portal to local engagement

I’m thrilled to announce the launch of Engineers & Scientists Acting Locally’s new website. We’ve overhauled every aspect of our site, with the goal of making it easier for our visitors to find and navigate information about how to effectively engage with their local governments and communities. While I hope you will take the time to explore for yourself, I’d like to share a few highlights of our new site.

Interact with ESAL resources

Find the information you need

We have also made it easier than ever to suggest ideas for articles and events. We hope that you are as excited as we are to enter this new portal to local engagement. And, as always, don’t hesitate to reach out if you have suggestions or feedback on our new site or the work that we do.

Meeting our Commitments to Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion

Last year I shared ESAL’s efforts to foster Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI) through our work. While considerations of these topics have always informed our work, we decided that we needed to take a more intentional approach. To that end, we developed a statement that summarized our commitment to JEDI and also laid out several efforts ESAL would undertake. I’m pleased to share an update on the progress we made in 2021.

Approaching Evidence-Informed Policy-making with Empathy

In February 2021, the City of Hayward, Calif. convened an eight-week Policy Innovation Workshop on Community Safety with the goal of developing and testing policy ideas aimed at improving community safety. Workshop participants include community members and city staff, including representation from the city’s police force and criminal justice system. The workshop was convened in response to a letter from several city council members to Hayward’s city manager. ESAL Founder & Chair Arti Garg is one of the workshop’s community participants. This blog series is a diary of Garg's participation in the workshop. For additional entries please see:

Workshop 3 on March 10, 2021
March 11, 2021

I have written before about the importance of empathy in local policy-making. But I haven’t elaborated on what that means in practice. Last night’s workshop, which focused on how to interview community members about their experience of public safety, gave me a new perspective on the role of empathy in hypothesis-driven policy-making...including how best to resolve the tension between the subjectivity inherent in empathetic thinking and the objectivity we, as scientists and engineers, strive toward in our work.

As part of the innovation process, we will be interviewing community members to learn more about my team’s challenge. During the workshop, the facilitators gave us concrete information about how to respectfully conduct interviews. I was struck by how “unscientific”--at least from this physicist’s perspective--the suggested approaches were. Our facilitators asked us to empathize with our interviewees. They suggested that we focus on the interviewees’ emotional reactions to experiences they described rather than on the factual details. We were encouraged to tailor the arc of our interviews to each interviewee; adjusting, omitting, or adding questions based on what we intuit will make the subject most comfortable and open to sharing. We were also told to be mindful that our own group identities (e.g. race, class, etc) might impact what the interviewee is willing to share.

While interviews are not a common practice in my own scientific discipline, I am familiar with best practices in other disciplines. And none of these techniques meet my understanding of their data gathering standards! I remarked in the large group session how different these approaches are from those I’ve used in even less rigorous scenarios like journalistic interviews or when interviewing job candidates or grant applicants. One of the workshop facilitators acknowledged this, observing that these interviews are intended to be “relational, not transactional.” This comment resonated with me.

She was asking me to use empathy to develop a holistic, and ultimately subjective, understanding of the experiences of the people impacted by public safety policy. The interviews aren’t a “transaction” through which we extract information. They are an interaction through which we can learn to better relate to members of our community. The workshop facilitators said we are aiming to develop evidence-informed policies...though perhaps it’s more accurate to say “evidence-informed policy hypotheses.” By interviewing community members, we will gain more “evidence” about their experiences. But instead of seeking to perform a statistically sound analysis that might result in an “evidence-based” description of their experiences, we are seeking to develop an “evidence-informed” understanding of how our fellow community members experience safety in Hayward. We will necessarily need to pair that understanding with our own personal experiences to develop hypotheses about what changes could improve their experiences.

While the physicist in me fixates on the data gaps in this approach, the former congressional fellow and policy analyst knows that this is actually a more rigorous approach than policymakers often use. When I speak about ESAL, I almost always start by reminding people that, “Decisions are made by those who show up.” While policymakers want to use the best information available to make decisions, often that information is limited to the best of what is most readily available...usually made so by the people who “show up” and present it to them. The urgency of decision-making often means they don’t have time to try to uncover what they don’t know. In scientific terms, it means they don’t have time to understand the “biases” in their data. Through these interviews, we are attempting to correct for our biased evidence by seeking out new information. Because we acknowledge that our process for doing this is imperfect, we will rely on our shared humanity to fill in the gaps...and we assume this will help us come up with more effective solutions for our chosen stakeholder group.

This process is messy. The outcome is likely to be heavily dependent on the make-up of the workshop participants. But all of policy-making is like that. It’s why we have elections. It matters who is representing us in the policy process! As engineers and scientists, we may find it attractive to think of ourselves as objective experts providing unbiased input into a policy process. As I’ve argued before, this romanticized ideal is logically impossible to achieve. Scientists are biased, because we are human and humans are biased. The very act of choosing what topics to research or on which issue to engage is an act of bias. In this post, I’ve revealed my own biases that place a higher value on objective, factual information as compared to subjective, emotional information.

Our goal as engineers and scientists who engage locally should not be to maintain an artificial wall of “objectivity” between ourselves and our neighbors. Instead, our goal should be to better understand and relate to their experiences. In doing so, we can bring our whole selves--the part that feels pain and empathizes with our neighbor, the part that makes value judgments and shares those values with our neighbor, and the part that likes diagonalizing matrices even if our neighbor doesn’t--to developing solutions.

Why Stating Assumptions Enables Policy-making in Uncertainty

In February 2021, the City of Hayward, Calif. convened an eight-week Policy Innovation Workshop on Community Safety with the goal of developing and testing policy ideas aimed at improving community safety. Workshop participants include community members and city staff, including representation from the city’s police force and criminal justice system. The workshop was convened in response to a letter from several city council members to Hayward’s city manager. ESAL Founder & Chair Arti Garg is one of the workshop’s community participants. This blog series is a diary of Garg's participation in the workshop. For additional entries please see:

Workshop 2 on February 24, 2021
February 26, 2021

Prior to Wednesday night’s workshop, the facilitators had finalized the “challenges” that emerged from last week’s workshops, asked all of us participants to rank our preferred challenge areas, and assigned us to the teams we will work with for the remainder of the workshop sessions. I was assigned to one of two teams addressing the challenge: “There is a lack of trust between the community and government, including City Hall and Hayward Police Department, stemming from a lack in communication and relationship building and an inadequate recognition on the long-term negative impacts of systemic racism."

The first portion of the workshop focused on developing a sense of trust within our teams through exercises designed to help us surface and share assumptions. We each shared what we needed from ourselves, our team members, and our team coach to make the innovation efforts successful. I’ll be honest. I sometimes find these types of activities a bit hokey. But, upon reflection, I appreciate their importance. When conducting scientific research, we state our assumptions and attempt to account for all the biases in our methods that might obscure our findings. When doing collaborative community innovation, we must do the same thing. We need to identify for ourselves and share with each other the assumptions and biases we are bringing to the discussions.

For the remainder of the workshop, our team brainstormed with the goals of refining our challenge statement, choosing which of the stakeholders impacted by this challenge our team would focus on developing a solution for, and identifying what remaining information we needed to begin hypothesizing solutions. One question many of us had was whether the lack of trust many community members had identified in the survey stemmed from specific interactions with the city government and police. This launched a discussion about how much the origin of the lack of trust mattered. In particular, someone raised the observation that trust is rarely built by explaining past actions.

Being trained as a scientist and having engaged in many aspects of policy-making, I struggle with this question often. How much do we need to understand the cause of a problem in order to develop a solution? In astrophysics, causation matters because it’s a central tenet of our research methodology. We observe the universe as it is, and we attempt to understand whether a given hypothesis about the laws that govern the universe’s behavior can produce what we observe. In engineering, we want to know whether a given perturbation to a system, for example some number of cars driving on a bridge simultaneously, can cause catastrophic failures. In policy-making, we don’t always have the luxury of fully understanding causes. We need to decide whether to close schools and mandate masks without certainty about whether children can transmit a virus or the mode of transmission. And sometimes causal information isn’t particularly important. There are many things we don’t understand about cognitive development in children, but we have empirical evidence of the benefits of early childhood education. So we implement government-sponsored preschool programs without knowing the mechanism by which they produce desirable educational outcomes.

Going back to the question of whether the root of community members’ lack of trust matters, I think our questions reveal that our team is working under an unstated assumption that the solution looks different depending on whether you are rebuilding trust that has been betrayed or building trust for the first time. For myself, I can say that my lived experience relating to other people provides me evidence that this is a valid assumption. And the question is whether we can proceed with policy-making on this basis alone.

After last week’s workshop, I suggested reframing the discussion as “hypothesis-driven” policy-making instead of “evidence-based” policy-making. Another benefit of doing this is that hypotheses need to be contextualized in their underlying assumptions, and this framing provides us the accountability to surface assumptions in our policy engagement as well. It also provides some expediency without sacrificing rigor. We don’t need to answer the question of whether the cause of lack of trust matters. We only need to state that our team is operating under the assumption that it does, and that assumption will inform the ideas we propose and how we evaluate and interpret their impacts.

Moving from "Evidence-Based" to "Hypothesis-Driven" Policy-making

In February 2021, the City of Hayward, Calif. convened an eight-week Policy Innovation Workshop on Community Safety with the goal of developing and testing policy ideas aimed at improving community safety. Workshop participants include community members and city staff, including representation from the city’s police force and criminal justice system. The workshop was convened in response to a letter from several city council members to Hayward’s city manager. ESAL Founder & Chair Arti Garg is one of the workshop’s community participants. This blog series is a diary of Garg's participation in the workshop. For additional entries please see:

Workshop 1 - February 18, 2021
February 19, 2021

Our first group workshop took place yesterday evening. Doing this kind of work virtually is difficult, and I was impressed with the way our city staff used small (3-4 people) breakout rooms to help build a sense of community within a large group. Much of our first two hours were spent helping participants unfamiliar with lean innovation learn more about the process and familiarizing us with the online collaboration tools we would use, such as a digital whiteboard. I’ve been using these processes and tools for years in my work as a data scientist and technologist, and I’m interested to see how their use will be similar or different in a policy innovation setting.

For the final hour of the workshop, we looked at data collected through the community conversations on public safety effort the city had undertaken last year. The data included quantitative survey results as well as selected quotes from interviews conducted with community members. I was struck by how inconclusive the data were, especially if you approached them with too narrow a scope.

For example, the survey data showed that 63% of Hayward residents feel very safe or safe interacting with the Hayward police department. Considering only that number, one might conclude that Hayward is doing well from a policing perspective. When data were further broken down by race, however, racial disparities were undeniable. 50% of residents who identify as Black feel safe interacting with Hayward police compared to 69% of residents who identify as white. Also notable was that fewer (59%) Hayward residents felt safe “in general” than they did interacting with the police, with residents who identify as Black reporting a higher general sense of safety (69%) than residents who identify as white (55%). The survey report also provided some quantitative analyses of the open-ended responses to a question about how the city could improve community safety and reform policing, with the top two responses aligning to “More police presence” (24%) and “More community involvement” (20%). In short, the quantitative survey results left a lot of open questions about what the public safety issues in Hayward might or might not be.

Reading the qualitative quotes in detail, however, patterns became more apparent. Many quotes reflected that residents do not feel heard by city government overall, not just by the police department. There were also several concerns raised about the need for the city government to directly acknowledge and address racism as an issue faced by its residents, without pointing to a specific policy change but rather to a need to feel recognized and supported. And pervading many comments was a clear sense that many city residents do not have trust in our local government.

During the workshop, the facilitators used a common lean innovation technique of asking participants to write their observations of the survey results on (virtual) sticky notes, categorizing those observations, and then asking participants to vote one which of the categories they felt were most important to address through the process. We will get the results of the votes next week, but it’s already apparent that we will be addressing the community safety question through a much broader lens than just policing reform.

After just this first workshop, it’s become clear to me that as engineers and scientists we too often oversimplify the goals of “science policy.” I often hear the benefit of people with STEM backgrounds participating in policy processes reduced to our ability to help ensure that decisions are “evidence-based.” But what does that mean when the evidence that exists is inconclusive? As a physicist, I cannot honestly argue that the process we used to decide on priorities for these workshops met the standards of analytical rigor used in the sciences. As a technologist, though, I can tell you that I’ve seen this approach produce successful outcomes by identifying unexpected solutions to problems.

So, if this supposedly data-driven approach to policy innovation doesn’t meet the criteria of statistical soundness used in science, what do we as scientists have to contribute? Perhaps we need to reframe our understanding of our role in policy discussions away from ensuring it is “evidence-based” to ensuring it is “hypothesis-driven.” As engineers and scientists, we are trained to formulate testable hypotheses for phenomena we observe that can’t be explained by existing theories or principles. Prior to this workshop, many of the ideas (experiments?) that have been proposed by Hayward community members for improving community safety have centered around policing. While those ideas will be part of the discussion, they are unlikely to address the non-policing related community safety concerns the data reveal. We may need to formulate a framework (a hypothesis?) that’s more expansive than policing to address those concerns. And, isn’t formulating informed hypotheses about phenomena we don’t understand what scientists are trained to do?

Policy Innovation through Community Workshops

In February 2021, the City of Hayward, Calif. convened an eight-week Policy Innovation Workshop on Community Safety with the goal of developing and testing policy ideas aimed at improving community safety. Workshop participants include community members and city staff, including representation from the city’s police force and criminal justice system. The workshop was convened in response to a letter from several city council members to Hayward’s city manager. ESAL Founder & Chair Arti Garg is one of the workshop’s community participants. This blog series is a diary of Garg's participation in the workshop. For additional entries please see:

Pre-Workshop Interview on February 11, 2021
February 12, 2021

Yesterday marked the first official activity of my participation in the Policy Innovation Workshop series. I met with two analysts from the City Manager’s Office to go over some background for the workshops and discuss any questions I may have. I was unsurprised to learn that the community members participating in the workshop hold a spectrum of views ranging from the belief that the police force should be substantially increased to the belief that it should be abolished altogether. As we discussed how the city staff were preparing to bridge these differing viewpoints, I realized that for me the essence of democracy is finding ways to reach common solutions from very different starting points.

While it certainly makes discussion more difficult, bringing together people with deeply held, albeit conflicting, convictions can spark new ideas and allow us to find new approaches to longstanding problems. I noted to the city staff members that while my own proclivities in policy hew closer to incrementalism, I know that the path to progress isn’t always straight. Often, it’s pretty winding, and our first attempt to break with the status quo may not always land us exactly where we want to go. I respect those advocating for extreme changes, and I am open to considering ideas that may feel uncomfortable. I don’t know what the next few months will hold, but I’m looking forward to working with my community in a new and immersive way.

Addressing COVID Disinformation Close to Home

Tell us about yourself.
I’m an epidemiologist and current microbiology PhD candidate at Colorado State University. I’m from Indiana originally, and my family is located there as well as Florida, Ohio, and Illinois. I am the only scientist in my family, and the only one to pursue a PhD.

What did you do?
Together, my family and I watched a COVID-19 conspiracy video. We then walked through the film’s primary arguments and discussed them one-on-one, addressing each other’s individual questions along the way.

What happened?

Lyndsey Gray

In early spring of 2020, I received an unexpected text from a family member: “Have you seen this? What do you think?” Included was a link to Judy Mikovits’ film “Plandemic.” For those who haven’t seen it, Mikovits’ video discusses how COVID-19 was a purposely engineered virus, how Mikovits’ research proved that vaccines weakened immune systems, and how Dr. Anthony Fauci buried that research to financially benefit from the pandemic. The video also claimed masks, handwashing, and sanitizer facilitate viral infection. My family’s question was, “Is this information accurate?” My response was to launch a series of discussions with them that addressed the pandemic honestly.

Science communication has always been a passion of mine, but it is always difficult. It can actually be more challenging and stressful when done with those you love. If you misspeak or are flippant with your language, the consequences could negatively influence your peers’ and relatives’ actions, or result in broken relationships and personal trust.

To have a productive and open conversation with my own family, I relied on numerous tactics. The key was using plenty of anecdotes, analogies, and stories to explain science rather than reciting facts. I appealed to my family’s value and belief systems when giving health recommendations, which made the science more appealing and approachable. Instead of lording my education over family, I instead treated their opinions and questions with respect. Honesty was another effective tool. Openly discussing the current missteps and uncertainty within the COVID-19 science community was essential for open communication and further trust building. In doing so, my family knew I wasn’t partisan.

What did you get out of this experience?
My family conversations showed me that expertise is in the eye of the beholder. To be clear, I am not a virologist, a vaccine developer, or a COVID-19 researcher. So, if someone were to ask me to find a COVID-19 expert, I certainly wouldn’t pick myself. But, when compared to the general public, I am seen as an expert. Even more importantly, I am approachable. Although I am no Fauci, my family knows me and therefore will likely trust me over a stranger. As such, I have more power, and responsibility, to advocate for science than I previously thought.

I also learned that the rewards of discussing COVID-19 with my family were high. Granted, we often disagree and have very different political views. But, by communicating science with empathy, we were able to have honest conversations that brought us closer together. Our “Plandemic” discussion, and the many that followed, gave me the opportunity to see the pandemic through a non-scientist’s perspective. It also convinced my family to get the vaccine when it was available, refrain from attending mass gatherings, and continue to wear a mask in public. There is no greater reward than that.

Science Kits: Fostering STEM Learning During Lockdown for Hayward Students

Four years ago, when Stuart Loebl taught biology at Kennedy High School in Richmond, California, he noticed a disconcerting trend. A third of his students were reading at a fifth-grade level or below, and many had never taken a real science class before. It marked a turning point in Loebl’s career: he decided to work with younger students to ensure that they could reach high school science classes with the skills necessary to succeed. Now, as a teacher at Lorin Eden Elementary School in the Hayward Unified School District, Loebl with the guidance of teacher Nancy Wright have started a Science Kit program to encourage hands-on, inquiry-based investigations. The kits are one example of how the Hayward Unified School District is striving to provide deeper learning experiences that are engaging, equitable, and provide students the tools that they need to think critically, consistent with their Strategic Plan for the next three years. With distance learning during the 2020-2021 academic year, the kits have provided much needed materials to cultivate learning at home. Loebl and Wright spoke with ESAL about how the kits were developed and the impact they were having on students.

CK: What is your current role as an educator?

Loebl: I've been teaching at Lorin Eden Elementary School for the past two years. I teach about 327 adorable little kids in first through sixth grade. I teach some of the most fundamental levels of science. We do plantings to learn about photosynthesis. We learn about magnets and forces and earth structures. It's great! But mostly what I work on with them is getting them to think like a scientist in terms of using their observational skills and figuring out to test ideas.

CK: How did you develop the idea for Science Kits?

Science Kits being packaged for students.

Loebl: A lot of school districts are talking about how they're trying to prioritize STEM, but I don't see that happening for the younger students. There's still such a focus on English and math, which is important, but it's also not all that we should be teaching these kids at these young ages. This is especially true given that science is an opportunity to apply math and the language arts. So these Science Kits are going to be an opportunity to engage the teachers who are not doing a lot of science teaching and get them to start thinking about how to put that into their curriculum.

Wright: Every student in Hayward deserves a science education that prepares them for a future in STEM. Distance learning does not change this. We needed to ensure that students got the science education that they deserve, one in which allows them to engage in science and engineering practices with hands-on materials. These kits allow students to develop critical thinking and problem solving skills, as well as organizational skills as they deepen their science understanding. Students will understand that science doesn’t just happen in a science lab, but that science is all around us. Students are empowered to do science at home with these kits. This is the first step in getting students to see themselves as scientists.

CK: What are Science Kits?

Loebl: We have some of what maybe might be considered the most basic things for engineering and crafting, such as tape, string, and rubber bands, which are great for learning about sounds and vibrations. We have these items in the kits because although you might assume most kids have these materials at home already, many just don’t. We have pipettes in the kits too because we want students to be comfortable transferring liquids from one space to another. The kits are also for learning how to use the tools of science.

Thinking back again to my Kennedy days, a lot of my students just didn't have the basic understanding of how to measure something. If you ask a student to pour out 20 milliliters of liquid, it would take them a very long time to be able to figure that out because they hadn't really done that before. So we're giving them cups that have measuring lines on them so they can practice that skill. When they get to high school chemistry, they will know how to do that and they can pass that class. In my pilot kit, that I gave out to my students at Lorin Eden, there were over a hundred materials. The kits for the whole Hayward district have been reduced to the absolute most essential objects, because as we scaled up, we needed to make sure every material was easy to assemble and cheap. The kits are all under $5 and there are 34 materials in there.

CK: Can you go in specifics about at least one project?

Loebl: One of my favorite experiments is having the students think through conductivity. We have given students things to make ice in the kits because about a third of my students don't have either ice makers or ice cube trays in their freezers. We ask them to make two ice cubes that are of the same size and have them touch something that's metal and something that is wood or foam. We have them guess which material is going to melt the ice faster. Inevitably, students think that the ice is going to melt faster on the foam or the wood, because that feels warmer than the metal, but of course it’s the opposite.

Another project I enjoy teaching is one about material science in which we use ping pong balls and golf balls. The two balls are of similar volume, but obviously have very different densities. Just on such a basic level, we want the student to push them around and realize that you need a little bit more force for the golf ball and the ping pong ball. And then we’ll move to more interesting experiments about gravity and Galileo where we drop both the balls at the same times and see which will hit the ground first.

CK: How many students use the kits and what are the major goals of the kits?

Loebl: There are roughly 12,000 elementary students in Hayward Unified School District. Currently 4,000 students will be getting these kits, so we are covering about one third of elementary students. I'm hoping to increase that number to 8,000. One of the major goals of the kits is to cultivate students as investigators and as scientists. I feel very strongly that the way to learn these skills is through hands-on experiential approaches. The lessons that I remember from when I was a kid are those kinds of lessons. For example, I remember sitting down in second grade and being given a whole bunch of magnets. I was playing around with them and figuring out polarities. In my opinion, science is not best taught as a lecture. It needs to be something that you can try out yourself. That insight was really, really important to me as we went into distance learning. I was trying to figure out how to retain this essential element of what teaching science is all about when kids just don't have the materials we would typically be able to provide to them in school.

The district has provided $30,000 for the kits. About a third of the cost of the kits is for professional development for teachers. We spent a lot of time considering how we don't want the kits to be sent out and then for families to get these materials and not really know what to do with them. We spent time developing with teachers how to utilize these kits in their curriculum. Elementary teachers routinely ask for science curriculum materials and professional development. This program will provide all three of those, as we are going to be supporting every teacher who receives the kit with paid professional development and an open source digital library of lessons.

Wright: Distance learning has been challenging for a variety of reasons, but that doesn’t mean that students shouldn’t be building a strong science foundation in elementary school. Science enhances critical thinking, cultivates a passion for learning, and promotes reading, writing, and math skills. Ideally, students would have access to meaningful, hands-on science investigations, but that is difficult to ensure when students are at home. These kits allow students to have the materials that they need to engage in science safely at home. Teachers will also get the resources they need to support their students' science learning, including professional development, lessons, and collaboration. One major goal of this project is to support teachers and students as they transition their science teaching and learning to alignment with the Next Generation Science Standards, which promotes a new way of teaching and learning that allows students to actively do and experience science in a deep, meaningful way, not just learn about it from a textbook or a lecture. My vision for this project is to cultivate a passion for science education among teachers and students that will endure long past the time we return to in-person learning.

CK: What kind of feedback have you received from your students about the kits?

Loebl: They love it. They're constantly thinking through different ways that they can learn. I've been getting videos from students about them doing this and that kind of experiment. In my original kits, we gave them food dye and there was a student who sent me a video of them mixing the water with food dye and oil with their parents. They saw clearly how those two different liquids don't mix.

I think that parents really, really appreciate the kits because I’m not just throwing materials at my students but providing activities and lessons and ways to think through concepts. And I think parents appreciate during lockdown that they can still be guided through ways of thinking through science. They can do activities with their kids and stay engaged.

Physician and Computer Scientist Fights for Healthcare Access and Equity in her Community

Varsha Chauhan graduated as a physician from India and joined the University of Urbana-Champaign to complete a master's in computer science, and shortly after a master’s in healthcare administration. She has a wide-ranging background in public health, health IT, and health systems administration, alongside having held numerous roles inclusive of CEO, Chief of Health, executive director, city commissioner, and most recently she was elected Board member of Eden Health District. ESAL interviewed Chauhan to learn more about how she has woven government and community engagement throughout her career.

RD: How did you get to where you are today?

Chauhan: Due to digital evolution in the 90’s, I decided to move from medicine to computers as the health IT field began to emerge. I became interested in this area following my work in a free health clinic serving homeless folk, located in San Francisco. My experience at the ground level was extremely eye-opening and I could see the work that was needed to develop healthcare systems to ensure accessibility to all patients. I then worked as a director to improve the quality of care, before moving to chief operating officer where I helped with the implementation of electronic health records (EHRs) in a variety of clinics. Shortly after, I became an executive director for Alameda County where my focus pivoted to supporting the entire county health system. Thereafter, I joined the state of Oregon as chief health officer, where I worked to bring back the Medicaid system to support the 1.5 million people in the state without health insurance. At present, I work for a long-term acute care hospital as CEO for the past three years in the Bay Area.

RD: Given your diverse background, how did you become interested in engaging outside STEM?

Chauhan: I became curious about opportunities in the healthcare world and started becoming more proactive in searching for them. I undertook classes and obtained experience to become a Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt – which is a methodology that aims to promote an environment of continuous process improvement with a focus on eliminating defects, variation, and waste. Furthermore, in the 90’s people were talking about EHR’s, but this was still something that was being passed on. It was one of the main reasons I started to become engaged outside of STEM, as I believed at some point healthcare would need to integrate with health IT.

RD: How did you become involved in policy and community engagement?

Chauhan: I had always shied away from politics, as I was not a political person. However, once I was on the other side of the table and working for the state, I was able to use my training and experience to help improve things. Also, may I add, it does not necessarily have to be healthcare, you can support policy efforts in any domain!

As I have been running a hospital – which requires managing people as well as billions of dollars – aspects such as financial planning were extremely important. When I finished studying my master’s I decided I did not want a conventional STEM job, and that is when I started looking for opportunities in the community. This is where I came across the community services commission, and once I got into that, I ran for election to become a Board Member for the Eden township district. I was successful in this endeavor and was elected late last year. It was just one door after another, and that is how it happened. I just want to do something more!

RD: How did you get inspired to take on this work?

Chauhan: The inspiration came from listening to the stories of those people who could not get health insurance during my work as chief of health. I learnt firsthand how the lack of an inclusive system impacted numerous lives. This was definitely the driving force. Having learnt how there were communities that I could support and contribute to, I decided to take this route.

RD: Where do you picture yourself in 5 to 10 years?

Chauhan: There are dreams and there are visions. I never thought I would be running a campaign, let alone winning. When I look to the future, I want to be in a position where I can bring to the forefront the needs of the people in healthcare and those who need mental health support.

On the other hand, I have a passion for animals. From my travels I have seen dogs on the streets who had suffered abuse. I hope to go and buy land and help open shelters in such countries to rescue these animals. It is something I have wanted to do for years!

RD: What advice do you have for other scientists and engineers who wish to get involved?

Chauhan: Healthcare is a very complex system, and it does not have to be that way. There is so much fragmentation and breakdown in communication, which makes the experience in healthcare unpleasant. At present, the progress within healthcare towards harmonization is slow, however steps are being taken to create a coordinated healthcare system throughout the country. Thus, alongside their current work, scientists and engineers could endeavor to look into coordination tools that would help healthcare coordinate.

Scientists as Civic Participants: Keeping the Faith for Democracy

In just two days, the US will engage in a quadrennial rite of democracy when we inaugurate the winner of the 2020 presidential race as the next president of the United States. But this year will be different than anyone alive can remember. The Capitol Building, in which our elected legislators conduct their work, was invaded on January 6, 2021 by would-be insurgents seeking to prevent the certification of last year’s election. For me, the attack has a personal dimension, as I try to reconcile the fact that the hallways shown on TV and in newspapers filled with a violent mob were the same ones I used to walk as a congressional science fellow. The proximate cause for this attack was that the assailants do not believe the results of the election were fairly determined, beliefs seeded by fabrications that were propagated or tacitly supported by many government and media leaders.

Over the past two weeks, I’ve struggled to convince myself that a democracy can survive when a significant number of its citizens no longer believe in its fundamental processes. I don’t have all the answers, but I do know that one important part of how we move forward is to ensure that our electoral processes have integrity and that they have the buy-in of all communities. We saw the importance of this buy-in during the months following our November election. In the US, our elections are overseen by state and county government officials. Last year, officials of all political leanings and parties stood strong, defending their election procedures against lawsuits, invectives and insults, and even death threats. While January 6 provided a clear reminder that not everyone accepted their statements, their actions serve as a demonstration of the important role local government, composed of representatives from local communities, can play in upholding our democratic processes.

In the run up to the 2020 election, ESAL shared information and hosted an event to highlight the important role of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) in running and safeguarding our elections. While the next election may seem far away, now is the time to begin engaging with our local and state governments as they plan for future elections. To help you get started, I’d like to share some specific actions to consider:

As I close this piece, I wish I could do so with a stronger sense of optimism. I worry that the recent turn to violence has moved us beyond the ability of peaceful civic processes to not just improve our democracy but to increase all of our faith in it. Because democracy, like science, comes down to faith. We need faith that a system and a disciplined process can allow us to find commonality. As scientists, we put our faith in the ability of the scientific method to bring us closer to objective understanding. For democracy to function, we need faith that our election systems move us closer to representative self-governance. In engineering and science, we sometimes dismiss the importance of faith and may even deem it anti-scientific. I disagree. Science is one of our most human endeavors, and our capacity to maintain faith and hope in the face of adversity is one of our most human traits.