WASHINGTON, D.C.—Jane Zelikova is not a “protest person.”
“I’m so anti-protest, and so anti-demonstration,” she told me. “Growing up in the U.S.S.R., I always have that sense that protest is theater.”
Even after she moved to the United States, she retained her suspicion of demonstrations large and small. They seemed to rarely achieve their goals, and they reminded her of the government-planned pageantry of her youth. As a graduate student at the University of Colorado Boulder, she attended a protest during the run-up to the Iraq War—only to leave before it ended out of personal unease.
Since then, her research into community ecology has taken her to the tropical rainforests of Costa Rica and the high-elevation deserts of Utah. It let her spend months studying leafcutter ants, a colony-dwelling creature that grows fungus for its food; and it introduced her to Pseudobombax septenatum, a tree sheathed in photosynthetic bark that can store water in its trunk for months at a time.
But her life as a scientist didn’t bring her to a mass protest until January 21, 2017, when she joined roughly 50 other female scientists—and hundreds of thousands of demonstrators—at the Women’s March on Washington. She marched as part of 500 Women Scientists, a new advocacy group for science and scientists that she and several of her friends established in the weeks after the election.
Most of the women walked in white lab coats, on which they had written with Sharpie the names of their heroes, mentors, and friends who could not attend. They chanted “What do we want? Data! When do we want it? Forever!” and “When I say peer, you say review! Peer! Review! Peer! Review!” Someone held a sign saying, “MAR-A-LAGO (Trump’s Resort) WILL BE UNDER WATER BY 2045.” At the bottom, in tiny text, it cited a report from Coastal Risk Consulting, a private firm that uses climate data to project future sea-level rise.
They marched together, but it was the first time many of the members had met each other in person. 500 Women Scientists first attracted attention in late November after its post-election pledge garnered more than more than 10,000 signatures in a week. Since then, its members have sat on panels together and plotted the group’s next steps. But many did not actually gather together until Saturday, when women scientists associated with the group marched in Denver, Seattle, Los Angeles, and D.C.
Even in its infancy, it is one of the most assertively feminist scientific professional organizations in existence today. And as they stood by the side of Pennsylvania Avenue on Saturday, the thousands of fellow feminists who passed seemed to adore them, whooping as they walked past the scrum of sign-toting women in lab coats. A dad pointed out the real scientists to his daughters with all the thrill of seeing a live stegosaurus. A group of middle-aged protesters, one with a sign saying “FACTS STILL MATTER,” shouted as they passed, “Climate change is real! Science is real!”
The women scientists cheered back. Liesl Erb, a wildlife ecologist who had driven from Asheville, North Carolina, to attend the march, said, “I just can’t believe we’re having to yell, ‘Science is real.’”
Like so many organizations these days, 500 Women Scientists began as a group text.
For years, Zelikova and her friend, Kelly Ramirez, lived with two friends in Boulder, Colorado, where they were researching or working on graduate degrees at the University of Colorado. They assisted each other with projects and were running buddies. And then, in a matter of months, they all left the state for new jobs.
Zelikova, 38, moved to Washington, D.C., where she is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science at the Department of Energy. She researches and develops clean-coal technology.
Ramirez, 31, traveled much farther, becoming a post-doctoral researcher at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology. She now studies how climate change is affecting microbes in the soil and the plants that depend on them. “You can’t see what’s in the soil, even though it’s pretty important. They need a voice,” she told me.
Both women repeatedly stressed that their out-of-work activities do not speak for their employers.
Separated by an ocean, Zelikova and Ramirez kept their friendship with each other alive through a running iMessage thread. Through the summer of 2016, they talked about their lives, shared interesting articles about the election, and traded photos of Ramirez’s puppy. And so it continued, right up to November 8.
All four women had been pulling for Hillary Clinton. They wore pantsuits to work that Tuesday, and they swapped triumphant flexed-arm and American flag emojis. Around 8 p.m., as the returns started to come in, their triumph turned into streams of expletive and anxious worrying.
They remember the next days as very bleak. There was a lot of cursing and fretting, and many fewer puppy photos than usual. But they resolved to fight back too. Two days after the election, with the blessing of the group, Ramirez sent out a message to 20 scientists whom she respected. Its subject: “battle plan.”
“We’re all very upset, and I don’t want us to forget the feeling we have right now,” the email said. “We’re scared and angry and we want to do something—so let’s do something.”
She tossed out a few ideas about what that “something” could be—publishing supportive op-eds, running for local office, promoting science-education programs—and she asked the group to add other women who might be interested in a similar approach. By the end of the day, her 20-person email had swelled to 100. By the weekend, 500 women were swapping ideas or asking for a next step.
That mailing list became 500 Women Scientists. What emerged wasn’t just a vague resolve to do something, but a decision to advocate for a specific set of ideas that they felt no one was saying in public. Over a week, the two women and some trusted mentors developed and wrote the group’s pledge, which they described as “an open letter from women scientists.”
The main thrust of the letter: If the government advances policies that threaten or terrify people who do science, it damages the scientific enterprise as a whole.
“Science is not supposed to be political. But if we’re humans, and we feel under threat, and our family and friends feel under threat, then we can’t do science,” Zelikova said. This works the other way, too. “When you threaten a particular discipline in science or science in general, you also threaten the people who are doing the science,” she told me.
Hence the open letter. It highlights that everyone in a democratic society depends on science, both to fuel continued technological advancement and to ground evidence-based policymaking. Then it says, in part:
The anti-knowledge and anti-science sentiments expressed repeatedly during the U.S. presidential election threaten the very foundations of our society. Our work as scientists and our values as human beings are under attack. We fear that the scientific progress and momentum in tackling our biggest challenges, including staving off the worst impacts of climate change, will be severely hindered under this next U.S. administration. …
Many of us feel personally threatened by this divisive and destructive rhetoric and have turned to each other for understanding, strength, and a path forward. We are members of racial, ethnic, and religious minority groups. We are immigrants. We are people with disabilities. We are LGBTQIA. We are scientists. We are women.
The letter went live on Thursday, November 17, along with the names of the 500 signatories. Immediately it began to spread. By the end of day on Friday, it had 2,000 signatures. On Saturday, it had 5,000. On Monday, it hit 8,000. By the end of the month, more than 10,000 people had signed the letter.
Today, more than 13,000 women have attached their names to the document. According to information they submitted when they signed, they are from more than 100 countries, and more than 10,000 of them are Americans. The letter has been translated into Spanish, Portuguese, German, French, Dutch, and Farsi. Thousands of people have also joined the group’s email list or one of its online communities.
Ramirez and Zelikova aren’t sure how much longer the list can get. No one has done a count of how many women scientists there are worldwide.
Roughly 50 of those signatories showed up Saturday morning, a scrum of white lab coats and colorful signs gathering in a well next to the National Air and Space Museum. They gathered around speakers for a mini-rally before the rally.
Christy Till, a geologist and assistant professor at Arizona State University, implored the women to share their stories with each other over the course of the day.
“There is a time when you made a choice. You made a choice to be in this group, you made a choice to fight against this administration,” said Anjali Kumar, an ecology educator from Washington, D.C. She asked the women to keep choosing science and their values in the days and months ahead.
Then the big rally began. No one could see it from behind the museum, but it didn’t dint their good cheer. In the afternoon, when it was time to march, they filtered across the National Mall. The other marchers were thrilled to see them. Strangers with signs about climate change and environmental justice cheered like they had seen old friends. They had the same experience marching up Pennsylvania Avenue, past the National Archives, the J. Edgar Hoover FBI building, and Trump International Hotel, all the way up to the White House. Lots of people are just happy to see scientists.
“It’s really empowering to feel like I don’t have to either be a scientist or an engaged citizen,” said Julia Bradley-Cook, an ecosystem scientist, as we approached the White House. “It’s really exciting to bring together my career and my passion for social justice issues.”
Bradley-Cook researches how thawing permafrost in the Arctic Circle accelerates global warming by releasing methane and carbon dioxide into the air. “I learned a chant today that was relevant to my research, so that was exciting,” she said. It was No coal! No oil! Keep our carbon in the soil! “That would’ve been good to use to finish my thesis defense.”
Fifty feet away, a group of protesters resumed chants of “Science is real!”
But what comes after the march? The organizers see 500 Women Scientists’s role going forward as two-fold. For its members, they want it to serve as a professional advancement organization. “We want to give our women something for them, whether that’s helping them take a step up in their career, resources they might need, or a link in their career to other researchers or mentors,” said Ramirez.
But outwardly, they see it filling a broader role. Both want it to serve as the foremost activist voice for women scientists. The group’s thousands of members have identified this as a “real need,” she says.
Their most ambitious goal goes far beyond issuing press releases or publishing op-eds. Ultimately, they want to bring teams of women scientists into small towns or city neighborhood for a week-long residence. They imagine the program lasting 52 consecutive weeks, in 52 different communities—a full year of female scientists visiting small-town America. Once embedded, the team will visit schools, hang out at libraries, and generally make themselves available to chat at diners, pizza places, and coffee shops.
“From personal experience, this ‘changing hearts and minds,’ one person at a time, does work,” said Zelikova. ”When people find out that I’m a climate change scientist, they have a lot of questions.” Her laptop clearly advertises that she is a scientist, and she talked about how frequently she is stopped in airport bars or public spaces by people from all sides of the spectrum who have developed a mistrust of science but want to improve it.
Despite gathering for the first time on Saturday, the female scientists who marched independently echoed much of the open letter to which they signed their names. Emily Mattes, a biophysics Ph.D. student at the University of Pennsylvania, learned about 500 Women Scientists through social media. “Even if you’re not political, you find yourself pushed toward politics,” she told me. Only one party seemed to take the conclusions of science seriously in its policies, she said. Only seemed committed to continuing to fund medical and scientific research and allowing scientists to do their work without harassment.
Mattes and Mona Orr, a biochemist who works in Maryland, held signs above their heads bearing only the structural formulae of two different chains of amino acids. Orr explained that each amino acid is commonly abbreviated with a single letter. One chain included the amino acids phenylalanine, usually known by the letter F; selenocysteine, known by U; cysteine, known by C; and finally lysine, known by K. Below it, another chain connected the amino acids known by the letters T, R, U, M, and P.
500 Women Scientists probably boasted some of the most policy-informed posters in the march. “Where is OSTP? Climate Change Can’t Wait!,” said one. OSTP is the Office of Science and Technology Policy, a division of the White House established by Congress in 1976. Since Friday, whitehouse.gov has served a 404 error to users trying to access the office’s old homepage. President Trump has yet to name someone to lead the office.
Other signs took a different approach. A volcanologist who had traveled to the march from New York got near constant cheers throughout the day. Her lab coat said “A Woman’s Place Is In The Lab.” Above that, she held a huge pink sign reading, “It’s DOCTOR Big Tits to You!”