Actual Living Scientist (Advocate): Jennifer Quirk, Not a Scientist

Jennifer Quirk lives with her husband, Jeff, and their two dogs in Menomonee Falls, WI. She likes to read, cook, travel and spend time with friends. She is originally from the Pittsburgh area, so she’s a huge Steelers and Penguins fan. She is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a scientist.

Until very recently, I have thought about science—when I thought of it at all—as something big and distant, important but vague. Something over my head. Something people in lab coats are working on somewhere, and I’m certain it’s all very important, but as to how it affects me? Not so much. 

Until recently. Recently, I’ve become increasingly awake to “fake news,” “alternative facts,” and “infotainment.” Recently I’ve read with growing alarm about funding cuts to the EPA. Recently I’ve sensed a palpable hostility toward thinking, facts, data, knowledge . . . science.  

And I realize that science isn’t far away and vague at all; it’s everywhere. I am who I am, and I am where I am, in very large part, because of science. I’d be dead right now were it not for sterile surgical procedures, antibiotics, and advancements in safe child birth. Then there are seat belts, air bags, bridges, traffic lights, and speed limits that have undoubtedly kept me alive and in one piece these last 40-plus years. The water that I depend on every single day is relatively clean, safe, and plentiful (for now…). I was vaccinated as a baby to protect me from diseases that in previous generations could very well have taken me out before the age of 12. If I want to connect with nature, or just breathe fresh air, I’m free to do so, in a smog-free public park, complete with trees, grass, and clear, clean streams and ponds to enjoy. I could go on and on, listing off one by one the scientific advancements that I benefit from literally on an hourly basis, that allow me to live a healthy, happy, fulfilling life. Science is important to me. Science is all around me. I depend on it. People I love are alive because of it. I don’t want to lose it. I don’t want to live in a world in which science is a belief, an opinion, or a point of view.

It seems I am not alone. Groups of people have sprung up around Milwaukee, and across the U.S. Comfortable complacency and impotent frustration has been replaced with a sense of presence and purpose and showing up. So I’ve been going to various meetings around Milwaukee lately, and I keep hearing: “I’ve never done anything like this before. I don’t really know what I’m doing. But I want to do something. I’m here.” It is heartening to see, hear, and feel the energy of so many fellow humans simply trying to do something productive and positive to protect and support the world around us. 

On April 22, people around the world will gather to March for Science. There’s a March right here, in Milwaukee. The March for Science – Milwaukee’s website states that people will be “Coming together to champion evidence-based science for the common good.” I anticipate that a lot of “science people” will be there on that Saturday in April: biologists, doctors, lab technicians, IT experts, engineers, and the like. This is not me—not even close. I barely passed high school chemistry. I have never taken a physics class or opened a calculus book. I don’t really understand or like using Excel®. If it weren’t for Google, I would not know how to convert Celsius to Fahrenheit or vice versa. And I’ll be there on April 22, marching for science.

For me, the March for Science is a celebration. It’s a community showing up and saying out loud and with purpose, “Hey, this is REALLY important, and we are going to defend it, champion it, and focus on it now more than ever!” I’m not marching because I’m a physicist, a water quality researcher, a chemist, an agriculturalist, or any of the hundreds of other science-related professions out there. I’m marching because I need science to stay right where it is, in a category separate from beliefs and opinions and profit margins. Lives, indeed generations, depend on it.

I can’t honestly say that my presence at the march will “do” anything. All I know is that now more than ever, in an age of “alternative facts” and ever-decreasing funding for science-related agencies and programs, I must choose a side. And I choose the side of facts, data, knowledge, learning, questioning, logic and reason. I may not always be comfortable with the outcomes, but I must defend and support the process that has given me so much of the life I value. I stand with the scientists. With the doctors, the nurses, the disease-curers, and the vaccine-developers. The askers of questions and the demanders of Truth. I stand with the engineers who design the bridges I drive on and the pharmacists who double-check the medicine I take. I stand with the ecologists trying to save the bees, the tiny creatures that make much of the food on Earth possible. I stand with the people building limbs for wounded veterans and improving air bags for the car my husband drives. I stand with the people who make sure the planes I fly in stay up in the air. I don’t always understand what they’re talking about, and I probably can’t decipher one of their spreadsheets. But I’m on their side. I stand, and march, with them.    

On April 22, I will be shuffling amid a crowd of strangers in downtown Milwaukee to say that I give a damn about science, and I won’t let it be marginalized, defunded, doubted, and misrepresented into insignificance without a fight. The first step is showing up.

I don’t really know what the journey or the “fight” will look like after the March, but I will do my best to keep showing up and doing my part, whatever that might look like, in the years to come. But first, I march. If someone strikes up a conversation with me on that day, I’ll most likely say something like, “My name’s Jen. I’ve never done anything like this before. I don’t really know what I’m doing. But I want to do something. I’m here.”

Written by Jennifer Quirk for the Milwaukee Area Science Advocates (MASA)

  1. We forgive you for your Pittsburgh team preferences. Thanks for the inspiring boost for science and rational thinking.

    Reply

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