Yale University

After Donald Trump was elected president in November 2016, Yale professor of molecular and cellular biology Valerie Horsley cried for hours that night and the whole next day. Then the tears dried, and she got to work.

Now, Horsley, a Democrat from Hamden, is seeking her party’s nomination for state senate in the 17th District. The seat is currently held by George Logan, R-Hamden. On Aug. 14, Horsley will run against two other candidates to secure the Democratic Party’s nomination.

“[Trump’s] attacks on women and minorities were what motivated me,” she said. “And that I had to tell my daughters that he was elected.”

In the wake of the election, Horsley became active in Connecticut politics, and she now helps run Action Together Connecticut, a grassroots organization that “provides a conduit for Connecticut citizens” to engage in state and local politics.

This is not Horsley’s first foray into the world of activism. As a postdoctoral fellow at Rockefeller University, she organized her peers to fight for rent subsidies. But at this moment in history, she stressed, political action is as important as ever before.

“A generation of people that were born after the civil rights movement and the women’s movement expect the world to be different than it is,” Horsley said. “This generation is having their own children and wanting the world to be more equal and to ensure that their children have the same true opportunities in the world, that they will not be racially profiled, that they will not be subject to sexual and other types of harassment for their race and gender.”

Through her involvement in Connecticut politics, Horsley came to realize the extent to which state and local politics affect citizen lives and the potential value of having scientists in the government.

According to Horsley, industries based in science — such as information technology, tech manufacturing and bioscience — have the greatest potential to bolster the state’s economy. But lawyers and small business owners make up the majority of the Connecticut government’s composition. As a scientist and a professor, Horsley told the News, she will bring a distinct skill set to Hartford, including problem solving, teaching, public speaking and bioscience expertise.

Scientists have rigorous training in the scientific method, which calls for them to formulate and test hypotheses based on empirical data, according to Brett Shook, a postdoctoral fellow in Horsley’s lab. Having experts in this methodology in government will help provide frameworks for solving the most complicated problems facing the state, he said.

Maria Fernanda Forni, also a postdoctoral fellow in Horsley’s lab, expressed excitement about having more “strong, amazing” women in politics. She found the idea of having more scientists in the government “reassuring” in the current political climate, when “even basic scientific concepts are denied.”

More scientists are running for office in the 2018 election cycle than in any other in modern American history, as of Jan. 31. Horsley is one of the over 200 candidates with careers in science, technology, engineering and math who have announced bids for the approximately 7,000 state legislature seats in play across the country. And over 60 researchers and technologists have announced plans to run for federal office so far.

Chair of Horsley’s department, Vivian Irish, said that she was “delighted” to hear that Horsley was running. She also said she has noticed an increase in scientists running for office.

“From withdrawing from the Paris climate accord, to reducing environmental regulations, to the lack of filling a wide range of science appointments including that of the position of science advisor and director of the White House Office of Science Technology and Policy, the Trump government is doing enormous harm to public health and our long term well being. Scientists are responding by advocating in a variety of ways for the value of science in our society,” Irish said.

As a biologist, Horsley studies wound healing in the skin. During her time as a faculty member at Yale, she has established a discussion group for junior faculty members across the University and advocated for the expansion of childcare resources at the University, efforts that ultimately resulted in the establishment of the Nest at Yale, a day care for children ages 1 to 3 with a priority for the children of female faculty members in science. In addition, she served as one of two nontenured ladder faculty members on the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Senate Implementation Committee, which established the format and rules for the inaugural Faculty of Arts and Sciences Senate.

She currently serves on the Yale Biology Building Committee, which serves as the faculty advisory body for the design and construction of the $250 million Yale Biology Building near Kline Biology Tower.

According to Horsley, state senator is a part-time position, and all Connecticut state legislators work other jobs. The legislature is in session during the spring semester, and many of the responsibilities of senators fall in the evening or on the weekends. She told the News that if she is elected, she can do some of her Yale work, including writing papers and grants, in Hartford and concentrate her teaching responsibilities in the fall.

Shook said that if anyone can balance the workload of scientist and state senator, it’s Horsley, whom he called “capable of accomplishing anything that she devotes her focus towards.”

Although she launched her campaign in the name of science, she is also doing it for her two daughters.

“I want to be the change I want to see in the world,” she said.

Adelaide Feibel | adelaide.feibel@yale.edu