Science and politics: a Q&A with Molly Sheehan

Molly Sheehan was taught to value both the scientific process and economic and social justice from a young age. Currently a postdoctoral researcher in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, Sheehan has done groundbreaking work in protein design and mammalian cell imaging, technologies that may play a hand in advancing cancer research. For this work, she was awarded the 2016 World Molecular Imaging Society Young Investigator Award.

But Sheehan never lost her penchant for justice. In 2016, she decided to run for public office with the hopes of transforming how decisions and policy are made. 

Penn Today sat down with Sheehan to discuss her path towards becoming a scientist, what led her to run for office, and the changes she hopes to be able to make.

 

How did you first become interested in science?

Ever since 7th grade, I’ve wanted to be a scientist. My dad is an analytical chemist by training and he worked for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection before he retired. He did Superfund clean-ups, removing hazardous material from polluted locations, so we grew up going to recycling centers on the weekends. This is how I learned polymer chemistry, seeing which plastics can be mingled and how to separate them.

I remember I got really into the Discovery channel back when it actually had science on it, and I loved watching shows about genetics and forensics. My 8th grade teacher bought me a string theory text book, and my dad loved talking about it with me. It was mind blowing, trying to understand the basis of matter. I loved the idea of discovering new things and being able to transform the landscape of what we know.

Can you talk about your path to becoming a scientist, and what sorts of things you research?

The type of science I wanted to do really morphed as I moved further in my career. At first wanted to do ballistics and serology, but I realized being near crime scenes in the criminal justice system really isn't what I wanted to do. 

As I got older, I got more into nutrition and thinking about the way to improve health for everybody, not just those who are in disease states, which turns out to be very qualitative. In undergrad, I was a biology major at Haverford College, but I kept drifting towards harder and harder sciences and realizing the power of being more quantitative. 

Originally, I wanted to apply to grad school for nutritional biochemistry, but when I went to see those programs they weren't as quantitative as I wanted. If I needed new techniques that didn’t exist, I wanted to be able to develop them myself. I ended up joining the biophysics and biochemistry program at Penn with Leslie Dutton as my advisor. We were thinking about things more philosophically, figuring out how to reinvent them, as opposed to being constrained by the limits and the baggage of natural systems. I worked on protein design to try to push the limits of the scaffolds to make them more heat resistant, stable, and usable, really understanding basic biology and physiology through these model systems of proteins.

The timing actually worked out perfectly: I gave birth to my daughter four days after I graduated with my Ph.D. After taking a year off, I took a postdoctoral fellowship in the lab of Brian Chow in Bioengineering. In Brian’s lab, I ended up working on protein design again. I began working on far-red and infrared fluorescent proteins, which have important applications in tracking expression levels and localization of proteins in cells found in deep tissue, as well as in constructing biosensors. 

Right now we use GFP, which is green, but our bodies are opaque and so if we can move them into far-red and infrared, we can actually track things in tissues without getting the same background. The idea was that we could turn the proteins we were making into fluorescent proteins using a naturally binding cofactor. We developed the first functional, completely artificial protein to be expressed in a mammalian cell.

There’s all of this amazing research on gene therapy and CAR T-Cell therapy for cancer, especially at Penn. But a lot of the research ends up being limited or takes a long time because if something isn't working it’s hard to know why if you can't track it in the tissues in the body itself. These far-red and infrared fluorescent proteins would allow you to do that, which is revolutionary. 

What made you decide to run for office?

I've been interested in policy and social justice for a very long time. I grew up in a Quaker household, so we were always talking about social and economic justice. I was that annoying kid in high school who would put up boycott lists of what was made by child labor in Burma. But I always thought that, career-wise, I would take the scientific route. I had thought maybe, at the end of my career, about retiring early and running for office then. But I think the events of 2016 shook a lot of us. I saw a lot of my colleagues worried about the H-1B visa program disappearing and losing their lives here. My husband is from Taiwan and we have a biracial daughter, and people began to feel emboldened to say things to us about our family.

Also, I've had a wonderful scientific career so far, but it's not exactly the most hospitable place for women. I’ve seen many female colleagues leave science because it was so toxic to them. The night of the election I went into daughter’s room laid next to her and thought, “What world are we leaving our kids? We're taking a step back.” I wondered if she’s going to suffer the same abuses that our generation and the generations before us have. It's getting better, but it's too slow.

And, with everything so fragile, what will it mean for scientific funding in the future? 

It suddenly seemed necessary to redefine where I could have the biggest social impact. The first thing I did was start a civic tech company to build a platform to get money out of politics. The fact that we've institutionalized bribery seemed, ultimately, to be the base of so many of our problems. As an engineer, I wondered if we could take money out of politics and change it from the bottom-up, because the system is never going to want to change itself. So I started building a web-based platform for sourcing volunteers to campaigns. The idea is you could find anyone on political spectrum, regardless of ideologies, and volunteer. 

But, when I started networking and talking to elected officials and campaign specialists, it was clear that nobody in the existing system even wanted this to exist, and that if we don’t get new people to run for office we're never going to get change. There's a huge amount of inertia; we need new ideas and new voices at the table, people who really care about the working class and the poor. I decided I needed to run myself to prove we can run a campaign that's not based in mega-dollars, a community campaign where everyone is the CEO of their own little section. I chose to run for Congress because I wanted to push for real health care reform that works for everybody. 

What would you say is the value of having more people with science backgrounds in office?

It’s important to have some people in office who understand how the physical world works. What we see at all levels of government is that it’s mostly lawyers who come to the table with a list of asks and then they do this horse-trading of these asks, and it never turns into a coherent bill. Can you imagine doctors doing that with a medical prescription? Just negotiating and throwing prescriptions back and forth until you end up with some weird cocktail? It doesn’t make any sense. But that's how our legislation is made. 

Engineers and scientists come to the table completely differently. We agree on what the problem is, and we move forward together. We don't always agree on the solutions, but at least we're building a coherent path forward that often includes some compromise. We're solving a problem, not horse-trading for bills.

Also, as engineers and scientists and doctors, we're generally not doing things to meet our own needs. We're focused on other people’s needs. It's an act of empathy; it's about the end user, the patient, the constituent. And that's really how politics should work.

Aside from how we frame the world, it's also important to have scientific expertise. Evidence-based policy is extremely important. Someone might be on the right side of an issue, but if they don't understand it, how can they effectively advocate for it? So many new technologies are going to be coming out and getting better in the next few years that will need to be regulated, and I don’t think only lawyers can cut it. We really need experts in medical, agricultural, digital, and other technologies in Congress to be having these conversations. 

How has your training as a scientist and your experiences at Penn have prepared you for a role like this?

I served on the student health insurance advisory committee for five years, and was a student representative with all the department heads on the 25 Year Biomedical Graduate Study review panel. I think those experiences have been incredibly valuable going into this. Those years of experience on those boards taught me how to get things done and allow the voices of the marginalized to be heard, especially when you're the underdog or minority and don't actually have any power.

My education has been invaluable on this journey, whether it’s the way I think about things, my lived experience, or the people I’ve met at Penn. I’ve always loved the idea of discovering things and using new information to change the landscape of medicine and technology. I think what I'm doing in politics now, too, is figuring out how to change the landscape through fundamental breakthroughs in campaigning and policy. 

I feel obligated to use the information I've learned over the past year, regardless of whether I win or lose, to make it easier for people from poorer communities and diverse backgrounds to run and win. I think it’s something we really need to do as a family, to step up and make change.