Eagan graduate explains why she’s marching for science

Lauren Stopfer
Lauren Stopfer

by Lauren Stopfer
Special to Sun Thisweek
Dakota County Tribune

You don’t have to be a scientist to care about science.

Driving me to ballet, my mom described how she expected the world would have mirrored The Jetsons by now – a futuristic utopia with breakfast at the push of a button and families buzzing around in space ships. Stuck in traffic, we laughed. No flying cars in sight. Still, I had my own expectations for the future. When I lost my grandpa to liver cancer at age 7, I expected cancer was a problem we would solve by the time I grew up, maybe because I had never encountered an illness some gross cherry liquid couldn’t cure, maybe because I couldn’t stand the thought of another girl losing her grandpa before her first dance recital. My expectations haven’t yet been met, but I’m not ready to give up. This Saturday, I will be joining the March for Science to show my support for scientific exploration, as it is a necessary part of creating the future we want, flying cars and cancer cures alike.

Following my grandpa’s funeral, we donated the few thousand dollars from condolence cards to the Mayo Clinic, where he received treatment. Naïvely, I thought our money would be the tipping point, the financial push needed to cure cancer. It was the only way I could justify him leaving me so soon. I imagined the brilliant scientists at work with our funding — white lab-coats, curious eyes behind protective goggles, potions swirling in beakers as colored gases billowed out. I never expected that those lifesaving scientists could look like me, a sassy, curly-haired girl from Eagan.

Fortunately, Minnesota has a well-rounded public education system which exposed me to many fields of science. I knew I was interested in biology when I found myself preferring to study photosynthesis over memorizing my lines for the musical. Ditching my Broadway dreams, I decided to study biomedical engineering at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. I started working in a cancer research lab, which led to a summer research internship at the Mayo Clinic. Having spent my previous summers waitressing at the Mall of America and serving turkey drumsticks at the State Fair, I could hardly believe I was now doing research at the very institution that fought to save my grandpa’s life.

Today, I am a 24-year-old Ph.D. student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology studying therapeutic resistance in skin cancers. I am one of those scientists I imagined researching cancer, white lab coat included (no potions though). This is an exciting time for science, but this is also a scary time for science. We are making huge advancements in cancer research, yet I see scientific findings being ignored and disavowed by the public and our political leaders, despite the harm this will do. My 12-year-old cousin, Kate, tells her parents she wants to be an engineer like me. I think about the proposed science funding cuts, and wonder if she’ll have the same opportunities to pursue a STEM education as I have now. I hope so.

The importance of science extends far beyond my work at MIT. It betters our everyday lives. When my grandma visits this spring, she will walk around Boston more easily thanks to her new hip replacement from a medical device company based out of Minnesota. Because of a metal rod that holds her spine straight, my sister can tailgate for the Gophers without pain from scoliosis. These technologies are only possible due to scientific research from institutions around the country. You don’t have to be a scientist to care about science.

This Saturday, I will be Marching for Science to show the government, my peers, and the world that I value science and that it is worth our investment. I am marching for the scientific pioneers that came before me, and the magnificent minds to come after (like Kate). So, no matter your background, I encourage you to join me. Scientific progress affects us all, and isn’t a partisan issue. I’ll be marching in Massachusetts, but my heart will always be in Minnesota.

Lauren Stopfer graduated from Eagan High School in 2011 and is now a Ph.D. student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology studying biological engineering. Columns reflect the opinion of the author.