Caroline Weinberg has become pretty adept at navigating the crowded streets of New York City while staring at her phone. These days, it’s not unusual for Weinberg—one of the three leaders of the national March for Science (M4S)—to receive hundreds of emails and messages from M4S partners and more than 70 M4S volunteer leads every day. When planning an international march over just 3 months, even an hour can be too long to let an important note linger. So after a recent morning spending time speaking with ScienceInsider, Weinberg’s eyes were glued to her smartphone screen as she weaved her way along teeming sidewalks.
“Responding to emails, it turns out, is the most important skill when running a global movement,” she jokes.
It was happenstance that Weinberg, who describes herself as “not a big social media user,” ended up helping lead a march conceived in flurry of online messages this past January. It was social media that first connected Weinberg with her now M4S co-chairs, Jonathan Berman, a postdoctoral fellow researching hypertension at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio; and Valorie Aquino, an anthropology Ph.D. student at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. And it has been social media that has fueled the organization of more than 400 marches around the globe, which kick off Friday night Eastern Standard Time in New Zealand. (ScienceInsider will be providing live rolling coverage of the marches from Friday night EST through Saturday night.)
For the three 30-somethings, organizing the march has been a life-altering experience. They’ve had to put much of their current work and social lives on hold, and in some cases it has prompted them to rethink their plans for the future. It has been exciting but exhausting. “I have set aside my own comfort for a time to make sure that [the march] happens,” says Berman, who calls it “a passion project and a labor of love.”
The trio assiduously avoids describing themselves with terms like “director” or “boss,” and they go out of their way to shower credit on the dozens of other members of the M4S organizing team. But it’s clear that their efforts will have a major influence on how the M4S is ultimately perceived, and how the effort might develop after march day. But in recent conversations, it is clear that none of them fully anticipated how the march would evolve, or how it would affect their lives.
A cockamamie way
Weinberg, 33, got an early start in science advocacy. In a 1990 HBO educational special about the environment called Earth to Kids, a 6-year-old Weinberg can be seen delivering an earnest message to viewers: “How would you feel if your house was on top of garbage,” she asks the audience intently. “That’s what’s gonna happen pretty soon ‘cause we keep on using so much garbage.”
The HBO appearance was the end of Weinberg’s stint in showbiz, but it was just the beginning of her outreach in science. After completing a medical degree and master’s in public health, the New York City native started working as a freelance health writer and educator. She has spent time in Uganda and Guatemala working on public health projects surrounding reproductive health. More recently she’s been working from New York City, splitting her time between writing health stories for outlets like Motherboard and Jezebel and coordinating reproductive health programs for teens.
Weinberg put that work on hiatus when the march went viral. She and Berman had intended to use social media to recruit a handful of team members and then set everything in place before trying to garner widespread support. But that’s not what happened. In a matter of days, hundreds of thousands of people flocked to the march’s Facebook group, with more than 40,000 clamoring to volunteer. Before it was even clear who would lead the march, its social media accounts were being bombarded with demands for details.
“That was not the way I would have wanted it to take off,” Weinberg says. As a result, she says the group went about the first few weeks “in a kind of—my grandmother would say ‘cockamamie’—way.” Weinberg began dipping into her savings as she and other organizers scrambled to pull together a team of volunteers, craft a mission statement, establish partnerships with more experienced organizations, and lock down a date for the march. If she could do it again, Weinberg says she would have moved fundraising, which didn’t kick off until about 3 weeks into planning, to the top of the list.
“There was that kind of ‘oh God’ moment when we really figured out how expensive a march was, and that if you don't raise that money it won't happen,” she says.
The group quickly got used to receiving criticism—particularly when it came to their approach to concerns surrounding diversity. Weinberg acknowledges that the group has made some missteps in public comments, but maintains that she considers diversity issues to be a priority.
“Diversity in science is critical for a dozen different reasons, but ignoring it in the context of the march is particularly ridiculous,” she says. “If we're arguing that science should inform policy, you have to make sure that the science that's informing that policy is actually inclusive.”
Along with some setbacks, the organizers experienced success, too. Weinberg and some other New York City–based organizers have found themselves at a happy hour with TV personality Bill Nye the Science Guy, scoring a major coup when they recruited him as one of the speakers for the march in Washington, D.C. And over the past few months, more than 150 science societies—some of which were anxious about the march’s political implications at the beginning—have signed on.
The earliest partnerships took hours of negotiations and a lot of paperwork, Weinberg notes. But more recently, organizations have simply emailed the organizers to let them know they’re joining in. Possibly even more important for Weinberg, the organization has made space for teen advocacy, working with high school students from across the United States and Canada on projects to get youth involved in science.
A labor of love
In the early weeks of planning, Berman—a scientist through and through—was graphing his daily caffeine consumption and sleep, but as the march work mounted, he soon he ran out of time even for that simple task. Hoping to head his own research team someday, he has kept his research going despite the added responsibilities of the march.
Berman describes himself as someone who, at some point in his 30 years, has had “pretty much every hobby conceivable.” His apartment, which he hasn’t had a chance to clean since this past January, is full of odds and ends—including a Geiger counter and a collection of microscopes—that would give a visitor clues to his profession. An engineering enthusiast, he also built himself a dark room for photography and a 3D printer, which he sometimes uses to create tools that he takes to the lab.
Berman’s interests extend to the arts as well. An avid knitter, he appreciated the yarn “pussy hats” that became an effective symbol of the massive Women's March on Washington. But there will be no official science march hat, he says, partly for practical reasons—it was much colder at the January women’s march—and partly because “there’s no uniform that represents all of science.”
Berman’s hobbies have fallen to the wayside of late. And he seldom gets a full night’s sleep—sometimes finding himself awake at 3 a.m. mulling march logistics. But he says he doesn’t mind. “I feel like this is a chance to do something important,” he says, adding that the march aligns with values he has held for a long time. During college at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in New York, he started a club called RIT Skeptics, a discussion group centered around questions of science and pseudoscience. Long before the science march came into being, Berman was concerned about what he perceives as a rising “science denialism,” particularly within “social media echo chambers.”
Early actions by the Trump administration on science issues only reinforced Berman’s concerns, and partly inspired by the women’s march he had registered a Twitter account, @ScienceMarchDC, and purchased the domain name MarchforScience.com. Then came the social media connections with Weinberg and others that gave the march life.
The outpouring of support for the idea has shown Berman that he is not alone in feeling that science is under threat, he says. “In terms of the culture of science and willingness of scientists to become vocal and active advocates for science, this is in some ways similar to a paradigm shift,” he says. “And the March for Science sort of was the fulcrum in that shift.”
A large imagination
Aquino showed up at her middle school science fair with a plan to study global warming. She brought along two aquariums—one uncovered and one sealed with plastic wrap. Today, she doesn’t remember what data she was trying to collect, but she does remember having lofty goals for the project. “I had this delusion that, as an eighth grader, I could solve climate change,” she recalls.
Now 35, Aquino recognizes some flaws in her younger self’s experimental design. But one thing hasn’t changed: She’s still studying climate, only this time through the lens of anthropology, looking at how climate shifts of the past influenced politics in ancient Mayan civilizations.
An immigrant from the Philippines, Aquino came to Ohio as a child and discovered only years later that she was undocumented. Now a citizen, she couldn't wait for her first chance to vote in 2008 and has always valued civic engagement. But she has always wished her scientific work afforded more opportunities for advocacy and outreach, and was already considering a career pivot even before the M4S fell into her lap.
Now, she hopes the organization will open a path for her to continue advocacy work in science. “It just felt like the stars were aligned,” she says.
Aquino ultimately plans to finish her Ph.D.—all she has left to do is write her dissertation—but she has momentarily put aside her studies to work on the march full time. To pay the bills, she’s been working as an online teaching assistant. “This just feels like a really critical moment,” she says.
In addition to being heavily involved in establishing the march’s partnership committee, Aquino is working with the Earth Day Network to set up more than a dozen teach-ins that will take place on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and helping coordinate main stage programming. She is also planning a postmarch week of science action, which she hopes can channel momentum from the march to drive the M4S into a lasting organization.
“I do have a large imagination,” she says, “about what’s possible.”