Pennsylvania is a key battleground in the fight for control of the next Congress, and scientists are in the middle of that fight. In February, the state’s highest court threw out a Republican-drawn map of the state’s 18 congressional districts and installed one that, for the most part, eliminates partisan gerrymandering. Those new districts helped push some Republican incumbents into retirement, while at the same time prompting many first-time Democratic candidates to run for seats that now appear winnable.
The result is a political free-for-all in which veteran campaign watchers are hedging their bets on who the winners might be. “I haven’t seen a single poll, and without a poll, you can’t begin to make a guess,” says political scientist Terry Madonna of Franklin and Marshall College (F&M) in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where he directs the Center for Politics and Public Affairs and runs the F&M Poll. A crowded field, he says, simply adds to the confusion.
This story is the last in a three-part series on candidates with considerable scientific training who are running as Democrats for the U.S. House of Representatives in Pennsylvania. Their first test is the 15 May primary.
HARRISBURG—Eric Ding gave himself a scant 10 weeks to win the Democratic primary for a seat in the U.S. Congress from central Pennsylvania. It’s the latest challenge for the 35-year-old public health scientist, who’s been in a hurry ever since doctors removed a large tumor from his chest as a teenager.
The successful surgery led him to choose public health as his career, and it didn’t take him long to make an impact. By the age of 23, he had earned doctoral degrees in nutrition and epidemiology from the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health (HSPH) in Boston.
As a sideline to his graduate work, he co-authored a meta-analysis of the harmful effects of Vioxx, a hugely popular painkiller that had recently been withdrawn. The 2006 paper in The Journal of the American Medical Association received national media coverage. Over the past decade, he’s helped build one of the first web-based platforms to raise money for cancer research and promote healthy lifestyles and more recently, he created a site to help communities learn whether their children are at risk from high lead levels in the water.
So in February, when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court threw out a Republican-drawn map of the state’s 18 congressional districts and created a new one that wasn’t based on partisan politics, Ding sensed an opportunity to step up his activism. Declaring his candidacy on 27 February, the first-time candidate seems to relish the challenge of having so little time before the 15 May primary to connect with voters in the 10th congressional district (PA-10), near where he grew up before leaving the area for college 15 years ago.
“Our race is very difficult because we don’t have 6 to 9 months to fundraise and meet everyone at town halls,” he explains during a recent interview at his campaign headquarters here. “So everything is compressed. It’s intense.”
Health care, anyone?
Ding thrives on intense. Knocking on doors in a residential neighborhood here, Ding wastes no time describing how his personal medical crisis motivated his choice of careers. Health care is also the centerpiece of his campaign, and he frames the need for universal health coverage as a matter of expanding personal freedom. He hopes that approach will win over enough Republicans and independents to help him topple the Republican incumbent, Representative Scott Perry, should Ding defeat the three other Democrats running in the primary.
“Do you think health care is an important issue?” he prompts several residents after they fail to answer his question about what they are most worried about. “Well, the doctors at [Milton S.] Hershey Medical Center [in his district] saved my life. And that’s when I decided to become a public health scientist.”
One attentive homeowner gets a full dose of Ding’s major talking points: “I’ve dedicated my career to fighting injustices in the health care system,” he tells her. “I was a whistleblower fighting the big drug companies that were selling a dangerous drug. Then I helped lead the fight against lead poisoning, like in Flint [Michigan]. I’ve never worked for a corporation, and I want to take that fight to Washington [D.C].”
The front porch is a tough place to discuss how to reform the ailing U.S. health care system. One resident, a retired state employee, says he’s in good health and that his top priority is getting motorists to slow down and not run the stop sign at the end of the block—something over which a member of Congress has no input. However, another resident seemed to take up Ding’s invitation by disclosing that his wife has recently been diagnosed with cancer and that she has waited 6 months to begin treatment.
The comment rang Ding’s bell. He explains that the current incentive system in medicine is badly flawed and that doctors should get paid based on their success in treating people rather than on the number of tests they order. Then he pauses, hoping that explanation will strike a chord.
But the homeowner doesn’t see the connection to his wife’s condition. “The doctors are just dragging their feet,” he mutters. After walking away, Ding rejects the suggestion that he might have misunderstood the speaker and moves onto the next house.
His heartfelt appreciation
A misdiagnosis helps explain why Ding is pounding the pavement here, the state capital and largest city in the mostly rural district he hopes to represent. His parents, who emigrated from Shanghai, China, when he was 5 years old, certainly had no idea their son would someday strive to become an elected official. “They aren’t very political,” he says. “My mom is a very shy professor of education at a local university [in nearby Shippensburg, Pennsylvania].”
On the other hand, education was a priority. His mother’s first academic job after earning her Ph.D. in education instruction from the University of Nebraska in Lincoln required her to teach psychology and statistics. She had never studied either subject, he says, so over the summer she purchased and pored over a 26-volume PBS series on each discipline. “And I watched them with her, twice,” Ding recalls. “I was in third grade. I didn’t have a lot of friends. And it was my first foray into real science.”
In high school, he was chosen for a highly competitive statewide summer program for gifted students, and a chest x-ray as part of a routine physical revealed a tumor the size of a baseball attached to his heart and extending to his lungs and thymus. “Based on where the tumor was, they thought it was a non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma [NHL],” he says. “And NHL is 95% fatal. So it was pretty scary. But weeks later they discovered it was a different type of tumor, and benign.”
As an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, Ding majored in public health and “fell in love with epidemiology.” The next stop was HSPH, where he stood out for wanting to do more than just take the next big step onto the academic ladder.
“He has a strong passion for public health research and policy, which set him apart from others who were primarily interested in publishing papers in their specific area,” says Frank Hu, chair of the nutrition department at HSPH and one of Ding’s advisers. “He wanted to make a difference in people’s lives. And I think running for Congress speaks to that passion and to his dream.”
Ding’s appetite for public health advocacy seems unlimited. While a postdoc at HSPH, he entered medical school at nearby Boston University with the help of a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans. But after a year he dropped out.
“I thought I wanted to be a physician-scientist,” he recalls. “But I realized that my real passion was to be a changemaker. Life is short, and it’s about what you do, not the number of letters after your name.” He repaid the balance of the scholarship, and retained his ties to the family of billionaire investor and philanthropist George Soros, several of whom have donated to his campaign.
Ding returned to HSPH as an instructor and research scientist. But again, that wasn’t the only thing on his plate. He watched with amazement as his Campaign for Cancer Research grew to some 6 million users as a Facebook app before being absorbed by a new media company. He also began working with Microclinic International, a nonprofit working on global disease prevention and health management.
After others sounded the alarm over lead poisoning in Flint, Ding used his skills in analyzing massive data sets to create ToxinAlert.org. “By the time a child is tested for lead poisoning, it’s already too late,” he explains. “The brain damage has already happened. So the only way to prevent it is to have a public alert system. And that’s why we aggregated data from USGS the U.S. Geological Survey] and EPA [the Environmental Protection Agency]—which is almost impossible to find, by the way—in one place, showing the water quality in that area.”
Fighting for recognition
Ding is married to Andrea Feigl-Ding, a health economist with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. In 2015, after Feigl-Ding completed her Ph.D. from HSPH, Ding began reducing his workload there. By the fall of 2017, Ding had returned to central Pennsylvania to sniff out the possibility of running for Congress.
A friend put him in touch with 314 Action, a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania–based organization that helps scientists and engineers run for office, and Ding says the staff tutored him in what it would take. “They came down and coached me in person, spending days and weekends with me.”
Their advice, he says, supplemented what he already knew from working on other political campaigns in the Boston area, and from friends who also decided to run for Congress in 2018. His network includes Daniel Koh, a young politico seeking an open House of Representatives seat in a heavily Democrat district in eastern Massachusetts, and Brayden Olson, a web entrepreneur who briefly sought the Democratic nomination for an open seat in Seattle, Washington.
The key to victory in PA-10, Ding says, will be gaining sufficient name recognition in a four-way race of political novices. A win would also serve as a springboard for the November general election contest against Perry in a solidly Republican district.
His 30-second ad that is airing on local TV addresses both those objectives. It starts with Ding, who is labeled “public health scientist” and shown in a lab, shaking a pillbox. He explains how he “fought to protect families” against drugs that “caused heart attacks and kidney failure.” Then he ends with a plea to viewers “to fight [U.S. President] Donald Trump.”
*Correction, 9 May, 1 p.m.: This article has been updated to correct Ding's age.