A series tracking five scientists who are running for office.
Raised in conservative, rural New Hampshire, Patricia Zornio was the first in her family to study for an advanced degree, pursuing clinical neuropsychology and exploring novel therapeutics for severe mental illness. Now, she’s a researcher and project manager at Stanford University, where she has become an expert on rare and undiagnosed diseases.
But politics have always tugged at her.
With the same methodical approach she used to build a career as a translational scientist, Zornio is laying the groundwork for a Senate run in 2020.
The seat she is eyeing now belongs to Sen. Cory Gardner, a first-term Republican from Colorado. Though Zornio works for Stanford, she is a resident of Boulder, and she has spent the past year crisscrossing Colorado to participate in town halls and speak to any group that invites her.
Zornio hasn’t begun raising money or building a campaign organization. For now, she’s testing the waters, to see “if people are interested in potentially voting for a progressive female scientist from a rural background.”
So far, she thinks, the signs are good.
“I haven’t had any trouble filling a room,” said Zornio, who goes by Trish.
Zornio’s science, as well as her politics, is a departure from that of the family she grew up in: All, she thinks, voted for Donald Trump in November’s election. Zornio said her father’s initial reaction to her plans — stony silence — has just begun to yield to acceptance.
In the view of family members, “science has taken things,” such as pulp and paper mills, which they believe were driven out of business by environmental regulation. They do not seem to grasp science’s connection to lucrative high-tech jobs, clean water and good medical care, she said.
But that experience has helped prepare her to talk about science and its role in making policy as she travels across Colorado collecting names of would-be donors and campaign volunteers.
“You’ve got to humanize it,” she said. “My father and I are still learning how to talk politics.”
Colorado is a state that voted for the Democratic presidential candidate in each of the last three elections; Hillary Clinton’s margin of victory was close to 5 percentage points. But it is still considered a purple state with strong conservative pockets.
In recent years, out-of-state money has played a prominent role in bankrolling conservative politicians. To challenge Gardner, Zornio would probably have to raise funds and woo supporters from across the country.
A classical pianist who identifies herself as an “official band geek,” Zornio helps organizes jazz, classical and musical theater performances all over Colorado. That experience is probably good practice for a political run, she said. Already, a planned musical event in Boulder in late June is looking more and more like a protest, she added.
On the issues, Zornio brings a background in healthcare and environmental sustainability to a run against Gardner. Over the next few years, she plans to ground herself in finance and economic issues in the same way she has always built expertise: as if she’s getting a Ph.D.
Zornio, who is single, said she has worked her “whole life to get to Stanford,” and she’s keenly aware that a political campaign would mean giving up a flourishing career in science.
But her career has also connected her to lots of patients facing death, and they have taught her an important lesson: “People really tend to regret the things they didn’t try.”