A series tracking five scientists who are running for office.

Randy Wadkins

Randy Wadkins, a cancer drug researcher spurred to action by Trump's science skepticism

This is what now passes for a typical day in the life of Randy Wadkins, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Ole Miss:

In his biochem lab, he was overseeing work to boost the anti-tumor action of a class of cancer drugs called camptothecins. In his office, he was preparing a paper for publication in the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

And, as a declared candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives, he was getting ready for an evening chat with the Democratic Executive Committee of Alcorn County in northeastern Mississippi.

For Wadkins, the idea of running for office first took hold during the bruising presidential campaign.

Cancer researcher Randy Wadkins stands in front of the U.S. Capitol, where he hopes to represent a district in northern Mississippi. (Gifford Wong)
Cancer researcher Randy Wadkins stands in front of the U.S. Capitol, where he hopes to represent a district in northern Mississippi. (Gifford Wong)

First, he had grown uneasy with what he viewed as a drumbeat of anti-scientific rhetoric from candidate Donald Trump. After the election, Wadkins was appalled that President-elect Trump questioned the value and safety of vaccines, which Wadkins calls “the peak of biomedical knowledge.”

Then in March, the Trump administration unveiled a 2018 federal budget proposal that sought to slash federal funding for research on biomedicine, climate and the environment.

That, Wadkins said, “was the final straw.”

The Trump funding plan “would essentially destroy science and engineering as we know it,” he said. But that wasn’t all. With cuts to education, small business development and Meals on Wheels, the spending blueprint “would completely tank the Mississippi economy.”

Wadkins waited on the sidelines for someone to step forward and challenge Republican Rep. Trent Kelly, who won Mississippi’s 1st District seat in a 2015 special election. As it became clear no one would, the career scientist took stock of his assets.

Wadkins conducting an experiment. (Courtesy of Randy Wadkins)
Wadkins conducting an experiment. (Courtesy of Randy Wadkins)

Mississippi born and bred, he had spent his youth helping in his dad’s grocery store and fishing with stink-bait (“They smell it and they come-a-swimmin’,” he said), attributes that prove he’s anything but a carpet-bagger. As a tenured scientist with a record of solving complex problems, he had the brainpower to tackle the job. By focusing on cancer research, he had demonstrated a commitment to improving people’s lives. Plus, he had just spent a year immersing himself in healthcare policy as a science and technology congressional fellow in the Washington office of Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.).

Finally, Wadkins decided he was angry enough to put his academic career on hold and make a go of public office.

On April 18, at a town meeting in Oxford, Miss., Wadkins joined a group of some 200 citizens awaiting an appearance by Rep. Kelly. After it became apparent that the congressman was a no-show, Wadkins seized the opportunity to announce that he was making a bid for the seat.

“It’s a very strange thing to utter the words, ‘I’m running for Congress,’” Wadkins said. “If you pause and think about it, it’s a very terrifying thing. But I think about what Bruce Springsteen said when he was asked how he put himself out there every night. He said, ‘Your desperation has to be greater than your fear.’ And that’s where I am: My desperation is greater than my fear.”

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