Dr. David Sanders, a 43-year-old associate professor of biological sciences at Purdue University, is running for Congress, challenging Republican incumbent Steve Buyer for the 4th District seat. Sanders’ area of expertise is biochemistry, a field responsible for the creation of gene therapy techniques.
Health care, weapons of mass destruction, human cloning, stem cell research — the issues facing public officials today have obvious scientific origins, and, even though the solutions may not be scientific, having a ready understanding of science is something that sets Sanders apart from the crowd.
The Ebola virus has been a focal point of his research. He and his research partners have successfully modified the Ebola virus to deliver beneficial material into defective cells. They’ve also figured out how to simplify the genetic structure of their creation so that it can be easily reproduced — a new innovation in gene therapy.
Sanders’ Ebola research precipitated an invitation for him to participate in the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, a program to prevent the knowledge and expertise used to create biological weapons and weapons of mass destruction from crossing into unstable nations where it may be used for terror.
“I do not believe that invading a country on the off chance that they may have weapons of mass destruction is the correct approach,” Sanders said. The purpose of the Nunn-Lugar program is to bring isolated scientists into the international community where they can do civilian research.
“If we’re going to talk about fighting terror,” Sanders said, “one of the things we need to do is fight the fear associated with terror.” Carefully evaluating intelligence information and controlling mass media sensationalism are ways to combat that fear, he said. The Patriot Act is an obvious failure.
“As one restricts rights,” Sanders said, “one is allowing the terrorists to win.” Death is only part of the equation. Terrorists also aim to disrupt the normal operations of society. The denial of rights to Americans is a direct effect that terror has had on the democratic process.
Sanders, a father of three, adjusts his baseball cap to block the mid-morning sun. From an observation deck, he surveys the waters of Eagle Creek Reservoir, blurred silver by the azure mid-morning sky. Sanders chose Eagle Creek as a meeting place because to him it represents one of the major responsibilities of a statesman: the environment.
Another aspect of Sanders’ work has been bacterial processes. They contribute about two-thirds of the natural sources of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Sanders says that there is an overwhelming consensus in the scientific community that global warming is occurring and that human fossil fuel use contributes to it.
“The only people left who do not believe that global warming is occurring are Republican members of Congress and right-wing radio talk show hosts,” said Sanders, who advocates the conservation of energy as a primary solution to an obvious bottleneck in the national and world economies (dependency on petroleum).
Sanders pauses for a moment to point out a sunning turtle to his son Akiva, who has come along for the hike before starting down a gravel path towards the water. Sanders’ curriculum vitae — Yale, UC Berkeley, the Whitehead Institute (MIT) — might suggest elite intellectualism, but he is the opposite: accessible, friendly and eager.
“David is sincere, diligent, committed to service,” said Roberta Schonemann, a retired mathematics educator and academic advisor at Purdue. Schonemann has known Sanders since 2000, when they were brought together by a shared interest in campaign finance reform.
“He is deeply committed to progressive causes,” she said. Affordable health care is one of his top priorities. Sanders believes that expensive health care is one of the main reasons so many jobs leave the country. Many manufacturing jobs, he said, have gone to Canada, where health costs are spread evenly throughout society.
Sanders also opposes any amendment to the Constitution for social engineering, such as efforts to make English the national language and to get prayer in schools. Sanders points to prohibition as a historical failure to engineer society.
Following a gravel trail from the water’s edge back into the shaded forest, Sanders’ voice fills with joy as he mentions what a privilege it is to live in America. Incredibly rich, diverse and beautiful — ensuring that America remains so, Sanders says, is his real political goal.