Jackie Speier was a young congressional staffer looking into human rights abuses by cult leader Jim Jones and his followers, when she and her investigative team were ambushed. Speier was shot five times and her boss, Congressman Leo Ryan, was among more than 900 people who died in the mass murder-suicide known as the Jonestown Massacre.
Now in Congress herself, Speier, a California Democrat, holds the same House seat that Ryan once did. She talked with STAT about how her near-death experience all those years ago has given her an urgency and a fearlessness that allow her to face down Republicans, the National Rifle Association, and sexism in science.
You recently spoke out on the House floor about sexism in science. Why is this issue so important to you?
After I made that speech on the floor, I heard from 44 victims. This issue has the impact of either chasing women out of science, or sucking it up and tolerating it. In either case, they’re scarred for life. It’s just not acceptable. This is a huge black eye for institutions of higher learning and we’ve got to address it.
Where do you start?
First, you’ve got to admit that [sexism] exists and stop putting it under the rug, which I think has been historically what has happened. And then you have to follow the money [from government research grants]. The most important change that has to take place is within the culture, but oftentimes that doesn’t happen unless it is linked to either power or money.
Do you see gun violence as a health issue?
There’s no question that gun violence is part of the health crisis. Two-thirds of those who die from gun violence are suicides. Just the fact that we don’t even allow research into gun violence when we spend $240 million on traffic safety, $230 million on food safety … But we can’t spend a dime on the effects of gun violence on health?
Obviously, this is an issue you take personally?
I have the personal and emotional scars associated with gun violence. I’m fortunate enough to have lived, but it’s a traumatic experience, and one that lasts your entire life.
Do you think science generally is more at risk today because of politics?
I’m optimistic that there’s a resurgence in support for funding for [the National Institutes of Health]. Diseases know no party affiliations. We can’t stop research from moving forward and saving people’s lives. I think that has started to have currency apart from party affiliation — and that’s reassuring.
What do you see as the biggest issue facing medicine today?
The number one issue is Alzheimer’s. Not only is it a huge traumatic experience for those who are diagnosed with it and their families, it is going to break the Medicare bank if we don’t find some ways of arresting the impact.
You’re working on a book now about your life. Any message from it that you want to reveal?
One of my favorite quotations is that “Life shouldn’t be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving in a well preserved body, but rather to be totally used up and worn out, martini in one hand, chocolate in the other, screaming what a ride!” I tell my kids I want a mariachi band playing at my funeral.