We need a system for keeping conspiracy kooks out of office. Here's what that might entail.

One of the greatest things about the American experiment is the idea of self-rule, "a government of the people, by the people, for the people." Instead of power being held by a ruling class or monarchical dynasty, we routinely elect our leaders from among the citizenry to represent us in the government.

It's a system that works well when the representatives we choose are among the best of us. But the fact that virtually anyone can serve as an elected official also leaves us open to potentially disastrous leadership. We could end up with, say, a malignant narcissist autocrat wannabe or a kooky conspiracy theorist in positions of power—a reality that clearly puts the security of the entire country in danger.

The Constitution stipulates the requirements for holding office, and they are extremely simple by design. To serve in Congress, you have to be 25 years old, a citizen for at least seven years, and live in the area you represent. To serve as President, you have to be 35 years old, a natural-born citizen of the U.S. and have lived in the country for 14 years.

That's it. Super basic. On paper, a guy who collects trash for a living (a noble job—no criticism) is as qualified to be president or a member of Congress as a professor of constitutional law. There are no educational qualifications and no previous job or relevant experience required. There are also no psychological screenings, meaning that, theoretically, a literal psychopath serial killer could be elected to the position that controls the nuclear codes.


A viral video shared by "Politics Girl" highlights how absurdly weird it is that people can get a job in the most powerful positions in our government without being the least bit qualified:

It's true. There is no official vetting process. And while there are some constitutional disqualifications—such as participating in rebellion or insurrection (ahem), impeachment when included as part of a conviction (double ahem), and not taking the oath of office—most attempts to create additional qualifications have been deemed unconstitutional.

There's wisdom in that. Adding official qualifications is a slippery slope, and most of what we could come up with would be arbitrary anyway.

Relevant job experience is a definite plus for a person seeking public service, no doubt. But one strength of our representative system is the diversity of experience and perspectives it inevitably brings to the table. Having lawmakers who come from a spectrum of careers and backgrounds is a good thing, and can help ensure that more Americans are seen and heard in our government.

What about education? Most of us would agree that an elected official should be smart and knowledgeable. But how do we measure that? Quality of education can vary greatly, rendering specific levels of education virtually meaningless. Earning a degree might indicate an ability and willingness to learn and work, but it is not a guarantee of intelligence or relevant knowledge. People who haven't gone to college might have gained skills and insights through service to their community that would be more valuable to governance than book learning. And since there are barriers that make higher education inaccessible for some Americans, having an education requirement would be an unjust form of gatekeeping.

They have to at least know about government, though, right? A certain understanding of civics seems like a logical prerequisite, but how do we measure that? Do we create a test a person has to pass before they can get on a ballot? Might not be a bad idea, but would that actually solve the real problem we're looking at? A constitutional law degree doesn't make someone conscientious, and a genocidal maniac could study and pass a civics test.

So how about a psychological screening of some sort? Again, not a bad idea on the surface, but here we run into the issue of who conducts it and what they should look for. Would there actually be a set of dealbreaker diagnoses that would disqualify someone? Or would we just provide the results to the public and let them decide themselves whether a person is fit to serve?

The problem there, of course, is that mental health issues that shouldn't preclude someone from serving—an anxiety disorder, for example—could unfairly lead people away from a candidate due to the stigma attached to mental health. There's a huge difference between a run-of-the-mill mental health issue and a full-blown dangerous personality disorder, but any diagnosis could be weaponized. Where and how do we draw the line?

Since party politics is a feature of our system (one that George Washington warned us against, for good reason), some make the argument that the parties themselves need to vet candidates before they get on the primary ballots. A Brookings Institute report from 2018 pointed out that activist groups have begun producing more candidates, which is leading to more underqualified, ideologically extremist candidates. If we're going to have a two-party system, those two parties need to ensure that the candidates in their parties aren't total whack jobs. The suggestion made by the report authors is "to strengthen the position of the institutional parties so that they maintain voice and influence in the process of developing candidacies—not instead of voters and activists, but alongside them."

But what happens if a party itself moves farther to the extremes, either because of the candidates that are getting attention or because the social reality has pushed the voters in that direction? (Ahem, QAnon.)

And isn't partisan politics itself a big reason we're in this spot? A system that places people in two distinct boxes is inevitably going to lead to extremism, as parties resort to increasing demonization of the other side as they vie for power and influence.

Lee Drutman, senior fellow at the New America think tank, wrote about why we need multiple parties in the U.S. in 2019:

"Under the two-party system, U.S. politics are stuck in a deep partisan divide, with no clear winner and only zero-sum escalation ahead. Both sides see themselves as the true majority. Republicans hold up maps of the country showing a sea of red and declare America a conservative country. Democrats win the popular vote (because most Americans live in and around a handful of densely populated cities) and declare America a progressive country.

The only way to break this destructive stalemate is to break the electoral and party system that sustains and reinforces it. The United States is divided into red and blue not because Americans want only two choices. In poll after poll, majorities want more than two political parties."

Expanding our options beyond Republican and Democrat sounds like a fabulous idea in my book.

In the meantime, we the people are still left to vet the people who get put on the ballot. So maybe the answer in the short term is to 1) Encourage and enable better candidates to run for office, and 2) Educate and encourage the voting populace to do a better job of vetting. Relying on a candidate's own messaging isn't enough. What have they actually done in their communities? What have they said in public or on social media? Look at various media sources to see what kinds of red flags may have been spotted.

Of course, this process only works if people actually care about not having kooky conspiracy theorists and malignant narcissist authoritarians in our government. Ultimately, when we start electing highly problematic people to lead us, that's a reflection of where we are as a society. And unfortunately, there's no quick fix for a voting populace that doesn't recognize when an elected official is an actual danger to the country and when they're just being subject to partisan attacks. (A good hint to the former is when members of the official's own party, especially one that tends to stick together, speak out and say, "Yeah, this is a bridge too far.")

Answers here aren't obvious or simple, but it's clear we need to do something different. The way we're going now, we very well could end up with a psychopathic serial killer in Congress. And my biggest fear is that a good portion of the nation wouldn't even blink an eye if we did.

The airline industry was one of the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, as global and domestic travel came to a screeching halt last spring. When the pandemic was officially declared in March of 2020, no one knew what to expect or how long the timeline of lockdowns and life changes would last.

Two weeks after the declaration, Delta pilot Chris Dennis flew one of the airline's planes to Victorville, CA for storage. He shared photos on Facebook that day of empty planes neatly lined up, saying it was a day he would remember for the rest of his life.

"Chilling, apocalyptic, surreal...all words that still don't fit what is happening in the world," he wrote. "Each one of these aircraft represents hundreds of jobs, if not more."

He added:

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The airline industry was one of the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, as global and domestic travel came to a screeching halt last spring. When the pandemic was officially declared in March of 2020, no one knew what to expect or how long the timeline of lockdowns and life changes would last.

Two weeks after the declaration, Delta pilot Chris Dennis flew one of the airline's planes to Victorville, CA for storage. He shared photos on Facebook that day of empty planes neatly lined up, saying it was a day he would remember for the rest of his life.

"Chilling, apocalyptic, surreal...all words that still don't fit what is happening in the world," he wrote. "Each one of these aircraft represents hundreds of jobs, if not more."

He added:

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True

Each year, an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States are affected by cancer — most commonly cancers of the breast, lung, prostate, and blood cancers such as leukemia. While not everyone overcomes the disease, thanks to science, more people are surviving — and for longer — than ever before in history.

We asked three people whose lives have been impacted by cancer to share their stories – how their lives were changed by the disease, and how they're using that experience to change the future of cancer treatments with the hope that ultimately, in the fight against cancer, science will win. Here's what they had to say.

Celine Ryan, 55, engineer database programmer and mother of five from Detroit, MI

Photo courtesy of Celine Ryan

In September 2013, Celine Ryan woke up from a colonoscopy to some traumatic news. Her gastroenterologist showed her a picture of the cancerous mass they found during the procedure.

Ryan and her husband, Patrick, had scheduled a colonoscopy after discovering some unusual bleeding, so the suspicion she could have cancer was already there. Neither of them, however, were quite prepared for the results to be positive -- or for the treatment to begin so soon. Just two days after learning the news, Ryan had surgery to remove the tumor, part of her bladder, and 17 cancerous lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and radiation soon followed.

Ryan's treatment was rigorous – but in December 2014, she got the devastating news that the cancer, once confined to her colon, had spread to her lungs. Her prognosis, they said, was likely terminal.

But rather than give up hope, Ryan sought support from online research, fellow cancer patients and survivors, and her medical team. When she brought up immunotherapy to her oncologist, he quickly agreed it was the best course of action. Ryan's cancer, like a majority of colon and pancreatic cancers, had been caused by a defect on the gene KRAS, which can result in a very aggressive cancer that is virtually "undruggable." According to the medical literature, the relatively smooth protein structure of the KRAS gene meant that designing inhibitors to bind to surface grooves and treat the cancer has been historically difficult. Through her support systems, Ryan discovered an experimental immunotherapy trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD., and called them immediately to see if she was eligible. After months of trying to determine whether she was a suitable candidate for the experimental treatment, Ryan was finally accepted.

The treatment, known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte therapy, or TIL, is a testament to how far modern science has evolved. With this therapy, doctors remove a tumor and harvest special immune cells that are found naturally in the tumor. Doctors then grow the cells in a lab over the next several weeks with a protein that promotes rapid TIL growth – and once the cells number into the billions, they are infused back into the patient's body to fight the cancer. On April 1, 2015, Ryan had her tumor removed at the NIH. Two months later, she went inpatient for four weeks to have the team "wash out" her immune system with chemotherapy and infuse the cells – all 148 billion of them – back into her body.

Six weeks after the infusion, Ryan and Patrick went back for a follow-up appointment – and the news they got was stunning: Not only had no new tumors developed, but the six existing tumors in her lungs had shrunk significantly. Less than a year after her cell infusion, in April 2016, the doctors told Ryan news that would have been impossible just a decade earlier: Thanks to the cell infusion, Ryan was now considered NED – no evaluable disease. Her body was cancer-free.

Ryan is still NED today and continuing annual follow-up appointments at the NIH, experiencing things she never dreamed she'd be able to live to see, such as her children's high school and college graduations. She's also donating her blood and cells to the NIH to help them research other potential cancer treatments. "It was an honor to do so," Ryan said of her experience. "I'm just thrilled, and I hope my experience can help a lot more people."

Patrice Lee, PhD, VP of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Exploratory Development at Pfizer

Photo courtesy of Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee got into scientific research in an unconventional way – through the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Lee never met Cousteau but her dreams of working with him one day led her to pursue a career in science. Initially, Lee completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology; eventually, her interests changed and she decided to get a dual doctoral degree in physiology and toxicology at Duke University. She now works at Pfizer's R&D site in Boulder, CO (formerly Array BioPharma), leading a group of scientists who determine the safety and efficacy of new oncology drugs.

"Scientists focused on drug discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry are deeply committed to inventing new therapies to meet unmet needs," Lee says, describing her field of work. "We're driven to achieve new medicines and vaccines as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety."

Among the drugs Lee has helped develop during her career, including cancer therapies, she says around a dozen are currently in development, while nine have received FDA approval — an incredible accomplishment as many scientists spend their careers without seeing their drug make it to market. Lee's team is particularly interested in therapies for brain metastases — something that Lee says is a largely unmet need in cancer research, and something her team is working on from a variety of angles. "Now that we've had rapid success with mRNA vaccine technology, we hope to explore what the future holds when applying this technology to cancers," Lee says.

But while evaluating potential cancer therapies is a professional passion of Lee's, it's also a mission that's deeply personal. "I'm also a breast cancer survivor," she says. "So I've been on the other side of things and have participated in a clinical trial."

However, seeing how melanoma therapies that she helped develop have affected other real-life cancer patients, she says, has been a highlight of her career. "We had one therapy that was approved for patients with BRAF-mutant metastatic melanoma," Lee recalls. "Our team in Boulder was graced by a visit from a patient that had benefited from these drugs that we developed. It was a very special moment for the entire team."

None of these therapies would be available, Lee says without rigorous science behind it: "Facts come from good science. Facts will drive the development of new drugs, and that's what will help patients."

Chiuying "Cynthia" Kuk (they/them) MS, 34, third-year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kuk

Cynthia Kuk was just 10 years old when they had a conversation that would change their life forever.

"My mother, who worked as a translator for the government at the time, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and after her chemotherapy treatments she would get really sick," Kuk, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls. "When I asked my dad why mom was puking so much, he said it was because of the medicine she was taking that would help her get better."

Kuk's response was immediate: "That's so stupid! Why would a medicine make you feel worse instead of better? When I'm older, I want to create medicine that won't make people sick like that."

Nine years later, Kuk traveled from their native Hong Kong to the United States to do exactly that. Kuk enrolled in a small, liberal arts college for their Bachelor's degree, and then four years later started a PhD program in cancer research. Although Kuk's mother was in remission from her cancer at the time, Kuk's goal was the same as it had been as a 10-year-old watching her suffer through chemotherapy: to design a better cancer treatment, and change the landscape of cancer research forever.

Since then, Kuk's mission has changed slightly.

"My mom's cancer relapsed in 2008, and she ended up passing away about five years after that," Kuk says. "After my mom died, I started having this sense of urgency. Cancer research is such that you work for twenty years, and at the end of it you might have a fancy medication that could help people, but I wanted to help people now." With their mother still at the forefront of their mind, Kuk decided to quit their PhD program and enter medical school.

Now, Kuk plans to pursue a career in emergency medicine – not only because they are drawn to the excitement of the emergency room, but because the ER is a place where the most marginalized people tend to seek care.

"I have a special interest in the LGBTQ+ population, as I identify as queer and nonbinary," says Kuk. "A lot of people in this community and other marginalized communities access care through the ER and also tend to avoid medical care since there is a history of mistreatment and judgement from healthcare workers. How you carry yourself as a doctor, your compassion, that can make a huge difference in someone's care."

In addition to making a difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ patients, Kuk wants to make a difference in the lives of patients with cancer as well, like their mother had.

"We've diagnosed patients in the Emergency Department with cancer before," Kuk says. "I can't make cancer good news but how you deliver bad news and the compassion you show could make a world of difference to that patient and their family."

During their training, Kuk advocates for patients by delivering compassionate and inclusive care, whether they happen to have cancer or not. In addition to emphasizing their patient's pronouns and chosen names, they ask for inclusive social and sexual histories as well as using gender neutral language. In doing this, they hope to make medicine as a whole more accessible for people who have been historically pushed aside.

"I'm just one person, and I can't force everyone to respect you, if you're marginalized," Kuk says. "But I do want to push for a culture where people appreciate others who are different from them."