Science Magazine: One of Indiana’s new congressmen is a Vietnam veteran, a farmer … and a scientist
The infantrymen whom Jim Baird led in Vietnam fondly called him “pig farmer” because of his passion for breeding pigs. Now, nearly a half-century after he was helicoptered out of a firefight in which he lost his left arm, Baird answers to a new moniker: congressman.
He’s the only rookie legislator with a science Ph.D. on the newly reformulated science committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. And he’s the only Republican among the three members of the 37-person panel holding such a degree.
Last year, some four dozen candidates touted their scientific training in seeking a seat in Congress. All but a few were Democrats, and most were harsh critics of how science has fared under President Donald Trump.
Not Baird, who ran as a self-proclaimed “conservative Republican” in the solidly red Indiana district where he grew up that stretches west from the suburbs of Indianapolis. Although he earned a doctorate in animal nutrition from the University of Kentucky (UK) in Lexington in 1975, during the campaign Baird instead chose to highlight his military service, including his year in Vietnam in 1970–71, his farming background, and the 4 decades he spent as a small businessman.
The strategy worked brilliantly. Running a bare-bones, mostly self-financed campaign for an open seat, Baird upset the presumed favorite in the Republican primary—the brother of the man that Hoosiers last fall elected to the U.S. Senate, no less—and then trounced his Democratic opponent in November 2018. He was sworn into office on 3 January.
Last week, Baird won a seat on the agriculture committee, his first choice, giving him a voice on issues vital to his rural district. He also agreed to serve on the science committee. It’s a much less prestigious post—Republicans are still scrambling to fill two vacancies among their 17 slots—but one that Baird feels he’s eminently qualified to take on.
“Well, I think I understand science,” Baird told ScienceInsider yesterday. “I’ve done research. I’m also used to looking at the raw data, analyzing it, and leaving out my biases.”
School, then service
Baird grew up on a family farm in west central Indiana and earned both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in animal sciences at Purdue University in nearby West Lafayette. His master’s thesis on gestation management systems in swine stemmed not just from his upbringing, he says, but also from learning that “mammalian tissue is very similar at the cellular level across species.”
Ty Cline, who spent 40 years on the Purdue faculty before retiring in 2005, claims some of the credit for turning Baird on to the intricacies of animal nutrition and how to apply it to improve performance and production in livestock. Now retired, Cline taught Baird as both an undergraduate and graduate student. “His father and I had been in the swine business,” recalls Cline, who grew up on a farm in central Illinois and says a love for teaching pushed him into an academic career.
Baird aimed to take the much more common path into industry. But in 1969, the Vietnam War was still raging, and Uncle Sam was calling. About to be drafted, Baird won a short respite to finish his master’s degree before enlisting.
In December 1970, Baird found himself an Army infantry officer leading a platoon of the 523rd Transportation Company in the central highlands of Vietnam. It was running cargo convoys to support an offensive by the U.S.-backed Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) that was designed to undermine an expected invasion the next year by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) from just south of the demilitarized zone in Laos.
Ultimately, it was a futile mission. U.S. ground troops were being withdrawn, and the ARVN forces weren’t able to slow the NVA buildup. But it was a seminal experience for Baird. “I wouldn’t want to do it again, but I learned a lot about myself,” says Baird, who was seriously wounded in a 12 March 1971 attack that killed the driver of the gun truck he was commanding. “Most people don’t realize their strengths and weaknesses. But I’m happy in my skin, and I’m content with what I’ve done in my life.”
Now 73, Baird has worked as an animal nutritionist for a farmer co-op and feed companies and well as running Baird Family Farms and a home health care company. In 2006, he ran successfully for county commissioner, and he spent 8 years in the Indiana state legislature before resigning to seek the congressional seat being vacated by Republican Todd Rokita, who lost his bid for governor.
But after returning from Vietnam and recovering from his injuries, Baird’s first order of business was to earn his Ph.D. at UK, where he had been accepted before entering the military. A rudimentary prosthesis interfered with his ability to work in the lab, but he persisted.
“Jim faced and overcame more obstacles than any other student I’ve had” during a 50-year career, recalls Gary Cromwell, a retired professor of swine nutrition and recent inductee to UK’s Animal and Food Sciences Hall of Fame. “Doing research with pigs is hard work,” he adds, “but he was bound and determined to finish. And he’s a tough kid.”
Baird says he didn’t know where his degree would lead him, but both his former professors suspect that economic factors strongly influenced his choice of careers. “The pay is so much better in industry,” Cline says. Cromwell adds: “A Ph.D. would open up a lot more doors in the feed industry.”
Although Baird didn’t enter politics until his seventh decade, Cline says he’s not surprised at his former student’s electoral success. “He was always well-liked,” Cline recalls. “And those type of people have a chance to make it in politics.”
Baird points to his military experience as a more direct reason. “I’m a decorated combat Vietnam veteran, and I care a lot about this country,” he says. “I’m not sure that there are a lot of other people who feel as strongly.”
Questions and answers
Although he largely ignored his academic credentials on the campaign trail, Baird thinks they played a vital role in his work in the feed and livestock industry. “Over the years we’ve made some significant improvements in the performance of animals and in improving production efficiency,” he says, citing how the average weight of a hog at slaughter has risen by as much as 50% since he entered the business. “And that’s because we understand the nutritional cycle much better.”
Nor is Baird above showing off that knowledge. During the interview, Baird suddenly sprung a quiz on this reporter. “You write for Science. Do you know the 10 essential amino acids?” he asked.
After I admitted my ignorance, Baird offered a mnemonic—TT HALL, I’M Vice President—and then rattled off their names: “threonine, tryptophan, histidine, alanine, lysine, leucine, isoleucine, methionine, valine, and phenylalanine. And I can spell them, too.”
It was meant to be an impressive feat of long-term memory. But Baird is not quite correct according to most biochemistry textbooks, which say that there are only nine essential amino acids. (“Essential” means the body doesn’t produce them and thus, they must be supplied through one’s diet.) And none of them puts alanine in that category. Rather, alanine is classified as nonessential.
At the same time, Baird didn’t specify whether he was talking just about humans or was referring to mammals in general. If the latter, it’s possible to make the case for a 10th amino acid—arginine—being essential for young rats and other organisms. So Baird may well have been taught that livestock need arginine, too, thus upping the total to 10.
Randy Wadkins, a biochemistry professor at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, gave a lecture this week to undergraduates on the 20 common amino acids that make up life on earth. Humans “can make all but nine of the normal 20, and therefore those nine must come from our diets,” he explains.
Wadkins also happens to have run for Congress last year—as a Democrat, losing by a wide margin to the Republican incumbent. Even so, Wadkins is willing to give Baird the benefit of the doubt. “Although I am a solid Democrat, a Republican with some biochemical knowledge on [the science] committee makes me happy,” Wadkins says.
Baird is much less precise when talking about scientific matters beyond amino acids, however. Asked whether he feels the federal government should spend more—or less—on basic research and whether there are any particular areas he would like to see increased, Baird said, “I’ll have to look at that as I move onto the [science] committee.”
His answers to questions about what the government should do to reduce carbon emissions or combat climate change were equally evasive. “I’ll have to look at their data once I start on the committee,” he says. “I’m a data man, and we’ll just have to take a look at that.”