Each year, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) places fellows in the executive, judicial, and legislative branches of the federal government where they can use their STEM training to work on policy development and implementation. This year 300 fellows—scientists, mathematicians, and engineers with a wide array of expertise, from rare genetic diseases to energy resiliency—have been assigned to the three branches.
Hamilton College Associate Professor of Mathematics Courtney Gibbons was selected as one of only two Science and Technology Policy Legislative Branch Fellows funded by the AAAS this year. Gibbons earned her Ph.D. in mathematics in 2013 from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.
She began her new role working with the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in September. Twenty-nine additional congressional fellows are funded through other societies.
Fellows learn about policymaking while directly applying their technical skills in service of the greater good. A legislative branch fellow might meet with constituents, write policy briefs, or draft and negotiate legislation. Gibbons hopes to use her mathematical training to assist in tackling problems of interest to her host office.
“I’ve been contributing to the office by being another set of eyes on quantitative analyses,” Gibbons said. “One of my responsibilities is bringing ideas to the table, so I’m primarily learning what the committee’s jurisdiction is, how everything functions, and where my expertise and interests will be most valuable.”
In applying for the position, Gibbons wrote that she had been planning on pursuing the Science and Technology Policy Fellowship (STPF) since her time as a grad student at Nebraska. But her interest in policy started much earlier, when as a child she wrote to the President George H. W. Bush to express disapproval for his public shaming of broccoli. She even offered the president a tasty broccoli recipe along with an explanation of its nutritional value.
In a more serious vein, she wrote, “In all aspects of my career—research, service, and especially teaching—I enjoy the challenge of communicating technical information to others, even when it requires making (metaphorical) broccoli more palatable to those who need it. The AAAS STPF program is an extension of my career development: using my skills as an educator and technical researcher together to reach audiences beyond my students and academic peers.”
At Hamilton, Gibbons enjoys helping students understand tricky math concepts. The goal, she said, is to engage students and encourage them to think independently.
“I was the kind of student where you could tell me 20 times but until I figured out how to say it for myself, I just didn’t get it,” she said.
Gibbons’s willingness to connect with students made her a natural fit at Hamilton College, according to Richard Bedient, a former chair of the school’s math department. With an enrollment of about 2,000 students, the college maintains a closely knit community.
Gibbons’s interests also led her to the Association for Women in Mathematics, where she served on the policy and advocacy committee and the executive committee. Her advocacy work also includes working at a college program for incarcerated men and AGAM, a high school cryptography camp for high school students in Nebraska. Now as a AAAS Congressional Science & Engineering Fellow, she said she’s most excited about learning the inner workings of policymaking.
Her adventurous fellowship year has been made even more so by her status as a brand-new mother to baby Ben, who arrived unexpectedly early during the annual two-week STPF orientation in September.
As a newcomer to Washington, Gibbons said she’s immensely grateful for the community of fellows: “We just moved here and we have a baby and it already feels like we’ve got a support network—that’s just really amazing.”
– Elyse DeFranco, AAAS; Eileen Foote, Hamilton College; and Austin Mirmina, New Haven Register