Associate Professor of Mathematics Courtney Gibbons

Courtney Gibbons’ interest in public policy began with the 1988 presidential election and a passionate defense of a vegetable. It’s an unexpected start to a story about a math professor — until you learn she is spending the academic year working on Capitol Hill.

At age 6, Gibbons turned the hallways of her elementary school into a campaign trail by frequently wearing a Michael Dukakis for President button. Her parents weren’t political but had friends who were, and “stumping for Dukakis and being pretty excited about him” set the stage for her interest in political figures and policy.

Then came the moment President George H.W. Bush publicly shared that he didn’t like broccoli.

Stock image of broccoliA young Gibbons, taken aback by the “irresponsible” comment, took matters into her own hands by writing him a letter that included sage advice on how he might make the green plant taste better:

“Just put some cheese on it.”

Gibbons, now an associate professor of mathematics at Hamilton, remains the kind of person who sees opportunity in every challenge and doesn’t shy away from working through the issue at hand. In fact, she often runs toward problems at full speed. That’s what happened in seventh grade when she failed the subject she teaches now.

“I remember thinking, ‘I’m pissed and I’m going to finish math!’ And here I am, still working on that,” she quips. “I’ve learned that, for me, being good at math means being good at being stuck. I hate feeling stuck, but I’ve become comfortable with it. I like puzzles. I like trying to figure things out. I’m patient with feeling stuck and working through the process in front of me.”

“For me, being good at math means being good at being stuck. I like trying to figure things out.”

That lifelong lesson is helping in her latest endeavor: Gibbons is part of the 50th class of Science and Technology Policy Legislative Branch Fellows selected to serve on Capitol Hill for 2022-23, and is one of two fellows sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), selected out of a pool of 150 applicants. Each year, the AAAS places fellows in the federal government’s executive, judicial, and legislative branches where they apply their STEM training to work on policy development and implementation. She first learned of the fellowship while attending graduate school at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

“I was studying a theoretical area of math that didn’t have a ton of immediately obvious applications, and there was a part of me that thought, ‘I want to do something to make this country and world better,’” she says. “When I learned about the fellowship, it was fun to think about working on Capitol Hill at some point in my career.”

In 2021, as she began planning for her second sabbatical, one of Gibbons’ mentors reminded her about the fellowship and urged her to apply. Since September, she’s been working with the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and in the office of its chairman, U.S. Senator Gary Peters from Michigan.

“As I researched the various offices, I noticed that this one is responsible for a lot of bipartisan legislation, which was attractive to me,” Gibbons says. “I thought that in order to be effective, I wanted to learn how to do more bipartisan work. And this is a great office to do that in.” Her fellowship mentor, Matthew Cornelius, is a senior professional staff member who sponsored her place among the staff because he shares her excitement about all things data. “Matthew has taught me a lot — not just how the Senate works, but how to really be part of the team.”

Gibbons’ workload varies depending on whether or not Congress is in session. Each day is different and comes with new research questions and problems to tackle on topics ranging from artificial intelligence to equity in grant funding. Gibbons enjoys chipping away at them to get the information she and her colleagues need. 

“I noticed that [the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee] is responsible for a lot of bipartisan legislation ... I thought in order to be effective, I wanted to learn how to do more bipartisan work.”

In addition to the vast technical expertise she brings, Gibbons meets with constituents and people with specific expertise, interests, or passion projects that intersect with her portfolio of work. She also researches topics with help from the Congressional Research Service (“academic librarian superheroes,” as she calls them), and she writes — a lot: memos, emails, invitations, summaries, and “really good questions that make someone actually return your email or call.” Each part of the fellowship has helped her understand how valuable her passion for process and mathematical training is to her host office’s work.

“I didn’t think my math was that meaningful to the government, but as I meet people, I realize we do need a lot of math in the government because there are a lot of problems that require modeling,” explains Gibbons, whose research area is commutative algebra. “Government offices need to figure out how we will use things like blockchain, and they need to understand algorithms, runtime, and the size of the dataset they’re using.”

At times, Gibbons’ work in Washington, D.C., has included topics she had infused into her classes back on College Hill. In one previous course, Math and Social Context, her students discussed why there aren’t crash-test dummies shaped like women. Through the fellowship, Gibbons worked with an office that sponsored a bill in the last Congress about the issue and has gotten to help “figure out how we make cars safer for women without making them an afterthought.” Seeing up close how essential math is to policy has given her ideas for future course topics and a new perspective on how her students can make an impact.

“I’ll come back to Hamilton with a stronger sense of how math and STEM students can find a way to take their skills and move into policy,” Gibbons says. “We need champions for math and science in the government because we don’t know the benefits of every project or initiative until we do the math and see the application sometimes. Our students and graduates who love math can make a big difference in public policy. It all comes down to the people in the room working on the issue. We know how smart Hamilton students are. Wouldn’t it be great to have more of them in that room?”

“Our students and graduates who love math can make a big difference in public policy. We know how smart Hamilton students are. Wouldn’t it be great to have more of them in that room?”

As her time on Capitol Hill draws to a close, Gibbons is glad to have had the experience of working in Washington — and other challenges that life brings. She became a mom just as the fellowship program’s orientation was underway in September. Ben, who was born 10 weeks early, is “doing great” (and constantly wears his Hamilton gear), while Gibbons and her partner have been adjusting to their new lives as parents while she simultaneously works to make the world just a little better. True to form, she’s gaining confidence that she can work through this new process. As for Ben? He’s already teaching Mom new things about what it really means to be stuck.

“This poor little human can’t do anything for himself right now. He’s in a state of perpetual stuck-ness,” Gibbons says. “While I’m frustrated because I’ve got these work things to understand, he is trying to figure out what his hands are. It puts it all in perspective.”

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