Saxe Credits Sen. Franken with Teaching her D.C. Rhythm

For Karen Saxe, the road to Washington started with maps in Minnesota.

Saxe, a mathematics professor at Macalester College in St. Paul, was asked to review the redistricting plans being drawn up by Minnesota lawmakers after the 2010 census. Legislative and congressional districts are judged in part on how compact they are, and Saxe helped a citizen’s group mathematically analyze the proposed lines and recommend improvements.

“We went around the state having open town-hall forums, listening to the public on what they wanted out of their districts,” she said. “Often state representatives and state senators would show up at those, and mayors and city people who were charged with doing their city council redistricting.”

Getting to know those public officials led Saxe to apply for a AAAS Science and Technology Policy fellowship (a joint program with AMS), which she spent in the Washington office of her home-state senator, Al Franken. And two years later, she’s coming back to lead the D.C. office of the American Mathematical Society.

“I think she had a good year in Sen. Franken’s office, and she’s very interested in this kind of work,” said Sam Rankin, the society’s current ambassador to Washington, who’s retiring at the end of the year.

Saxe will be helping the nearly 30,000-member AMS craft strategies for science-friendly public policies, frequently working with other scientific societies like AAAS. Much of that will involve advocating for science and education funding as Congress crafts the federal budget. It’s been an increasingly thorny process in recent years, as lawmakers have been funding the government through a series of stopgap spending bills – a process Rankin called disappointing.

“For the last several years, it seems that we don’t get anything done,” he said, adding, “The importance of the legislation doesn’t seem to be the driving force. It seems to be, ‘What can I do to get one step ahead of my adversary?’ It’s better to have collegiality.”

Saxe said her 2013-2014 fellowship in Franken’s office helped her learn the “rhythm and pace” of Congress and the role that advocacy groups like AMS play. 

“I have a better feel for how legislation gets worked through the various committees and the importance of committees in the House and the Senate,” she said. And she got to meet a cross-section of Franken’s constituents, “day in and day out.”

“One hour it would be a whole bunch of students coming in talking about student loans. The next minute, it would be a group of much older, much more educated people. I got to meet so many different constituents that I personally, and also on behalf the senator, might agree with or not agree with.”

Saxe describes herself as “a little bit conflict-averse,” and the current Washington climate leaves her a little worried.

“I’m more about trying to work out compromise,” she said. “So we’ll see what happens.”

But Rankin said Saxe’s experience in both the academic and policy worlds should help her hit the ground running.

“Most of our membership are college faculty. She’ll be able to interact with them in a very easy way,” he said. “She knows the environment of academia. She knows the quirks of mathematicians.”

It’s a kind of homecoming for Saxe, who was born in the District but grew up mostly in New Jersey. After getting a Ph.D. at the University of Oregon, she moved to Minnesota in 1989. After a two-year post-doctoral appointment at another St. Paul school, she took a teaching job at Macalester in 1991. She recently stepped down as chair of her department.

Mathematicians have a huge interest in both education and research funding, she said – particularly the budget of the National Science Foundation, currently about $7.5 billion.

And mathematicians work with other scientists to help model large-scale problems like climate change or the spread of the Zika virus, and basic research funding supports those projects. “It’s not on the scope of anything like building telescopes,” but federal support is key to funding that work, she said. And since most mathematicians work at universities, keeping them well-funded is important to the discipline as well.

“There’s many more math classes taught in universities than any other subject – any other science, for sure. That involves hiring a lot of graduate students,” Saxe said. “That’s something that we’re quite interested in out of the NSF.”

[The image associated with this article is courtesy of Macalester College.]