Amanda Curtis

Courtesy of Amanda Curtis

Amanda Curtis

From high school math teacher to U.S. senator?

Jeff tries to explain how government works to readers of Science.

Amanda Curtis drew up a life plan in college that included studying biology in preparation for “spending time in the lab, working on a cure for cancer.” She envisioned that her research would be interrupted by stints in the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps, its U.S. counterpart.

Idealistic? Sure. But at 18, the Montana native saw that career path as a way to meld her love of science with her desire to improve the world.

Then life happened. Curtis did indeed graduate with a biology degree from Montana Tech, a branch of the University of Montana in Butte. But she began to rearrange her game plan after her future husband “asked me if I would consider working on a community scale rather than on a global scale.” That knocked out the PeaceCorps and AmeriCorps. A summer internship taking water samples at a plant in Butte that her father had helped build “made me realize I did not want to spend my life in the lab,” she says. Instead, Curtis chose the classroom, and for the past decade she has taught secondary school math and science in Butte and nearby Helena, the state capital.

Another thing her career plan didn’t mention was becoming the Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate. Last weekend, the 34-year-old Curtis signed up to battle U.S. Representative Steve Daines (R–MT) in a race that could help decide whether Democrats will retain control of the Senate.

How did Curtis, who earned a cult following last year with daily YouTube videos describing what it’s like to be a novice member of Montana’s part-time state legislature, step onto the national stage? In a word, plagiarism.

Earlier this month, the Democratic candidate for the Senate seat, John Walsh, dropped out of the race in the wake of media reports alleging that he had plagiarized much of a master’s thesis he submitted in 2007. Walsh was serving as Montana’s lieutenant governor when he was tapped by the governor in February to serve out the last 10 months of the term of Max Baucus, the state’s senior senator and Democratic kingpin. Baucus, who in 2013 had announced he wouldn’t seek a seventh term, had stepped down early to become ambassador to China.

On Saturday, the party faithful met in Helena to choose Walsh’s replacement and quickly settled on Curtis.

Walsh’s race against Daines, a businessman and first-time congressman who had run unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 2008, was expected to be close. But even her staunchest supporters admit that Curtis is a heavy underdog, with minimal name recognition statewide and a virtually empty campaign chest. “Realistically, there’s no way to compete in the standard media against Daines, who’s bought up almost all the television time there is,” says Jon Sesso, Democratic minority leader in the state Senate and a political mentor to Curtis.

But Curtis has one potential advantage, according to Sesso. “Amanda has done some amazing things with social media to connect with her constituents and allow them to become involved,” he says. “She really impressed people last year. So the race will be an experiment in whether a campaign that is essentially broke but that has drawn national attention can catch fire using some of the same tools she employed as a state legislator.”

This week, instead of preparing lesson plans for students arriving at Butte High School on 2 September, Curtis hit the road to begin a frantic, 11-week campaign. Between events in Billings, she spoke with ScienceInsider about her personal history and her message to voters that they need to “pay attention, get involved, make a difference.”

Q: Why did you decide to major in biology?

A: It was the class I most enjoyed in high school. I really liked the straightforward method of asking a question, gathering the information, deciding on something that was testable, testing that, and then working back through the process to circle in on the one right answer. It always appealed to my process of thinking.

I went right into college as a biology major, and I was one of the few students who didn’t change their major.

Q: Why Montana Tech?

A: Because no one in my immediate family had gone to college, filling out the [financial aid forms] and college applications wasn’t on our radar. And then I got a postcard from Pacific University, a school in Forest Grove, Oregon, and they said they would waive my application fee. So that was the application I filled out, because paying those fees was going to be hard for me. I got a lot of scholarships, too. I went there for one semester. But my brother had committed suicide on 22 May, and I went away to college in August. And in many ways I was still reeling from that. … So I decided to go back to Butte. My dad’s a laborer, and he would often work on short-term jobs. He was building a silicon plant outside of Butte. So it was way less expensive for me to go to school in Montana and get a job and share living expenses. So I enrolled in Montana Tech and continued with my biology degree.

Q: Did you always like math?

A: No, I really struggled with math in high school. In fact, when I took the entrance test for college, I was not ready to do college-level algebra. So the first math course I took was a remedial math course, at Pacific. At Montana Tech, I took it again and I think I scored one-tenth of one percentage point below the cutoff score for getting into a calculus class. And I said to them, “Listen, I can do this. Please put me in that Calculus 1 class.”

I wish I could give credit to that professor, but I don’t remember his name. But that professor laid out the beautiful picture that is calculus, and all of a sudden I understood it. It just clicked for me. And studies show that brain development works that way. I was just anatomically and physically ready.

Q: Your first teaching position was at a private school, right?

A: It was at Butte Central Catholic High School. I was looking for a job, and the only jobs open were in math. So I became a math teacher, and I’ve been one ever since. I have been able to share my experiences with my students. I probably say that to one student every week. I realize that math is literally a foreign language. But I tell them that, if I can do it, you can do it. That’s been my message about math, and that’s my message about politics.

Q: What’s harder, teaching or lawmaking?

A: I’d say teaching is the hardest job. When you’re a teacher, you carry a burden on your shoulders to shape the future. Everyone agrees that the country depends on education to solve our problems and create a society that works well for us, as human beings. There’s no more pressure you can put on a person than to say, if they show up, “You get these kids for 56 minutes a day, and you’re required to meet these standards.”

Of course, they didn’t meet the standards before coming to you, so you need to not only do this year’s work, you also need to catch them up from the past 3 years’ work. And you’re not worth paying more than X amount, and we don’t really like you very much. That’s the message that some Americans are sending teachers.

*Clarification, 21 August, 3:29 p.m.: This story has been revised to make clear that Curtis did not serve in the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps.

Posted in People & Events