Lynchburg Business Editor Shelley Basinger: Peter, you’ve called Randolph College your home for quite a few years now.
Peter Sheldon: After getting my PhD in physics, I spent three years teaching in North Carolina before I started looking for tenure track positions. I applied to what was then Randolph-Macon Woman’s College to be a physics professor and got the job. That was 21 years ago.
SB: What attracted you to a small women’s college in Lynchburg?
PS: It was the opportunity to teach at a small, liberal-arts college where I could make a difference. Physics is a discipline which has traditionally been male-dominated.
I hoped to make an impact on educating a diverse workforce. One of the advantages of teaching at a small liberal arts college is you have a lot of autonomy and opportunities to make a difference by starting programs or making changes.
SB: What kind of growth have you seen since then?
PS: When I first came to the college, we averaged 0.6 majors a year. I told my counterpart at the time, I would like to have three majors a year. That seemed like a lot at the time. Now we have 10 majors a year. In those early days, there was no formal mechanism to take on research students in the summer. When I asked the Dean about this, she urged us to write a grant, and a number of us were able to start a summer research program for students. That’s been my focus in my 20+ years at the college. If I see a hole, I try to find people with similar aspirations, and we write grants and try to start programs.
SB: The Randolph College SUPER program is another big accomplishment.
PS: SUPER stands for “Step-Up to Physical Science and Engineering at Randolph College.” It’s a scholarship program and also a college transition program. It started as a math boot camp for students who want to be engineers, but now is for all students who want to study science. Two grants from the National Science Foundation helped make this program possible. At any one time, we will have 80-90 students at the college that are SUPER students. They receive mentoring, have to complete internships, and more. In the future, we are trying to find a way to make the program more sustainable, because we are coming to the end of the scholarship money.
SB: You’re also passionate about bringing science out into the public as well. Randolph College has become well known for its community science events.
PS: I strongly believe everyone needs to see the beauty of science, even physics. It’s interesting and it impacts all parts of our lives. I had always felt, even before becoming a physics professor, that not enough people appreciated science and that there weren’t enough women in science. In 2005, I had a student who was very enthusiastic and said, “Let’s start an outreach activity for kids.” So one Saturday we worked with the local schools and had 46 children on campus for some hands-on activities. We grew Science Day over the next three years but we had to limit it to students in grades 3-6. I went to a conference and got an idea from Neil deGrasse Tyson to expand Science Day into a Science Festival, so we could include people of all ages—including adults. That was in 2009 and it keeps growing every year. Last year we had 3,500 people come to the festival. This couldn’t have been done without a lot of people’s input and hard work—I’m really proud of this event.
SB: Another community effort you spearhead is mentoring local teachers. How does that work?
PS: Well, first of all, some people may not realize there is a shortage of scientists, and there are a lot of jobs in science fields. The shortage of science majors occurs a long time before students reach college. It’s partly because of the way we teach science early on. Students are naturally inquisitive and curious when they are 5 years old. And when they are 12 years old they aren’t and they may hate it because of the way science is taught—they do not see themselves as scientists.
A problem is that so many teachers aren’t trained to teach science, or they are not given the tools to teach it in an inclusive and engaging way. Since 1999, I have worked closely with Peggy Schimmoeller in the education department to get teachers the resources and ideas they need to be able to teach kids to be scientists with hands-on learning instead of teaching them from worksheets and books.
We model classroom activities for students through video projects and workshops.
SB: How would you describe your leadership style?
PS: I think it’s important to move forward forcefully while keeping your head down. Stop talking or complaining about it, and just get things done. Don’t seek attention. Get a good group of people around you, a good team, and don’t try to take credit for everything. When you work hard, people know that you work hard. I see it as a problem that so many people feel like they need to broadcast how hard they work—we all work hard, and if you work harder than others, people will notice even if you do not tell them.
SB: What kinds of things do you do to stay organized?
PS: You see a lot of people with really messy offices. I have to keep mine clean.
I also keep an electronic task list and every day I’ve got a method of reorganizing my tasks. Beyond task lists, I use a lot of great productivity software. For me, organization really revolves around finding the right software that I can work with because I keep everything on my computer. I use no paper—ever. If someone gives me paper, I scan in it and save it on my computer.
SB: How do you deal with conflict when it arises?
PS: Yeah… I’m really bad at that.
SB: It’s awesome that you admit that right away.
PS: People who know me well know that I’m conflict-avoidant. I truly don’t understand why there ever needs to be conflict, and I try to set up situations so it doesn’t happen. But if there is conflict, one thing I try to do is wait until there is a good time to deal with it rather than jumping on a response right away.
SB: To close, what’s life like for you outside of work? How do you relieve stress and decompress?
PS: I’m pretty good at not being stressed. But I have a running partner and we have theoretically run every day, five miles a day, since we started running together in 2011. We run together every day that we are both in town. It not only helps me stay fit, it also helps me sleep better. And everyone knows physical activity helps with stress.