Trevor Calarco
Trevor Calarco
January 12, 2020

Cynthia Peterson: Creating a "Science Community" at LSU

Trevor Calarco
Trevor Calarco

Cynthia Peterson, PhD, is Dean of the College of Science and Seola Arnaud and Richard V. Edwards Jr. Professor at Louisiana State University. Her passion for her school, her college and communicating the importance of science is evident when you speak with her.

Cynthia is a proud LSU alumna, having earned a bachelor’s of science degree from LSU and a PhD in biochemistry from the LSU Health Sciences Center in Shreveport. Now as Dean of the College of Science, she is continuing cherished traditions while also advancing initiatives to improve undergraduate and graduate recruitment and retention in science. We sat down with Cynthia to discuss her plans for the College of Science and the future of science learning.

How did you get interested in the sciences? And a career in higher education?

When I was a child, I really liked school and was very interested and eager to perform well. Going into high school, I had a wide range of interests, but I remember liking all of my math classes. I had this wonderful opportunity when I was a senior to actually teach my advanced math class because the teacher was out one day. I also loved biology and then I got into chemistry. My high school chemistry teacher was someone who had a big influence on me. It wasn’t because he paid any particular attention to me, but I remember him challenging the entire class. He would say that if we thought this was hard, just wait until organic chemistry in college!

So, I applied to LSU and was accepted. As an undergraduate, I began thinking about college majors, and I had a range of likes and interests across multiple science disciplines, so I chose biochemistry. And my high school teacher was right – organic chemistry was a tough one, but truly fascinating.

My time here at LSU as an undergraduate helped me gain so much insight into what it would be like to be a professional scientist – I really didn’t have that perspective before coming to college. Then I had an opportunity to work in a research lab as part of a course. What fun! I was running my own experiments, with moderate supervision of course, but they were my discoveries and my results and that was my “hook” into wanting to become a professional scientist. I also really loved the community that LSU provided. People often think scientists are very solitary creatures, but in fact, we loved getting together to socialize and to discuss intellectually stimulating topics and support each other with our endeavors.

I’m really proud of the fact that we’ve kept those traditions I experienced during my time at LSU. Today, we have robust opportunities for undergraduate research and also make every effort to instill a strong sense of a science community.

In the age of information availability anytime/anywhere, how do you foresee the role of the university changing or staying the same? 

It’s such an exciting moment in time when we have as much information as we do at our fingertips. That also presents some challenges: What information is true? What are the reliable sources? I think the big picture for a university — and what we have done historically — is to develop the best critical thinkers. We are helping students tackle this information challenge so that they are savvy about proper sources and are resourceful in gathering information. Universities are about learning and assembling ideas, not memorization. We want to develop students to be complex problem-solvers who can grapple with diverse sets of information and synthesize them into solutions.

At the LSU College of Science, we are also constantly thinking about the student experience and ways to prepare these budding scientists for real-world careers and sophisticated ways of thinking. The success of our students and the success of our university, quite frankly, hinges on having quality experiences for students that are meaningful and that go beyond passively acquiring information to active engagement with science. So, we’re bringing professionals in from within and beyond the academy to develop new learning opportunities that support experiential learning and problem-solving. We want to frame the student’s entire time here at the College of Science — from day one all through their four years here as undergraduates — to make sure we are setting them up for success for their future.

We remind students that they are not just building a resume per se, but they’re choosing experiences inside and outside the classroom that are meaningful and will help them grow as individuals. I see this as an important role that we must play.

With a growing emphasis on careers around STEM disciplines, how is the College attracting and retaining a diverse population in the STEM fields?

We’re really proud that our freshman class recruited to LSU this year is the largest freshman class we’ve ever had. It is comprised of 30% students of color and 30% students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. So, we’re really living out our priorities to have a diverse student body and to make our LSU experience accessible to qualified students as best we can.

In terms of the College of Science, we have partnered with our enrollment management team with a great deal of success. We increased our freshman class in science last year about 25%. We have invested in a recruiter, Daniel Vilchez, who is one of our talented graduates. He’s a first-generation student from an international background and he’s a wonderful ambassador for our college. We also hired student ambassadors from each of our departments. We have an Office of Diversity and Inclusion that we have established with a phenomenal leader, Dr. Zakiya Wilson-Kennedy, who is our Assistant Dean for Diversity and Inclusion. She pursues programming through workshops and seminars on many topics and she has been successful in bringing in new revenue for the unit through grants and corporate donations.

We do our best to support our students and anticipate their needs. Toward that end, we have a first-year seminar, a new career coach, advisors, and counseling staff. We also have an outstanding student health center on campus, focused not just on treating students when they are sick, but also focused on mental wellness. In order to support our students, we need to consider the whole person and make sure their experience is the best it can be.

How are you prioritizing future needs for the College of Science?

I am a big believer in an inclusive strategic planning process. Today, we’re about two years into our strategic plan and we’ve tackled some important facets of learning, discovery, outreach, philanthropy and diversity. But we also went further with our strategic planning and identified some strategic opportunities for our college, including interdisciplinary ventures that we really wanted to prioritize and start to grow. For example, we’re exploring the possibility of an institute that brings theoreticians from across the math and science disciplines together to solve new problems. Another one of our priorities is better merging arts and science, and we’re currently having success with new ventures with the College of Music and Dramatic Arts and are exploring ways we can better integrate with them.

With the strategic plan, faculty, administration and staff all know what our goals are and where we are going as a team. I’ve been intentional about making sure the strategic plan is not something that just sits on a shelf. This requires commitment on my part. Sometimes that involves small investments and other times our goals require big sums of money. One example is our current goal to raise multiple millions of dollars for a new science building at LSU. Through hiring priorities and targeting of resources, from time commitments to very large sums of money, we’re aiming to make sure our strategic plan goals are not stale  — that they’re very actively being addressed on an ongoing basis.

How is the College of Science getting the message out about all the great work you are doing?

In terms of building support for students, faculty, administration and the public, I think that has a lot to do with the right kind of communications. Science communication is something that I have a personal interest in and am passionate about. I also recognize it as an imperative for our society. We must have a public that is aware of the role of science in society.

And so, in terms of raising awareness of what we’re doing here at the at the university, and in the College of Science in particular, we need to communicate well about who we are and what we’re doing and why it matters. I’ve worked with some consultants to help our college understand our brand and think about new ways to get our messages out to really make a difference.

One of the outcomes of working on our communications strategy is a pocket guide that we produced for our internal audience. At our faculty convocation, we talked about the importance of having consistent messages to a variety of our audiences who pay attention to us. These audiences include students, individuals in other colleges and universities, our own faculty and staff, the Louisiana public and our donors. In the process of honing our messaging, folks across the college participated in many workshops and identified goals and values. Such good things came out of this!

Here is a little excerpt from the booklet. These are not words that I made up. These are words that came out of workshops:

“We are visionary driven, inquisitive, creative, friendly, resourceful, and generous. First, we believe in a culture that values collaboration, communication and diverse perspectives is key. And we believe that a culture that values collaboration, communication and diverse perspectives is key to blazing new trails in science and math. Second, the most valuable discoveries come from creative places and unexpected partnerships. Third, our community of fearless explorers welcomes like-minded visionaries from inside and outside the sciences to explore with us. Our work makes life better for Louisiana residents. Research drives the economy educates our children and prioritizes our state’s future doctors and health professionals.”

You can see that those are things we want everyone to know about our college and we have been very intentional about getting those messages out.

Other things we are doing include having a spot on public radio, a video that we produced about our college that runs in movie theaters during trailer time and on social media, advertisements in the Baton Rouge and New Orleans airports, and sending out multiple newsletters and producing an annual report. We are even reaching thousands of K through 12 students through a piece we produce called The Pursuit for Kids. We printed 30,000 copies of this and it’s going to every school in East Baton Rouge Parish. It has puzzles, profiles of scientists, stories, cartoons and all kinds of activities geared toward science.

All of this to say that I think building support through communication on all levels is nontrivial. I’ve tried to invest in understanding ways to effectively communicate who we are, and why it matters that we’re here and what we’re doing to contribute to society.

Images courtesy of LSU College of Science