Photo by Collin Richie
Family: Married to Edward Peterson for 37 years; daughter and son-in-law Caroline, 29, and Isaac Oahare, 28; daughter Betsy, 26, and niece Shelley Moloney, 26
Profession: Dean, LSU College of Science
Years with company: 4
As an undergraduate student at LSU, Cynthia Peterson discovered her passion for science, moving on to forge a successful career as a biochemist and respected researcher of proteins.
But what Peterson appreciates most about the field is what she calls its “contagious energy”—a boundless bundle of possibilities she believes should feel open and accessible to all. Since becoming dean as well as the Seola Arnaud and Richard Vernon Edwards Jr. Professor of the LSU College of Science in 2014, Peterson has been on a mission to showcase the work of the college’s scholars while encouraging more prospective students to consider science as a career.
The message is getting through: The LSU College of Science this year saw a 46% increase in undergraduate applicants from the year before.
“We are leading the university in numbers of applicants,” she says. “And it’s the most talented pool we’ve ever seen.”
The College of Science is made up of five academic departments, biology, chemistry, physics and astronomy, geology and geophysics and mathematics. It also includes the LSU Museum of Natural Science, which holds one of the most significant avian collections in the world.
Returning to LSU, where she earned her undergraduate degree, has been a meaningful journey.
“There’s something about coming back to the university where you were first inspired,” she says. “I had formative experiences here that directly led to my desire to become a researcher.”
Being a woman in a field historically dominated by men isn’t lost on Peterson. As dean, she has introduced several initiatives to increase the number of women and underrepresented minority faculty and students, including hiring an assistant dean for diversity and inclusion, Dr. Zakiya Wilson-Kennedy.
She’s also taken steps to improve undergraduate and graduate student recruitment in math and science programs as well as promote K-12 science and math education and teacher preparation programs. In March 2017 for Women’s History Month, the College of Science, in partnership with the LSU College of Engineering, held a wildly popular showing of the feature film, Hidden Figures, for middle and high school students followed by a panel discussion of women breaking barriers in STEM fields.
Under Peterson’s leadership, the College of Science also recently completed a strategic plan. Among its goals are improved facilities, including a new 120,000 to 150,000-square-foot research and teaching building with active learning classrooms.
“One of the things that’s great about this college is that we serve students from the entire university with core classes that they all have to take for their majors,” says Peterson. “A new, dynamic space will help us better engage students.”
For Peterson, science is at its best when it’s collaborative and interdisciplinary. To showcase its similarities to music, she created an TEDxLSU talk in 2017 called “Science and All That Jazz,” which features her thoughts on the parallels between scientific inquiry and the creative process.
“Science is collaborative, dynamic and can be spontaneous,” says Peterson, an avowed music lover and piano player. “Just like jazz.”
1979: Graduates from LSU with an undergraduate degree in biochemistry
1986: Earns her PhD in biochemistry from LSU Medical Center Shreveport
1987: Postdoctoral Fellowship, University of California, Berkeley
1992: Hired as assistant professor, Department of Biochemistry and Cellular and Molecular Biology, at the University of Tennessee, rising to professor in 2002.
2005: Serves as Director of Program in Genome Science and Technology, at the University of Tennessee
2014: Becomes the first female named dean of LSU College of Science
2017: Creates her TEDxLSU talk, “Science and All That Jazz”
Sometimes it just doesn’t work out. Even though we do the right thing and work very hard at something, there are often variables out of our control. I have to remind myself to be satisfied with “doing enough,” regardless of the outcome.
This is the way we have always done it.
I am inspired to this day by my father, who I lost much too early. He was kind and thoughtful, and set high standards for all of us to follow. I think of him when I think of “living by example.” He was smart, funny and sensitive. He carried the Louisiana “joie de vivre” with him wherever he went.