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Randolph College professor receives highest national honor from the Society of Physics Students

Peter Sheldon, Randolph College professor of physics and engineering, said being recently named the Society of Physics Students’ Outstanding Chapter Advisor for the 2021-2022 year came as a real surprise.

“We’re a small college, and when you look at the advisors who have won before, so often it has just struck me as from large schools with much bigger chapters,” Sheldon said. “I sort of just got to the point where I’m like, you know you guys keep nominating me but I’m never going to win.”

Randolph College graduate Hailey Gilman, who nominated Sheldon, said she was excited to receive the news he had won the award. Gilman was the president of the college’s SPS chapter.

"He has incredible confidence in each student's ability to succeed, while always remaining supportive and accessible,” Gilman said. “Dr. Sheldon readily offers his time, knowledge, and experience to students both within our chapter and beyond."

SPS is a national organization to engage students and bring physics to campus and to the public. Sheldon started the Randolph College chapter in 1999, a year after he joined the school.

The club, which usually has about 12 to 15 students at a meeting with about 20 members total, is mostly coordinated by science students, but students with varying majors have taken part. The group meets every week and has put together events on campus such as movie nights and video cafes, and helps put together SciFest every spring.

“It’s just something to sort of engage students and keep them involved and get them to sort of bring physics [to campus and the public], which in particular is a subject that’s not often well loved or well known,” Sheldon said. 

Randolph President Sue Ott Rowlands said the excitement on campus regarding Sheldon’s honor is profound.

“Peter has spent his career advocating for science to be accessible to everyone. He works tirelessly to ensure that they're going to be ready to be successful once they leave here,” Ott Rowlands said. “His work with this chapter has been dedicated over years and years.”

Luke Mosley, a freshman at Randolph College and member of the college’s chapter, said he first met Sheldon when he attended the science festival as a child. Experiencing the festival became one of the reasons he became interested in attending the private Lynchburg college.

Sheldon said ever since he could remember, he loved taking things apart, putting them back together and working with his hands.

He assumed that he would be an engineer one day, but he decided to go to Amherst College, a liberal arts college in Massachusetts, for a more well-rounded education. He would go on to attend the University of Massachusetts for graduate school.

“I thought that a well-rounded education was more important than going to an engineering school,” Sheldon said.

"It's been wonderful. You know, we've been able to meet and we've been able to talk about things and organize events," Mosley said. 

Sheldon said working with students and bringing science to the public is his passion.

“There’s a shortage of scientists, there’s a shortage of students who want to study those areas and I’ve always been interested in addressing that," he said.

Sheldon mentioned minorities such as women and Blacks have traditionally been underrepresented in science.

He said it’s causing the field to miss out on possible scientists out there.

“The fact is, the people who are traditionally underrepresented are being, if not actively discouraged... they’re not being encouraged to get into the sciences,” Sheldon said.

He said another important goal is “trying to bring science to the public and just show them that science is important to all of us, science is beautiful, science is worth paying attention to, even if you’re not a scientist.”

Ultimately, Sheldon hopes students take away the fact that it’s important to communicate about science.

“That’s what science needs right now, but they can also take my sort of mantra out to the world of like, we need to just teach and get everybody excited about science, not just the people who need to do science,” he said.

“Peter has spent his career advocating for science to be accessible to everyone. He works tirelessly to ensure that they're going to be ready to be successful once they leave here.”

— Randolph College President Sue Ott Rowlands, on Professor Peter Sheldon

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