Meet the 2021 SPS Outstanding Chapter Advisor: Peter Sheldon

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Singularities - Profiles in Physics

Meet the 2021 SPS Outstanding Chapter Advisor: Peter Sheldon


Korena Di Roma Howley, Contributing Editor

C_ Singularities - Sheldon with students.jpg

Peter Sheldon (third from left) poses with Randolph students at the 2022 Physics Congress. Photo courtesy of Sheldon. 

The SPS Outstanding Chapter Advisor Award is the most prestigious award given by SPS, bestowed annually on the basis of the leadership, student leadership development, support, and encouragement the advisor has provided to the chapter. For his leadership and guidance of the SPS chapter at Randolph College, Peter Sheldon is the 2021–22 SPS Outstanding Chapter Advisor.

As an undergraduate math major at Amherst College, Peter Sheldon found himself gravitating toward the physics department because
of the people—early influences whose examples would guide him throughout his career. 

Now Sheldon is beginning his 25th year as a physics professor at Randolph College in Lynchburg, Virginia—and it’s still about the people. “My role here is to engage students and to help them be the best physics, engineering, or STEM majors that they can be,” he says.      

Sheldon started Randolph’s SPS and Sigma Pi Sigma chapters in 1999 and has chaired the school’s physics and engineering department since 2002. As a chair and chapter advisor, he says, “I have had the most amazing opportunities to help start programs that are student oriented and that help our students be successful.”

These programs include the Central Virginia Science Festival (SciFest), an SPS-led community event that Sheldon cofounded in 2005, and Step Up to Physical Science and Engineering at Randolph (SUPER), an honors and support program for STEM majors that kicked off in 2010. SUPER has been the recipient of nearly $3 million in grant funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and includes a mentoring program, a career component, and annual one-credit seminar classes that prepare students for research and careers.

In his role as SPS advisor, Sheldon enjoys leading one of Randolph’s most active clubs. “I love any opportunity to get to know the students outside of the classroom and to help them to get noticed at the college,” he says. Over the past 16 years, the chapter has won 14 Outstanding Chapter Awards. Sheldon attributes its success to consistency and persistence. 

“We hold regular activities, and we engage the community,” he says. “If an event isn’t successful, we don’t let that hold us back. We learn from failures and move forward. Resilience is most important for a student and for a chapter.” And, as an advisor, Sheldon isn’t afraid to be involved. “I attend all the SPS meetings I can, and I advise the SPS leadership on a regular basis,” he says. 

Sheldon’s enthusiasm for growing and adapting programs is evident in the evolution of both SUPER and SciFest. After learning that many physics undergraduates were concerned about mental wellness, SUPER program leaders sought and received NSF support to add mental health and inclusion components to the program. 

SciFest, meanwhile, has become the largest event on Randolph’s campus, attracting thousands of people to the school each year for hands-on activities, performances, panels, and other opportunities for engagement with the sciences. Nearly a third of Randolph’s student body volunteers for SciFest. With Sheldon’s guidance, the event is entirely run by SPS, providing valuable leadership training for chapter members and other students. 

Throughout his 25 years at Randolph, Sheldon has also worked with dozens of students in independent research on topics including physics education, low-temperature physics, roller coasters, and inertial navigation. In their letter nominating him for the Outstanding Chapter Advisor Award, students highlighted this commitment to cultivating student research, as well as Sheldon’s dedication to developing Randolph’s SPS chapter, his accessible manner, and his active teaching style. 

“He represents the true goal of the Society of Physics Students—to help us grow and mature into the larger community of physicists and engineers,” the students write.  

Of course, for Sheldon it’s the students themselves who contribute to a robust and engaging SPS chapter. “Physics students by nature need to be an inquisitive bunch,” he says. “They also need to be hardworking and resilient. That is also exactly what a successful club needs. It is those students who are most curious who become part of the chapter, and it is the resilient nature of these students that allows the club to be successful.”

Nominate Your Advisor

For details on the SPS Outstanding Chapter Advisor Award, visit Nominations are due March 15.


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