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The Professor Is In: Peggy Minnis

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Too short to teach high school? Maybe. But Professor Peggy Minnis is just the right size for inspiring students both at home in Westchester and abroad. Find out what drives this professor and why science will always be a key ingredient to her life.

Written by Pace student Veronica Giolli 16

This interview has been condensed from its original format.

As a student, speaking with a professor who is so passionate about what they teach, is such an uplifting experience. Learning how the subject matter has been a part of their whole lives since childhood is even more inspiring. Chemistry and Physical Sciences Professor Peggy Minnis, PhD, is one of these educators who has gone above and beyond in her teaching at Pace’s Westchester Campus. Minnis decided to develop the first massive open online course (MOOC) offered at Pace about two years ago. She teaches geographic information systems (GIS) to a broad, worldwide audience because she has a deep and abiding love of the subject, not because she is compensated for it. In fact, her passion for the topic is what brought her to developing a library of more than 50 videos that walk viewers through specific operations. Helping people learn more about the world around them, even if they are not naturally science-driven, is just one of the things that make her happy about the path her career has taken thus far. In addition to her professional memberships, which also include the American Chemical Society and NEARC, Minnis has realized the importance of appreciating working beyond the classroom.

What was one thing or person that made you passionate about your current career?
My father was my science teacher in high school. I come from a very small coal-mining town in Pennsylvania where the entire high school consisted of 80 students. When I started college, I started off as a pharmacy major and quickly switched to chemistry because I was really most comfortable with chemistry and I understood it well because of his teaching.

I recently re-read the letters he sent me when I was a freshman and sophomore at the University of South Carolina and he said that I should probably teach chemistry, but not in high school because I am too small—I’m almost five feet—and because the kids are too difficult to handle at that age. He did say, however, that I should probably teach chemistry at the college level. He also said that I seem to have a flare for writing, so I should probably do that, too. Since then, I have done both of those things. I wanted teach things in ways that people could understand, to make it all relevant. And he had to do that, teaching in a small town where all students took chemistry; Mr. Hogarth made it understandable. On a visit to my hometown last month, the others around the table had learned science from my father and they told me how it helped shape their lives.

What quality do you most value in your students?
I think all teachers value curiosity. That can really be the basis of all learning, especially when you dive into a topic because you’re curious about it, then you really seek to understand the process. If a student is not inspired to learn something, they can put facts into a temporary buffer long enough to survive a test, but it is not going to sink in so that it becomes part of your knowledge resource.

What’s your advice to students to make the most out of their time in college?
Your mind is really like a garden, and you want your garden to bring forth fruit and be productive. With your mind, what you want to do is prepare it like you would a garden—you need the right general knowledge and an understanding of many natural phenomena. A prepared mind will allow you to absorb new information, understand how it fits in to your knowledge base, and allows you to have creative thoughts or actions.

If you had to do it all over again and took another path, what profession would you choose? What profession would you not choose?
When I was growing up, we girls thought we were all going to get married and be housewives. The career options that were open to most women were usually things like telephone operator, nurse, or teacher. So I am happy with what I chose because I had worked as a chemist in research and analysis for a while, then went back to graduate school for environmental chemistry. Only after that did I start teaching and realized, “Oh this is what I really want to do! Dad was right after all!” So I am very happy with what I am doing.

What I wouldn’t want to do…well one job I had as a postdoc, was in a darkened room, running a scanning electron microscopes and examining the fine structure of rocks all day. Some people would come and visit me, but I am much too gregarious to be stored away in a dark room.

What is your favorite word? Least favorite word?
Enthusiasm! That is always a good one!

For least favorite, I’d probably pick “vis-à-vis.” And it means face-to-face or compared to something. Why wouldn’t you just say compared to? Why make anything harder than it is? Simplify—that is what you want to do. We should try to make things understandable by reducing the jargon and trying to say things as simply as we can. Some disciplines use unnecessary jargon. My daughter certainly discovered that in when she was doing her graduate studies in musicology. She almost need a translator!

What is your guilty pleasure TV show or mobile app?
I don’t feel guilty about anything really! But I use Roku and I watch Rake. It is an Australian legal comedy/drama. Rather than guilty, I feel blessed because we can watch all these British and Australian shows that we use to not get I feel like I’ve had a window opened up to me, and it’s wonderful!

What was your favorite class as a student? Least favorite?
Creative Problem Solving was my favorite class, which I took in my PhD program at SUNY-ESF. I was the first one in the program to take that course and the program directors decided that it was a pretty good idea because environmental problems are multidisciplinary, crossing legal, sociological, environmental, and ecological boundaries. Finding solutions requires parallel thinking. Some people are born problem solvers but, for those of us not naturally gifted, there are techniques of problem solving can be taught and can be done systematically. Everyone should be exposed to that system.

My least favorite was Nuclear Chemistry when I was a graduate student at Ohio State. It was so hard and I was working full-time. This pre-dates calculators and personal computers. I wept over the problems sets we had to solve. But I consistently worked through them. That B was one of the most beautiful things I ever saw.

If you were a Pace student, what class would you like to take with another Pace professor?
I would take anything that Ellen Mandel taught. That’s because she has the combination of wisdom, warmth, grace, and humor that allows people to learn with joy. She goes to faculty meetings and stands up and says something that puts everything in perspective in such a funny way and the faculty cracks up. And the students love her, too!

What would you do if you had an extra hour every day?
Oh, I would sew more! My mother was a seamstress and she trained me to sew so I could help her. I sewed until I just became too busy with teaching. Last summer, I custom-made a dress for my daughter and she took it on vacation with us and wore it all over Austria. I had forgotten what satisfaction you can get from creating clothing.

What is your favorite professional or personal journey/experience?
One of the things I learned probably the most from was researching, writing, and self-publishing a textbook. I had to get totally immersed in the topic (septic systems), then took the ideas and made it into a printed book. This was about 20 years ago and I just had somebody call who wants 10 copies of the book!

What is your favorite saying/words to live by?
Do what you love and you will never work a day in your life. Because my daughter is so into music, I got to know her violin, piano, and harp teachers realized they were making a living doing what they love! And I think it is tragedy when people have to do something they don’t love in order to just survive. It is a wonderful blessing to do what you love and to make money.

As you may know, the French are known to hold parties referred to as salon gatherings where guests assemble under the roof of an inspiring host. If you could have any five people, living or dead, imagined or real, as guests at your salon gathering, who would you choose?
Richard Feynman, he was a famous physicist and he also played the bongos and was a fun guy. When he was afflicted by cancer, he expanded from his studies in physics to biochemistry so that he would understand everything about his cancer.

Another person would be Alan Alda who actually played Richard Feynman in QED, which I saw at the Vivian Beaumont Theater. He has worked on many Scientific America TV programs, trying to explain science to non-scientists while trying to understand it himself.

We would have to do a lot of breathing life into this next one, but Nicolaus Copernicus might be nice to listen to. He lived in the 1400s and he was the one who advanced ideas about the solar system. These were groundbreaking ideas, which at the time you couldn’t really talk about because they were contrary to conventionally-accepted thoughts.

And then Tom Lehrer, he was a mathematician from Harvard. While teaching, he also wrote and performed songs about contemporary conditions that are still relevant and very funny today.

And then I think we should invite Woody Allen, because he would be able to look at all of these guests and develop some kind of dramatic show about all these people coming together and talking about their thoughts.

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