Tonya Peeples: Encouraging Students through STEM Stories
By Sara Parks, Iowa NSF EPSCoR
Supporting students is a crucial part of Tonya Peeples’ academic calling. “I think that’s probably what made me interested in being a faculty member,” Peeples said, “interacting with students and encouraging people as they are developing.” Peeples is a member of the Iowa NSF EPSCoR Broader Impacts team, serving on the diversity taskforce. She is a chemical and biochemical engineering professor at University of Iowa and researcher for the university’s Center for Biocatalysis and Bioprocessing. She is director of the Ethnic Inclusion Effort of Iowa Engineering and in 2011 she received the Michael J. Brody Award for Faculty Excellence in Service to the university and the state of Iowa. This year she is receiving the University of Iowa Diversity Catalyst Award.
Experiencing Successful Mentoring
Peeples became interested in chemical science and learned the importance of successful STEM extra-curricular experiences as an undergraduate. “I did several internships when I was in undergrad,” Peeples said. She worked in the elastomers research area for Dow-Corning in Midland, Michigan. “My last summer as a student I did a research experience for undergraduates in bio-engineering, and that activity spawned my interest in doing more bio-related work.”
Peeples credits her mentors for encouraging and supporting her interest in chemical engineering. “I didn’t know when I was in undergrad how lucky I was that I had a female faculty member,” Peeples said. “I only had one female engineering faculty member when I was a student. So a lot of the mentoring I got wasn’t from people who looked like me. They were people who were caring enough to say, ‘you know you might be good at that,’ or ‘maybe you ought to try this.’”
Tonya Peeples (top left) talks to high school students during the 2012 Summer STEM Institute at the University of Iowa.
Peeples received her B.S. in chemical engineering from North Carolina State University and continued to earn her Ph.D. in chemical engineering from John Hopkins in 1994. She completed a post-doc at the California Institute of Technology in environmental engineering science working with organisms that metabolize methane and methanol. She joined the University of Iowa’s College of Engineering in 1995. “When I became full professor I become one of four African American women in the country who were full professors in chemical engineering,” Peeples added. “There are still very few women in engineering as a percentage, so not that many undergrads get to see a female role model; that was something I benefited from when I was a college student.”
Green Chemistry Projects
Although Peeples doesn’t receive EPSCoR funding for her scientific research, she feels a kinship with the project’s energy research aims, “As a young faculty member I had a lot of funding from the Iowa Corn Growers, the Corn Refiners Association and the National Corn Growers, so I was really very much embedded in bio-ag in terms of trying to come up with value-added from the bio-renewables.” Her current work is related to making liquid transportation fuels from biomass. “I do bio-catalysis work and so we’re looking at how we can use enzymes and supercritical fluids and organic solvents to take some of the components that you would find from pyrolysis or thermo-chemical treatment and make fuels out of them.” Other work falls in the realm of what she calls, “green chemistry projects” such as creating more sustainable pharmaceuticals, studying organisms from extreme environments, and researching bio-remediation (using organisms to clean up pollutants) for the degradation of atrazine. “It’s really about using nature to come up with ways to do chemical reactions,” Peeples said.
Peeples fulfills part of the mission of Iowa NSF EPSCoR through educational outreach, however she also supports the project’s collaborative aims, “There are some really cool things we could do if we grow this community around renewable energy.”
Passion for Broader Impacts
Peeples categorizes her Iowa NSF EPSCoR Broader Impacts work into three categories: K-12 youth programs, college student programs, and faculty development and mentoring. She is currently collaborating with Project Lead the Way and the Iowa Engineering Ethnic Inclusion Effort to develop poster sets about STEM role models from diverse backgrounds for use in K-12 classrooms. Her collaboration with the University of Iowa Upward Bound Project has led to the development of a summer STEM institute for high school students. She also is helping develop supplemental STEM programs for schools that, for financial reasons, have been dropped from projects like Upward Bound, such as those in Davenport, Iowa.
She works with college student groups to guide and support their outreach efforts to K-12 as well. “There’s a wind energy student association,” Peeples listed, “that group is going to be engaged in some outreach, and the Society of Automotive Engineers we’re working with, and then some of the diversity student organizations like the National Society of Black Engineers, the Multi-Ethnic Engineers of Science Association, the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, and the National Organization for Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers. So there are a lot of different organizations that we’re working with.”
For college programming, Peeples focuses on summer internships, summer research opportunities, graduate and undergraduate student support. “I’ve been engaged with some of the faculty, trying to find out what openings they have in their lab,” Peeples said. However, her own lab is also a mecca for mentorship. “I think over the course of my career I’ve probably mentored over fifty undergraduates in research in the lab,” Peeples explained, “so it’s been a really big part of my whole academic career.”
In faculty development, Peeples considers last spring’s ”Leadership, in Equity and Inclusion” training to be a solid start. “We’re trying to find what training pieces might be important this year in EPSCoR,” she said. “The other thing we want to do is develop some awards for excellence and outreach to recognize the EPSCoR faculty.” Finally, collaboration with the Iowa STEM hubs is an area she would like to see EPSCoR play a role.
When asked why she is so passionate about Iowa NSF EPSCoR’s Broader Impacts, and outreach in general, Peeples responded, “Some of it comes because of my identity and having been someone that has gone through the pipeline and having that experience and interest in mentoring students. It’s challenging to think about all of the things that you have to work through, the emotional parts and the doubts, you have to have somebody to encourage you to keep going and keep trying. Trying to encourage other people to reach out and share their stories is a really important part of the whole job for me.”