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Medical physicist takes GPSC helm

This is the fifth story in a five-part series profiling various student leaders this year.

He heads a diverse 6,000-member community, plays the piano and enjoys intense ultimate Frisbee games, but in his spare time, Rob Saunders, this year's Graduate and Professional Student Council president, is attempting to read all of Western literature.

"Being a physicist, I feel as though I'm under-read," said Saunders, a third-year physics student. He is currently reading William Faulkner's "The Sound and the Fury," but says he favors the realism and optimism of Sinclair Lewis.

Saunders, a native of Amelia, Va., grew up on a farm "with a lot of cows." Following his 2000 graduation from the College of William and Mary, he headed directly to Duke to pursue a doctorate in medical physics. In the future, he hopes to establish a career either teaching, researching or working in a hospital radiology department.

"Rob's a take-charge kind of person," said Elayne Heisler, GPSC omsbudperson and former president. "You want someone who takes over to continue what you started. He's a physicist--he thinks things through in steps. You have to get from A to B, and he's applied that well to the position."

Parking and transportation issues are at the top of Saunders' agenda for this year, but he also plans to address child care, safer housing for graduate and professional students, on-campus social space and building community through interdepartmental relations.

In addition, Saunders has formulated a plan for GPSC to host a community lunch series. The first will bring together the leaders from many of the schools to discuss lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender concerns, as well as gender, racial and ethnic issues. Later in the semester, the forums will discuss general graduate and professional student issues.

"One of the goals of GPSC is to make sure we are advocating the needs of all graduate and professional students," Saunders said. "One of the problems is that once we self-segregate, we don't hear a broad range of perspectives."

After being elected GPSC president last spring, Saunders stepped down from his role as vice president of the physics department's Graduate Student Organization.

"His position was more administrative. The vice president keeps the organization structured and is responsible for keeping track of everyone," said Michael Stenner, last year's GSO president and a sixth-year physics student. "It aligned well with his personality and skills set.... He is responsible and organized, which was invaluable for me."

Saunders and Davison Council President Ali Raja spent much of last year working to increase both the interaction and cooperation between the various groups within the graduate and medical schools.

"Rob's greatest strength is his ability to listen to everyone's viewpoints, take them all in, and then come up with a fair solution that not only solves the problem but also takes into account the main concerns of everyone involved," wrote Raja in an e-mail. "He's been doing this since he became GPSC president, and it's especially evident in the way that he is solving the graduate student parking crunch around campus."

While he spent much of his summer addressing parking issues, Saunders was also preparing for orientation week, during which he spoke at the orientation for each of the eight graduate and professional schools. He has been working on ways to start a five-year plan to address key graduate concerns, on which he campaigned.

"As GPSC president, I intend to become an external spokesperson," Saunders said. "I will set a long-term scale to see these problems solved in the coming years. I have been trying to familiarize myself with the administration. After that, we plan to look at how to re-organize GPSC to make it more effective overall."

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