Mathematical physicist Arlie Petters was recently chosen as the new dean of academic affairs and associate vice provost for undergraduate education. Petters—the Benjamin Powell professor of mathematics, physics and business administration—replaced Lee Baker July 1 and will serve through June 2020. The Chronicle's Ajay Desai spoke with Petters about his love for interacting with students and his goals for his time as dean. 

The Chronicle: Can you outline some of your major goals and plans as dean of academic affairs? What are you hoping to accomplish?

Arlie Petters: Well one of the things I believe that is very important is to ensure that our Trinity students are getting a world class liberal arts education. What is important for me is to make sure that the extraordinary in each student can be expressed. I believe we have so much talent across our student body that I want there to be vehicles through which each student can really have their signature defined. If you, for example, look at a classical way of dividing students through GPA, which I really don’t look at it like that, a student that is say B-range, I do not see that student as not as strong as a student with an A+. 

I think there are different metrics. There can be excellence and capabilities that the B student has that are not picked up in exams. That student, for example, that has a B in math may be an extraordinary entrepreneur or a lover of the arts. That student may also be someone who can be an amazing leader in the community that brings STEM opportunities to students. So I am looking at excellence in a very broad way because each person to me is distinct, each person has a special talent, and we want you to know that there’s not just one tool that will allow you to express that. Now the A+ student has expressed talent in a different way, and we will celebrate all of that. So it is fundamentally important for me that when you have your four years at Duke, that you have the opportunity to do that. 

TC: Are there any challenges that you anticipate facing in the position?

AP: The big one is the new curriculum. If the curriculum is passed, we will be doing double duty as we come off the old one and simultaneously bring in the new one. And so I expect that will really occupy the whole Trinity team tremendously to make sure that it rolls out with all that it’s supposed to do. In some ways if the faculty approves it, it will be exciting. I look forward to challenges of that sort.

TC: What are you looking forward to most as dean of academic affairs?

AP: As you know, students are very important to me, and I really look forward to interacting with as many as possible. I want to hear their stories, I want to see them develop, and I just look forward to my whole team being involved with year-to-year monitoring that we are fulfilling this mission. I think it is going to be exciting. We have a new class coming in, and each year the University is recharged with every incoming class and returning students will be mentors to them, and I look forward to the vibrancy and the excitement of everyone being back on campus.

TC: Can you talk about some of your life experiences that most shaped who you are today?

AP: I was born in a very small town in Belize called Dangriga, and I was the first in my family to go to college. I went to college here in the U.S., so I’m a first-generation student. As you know, Belize is a developing nation so its beginning is humble, and I guess it would also be considered low-income. When I came to the U.S., it became very clear to me that my accent really distinguished me from other students in school. So I think in many ways I have had the experiences of what some of our students have as being a "first-gen" underrepresented minority and having low income. And what I was really touched by was, at least for me as an immigrant, the U.S. for me was a land of opportunity, and the key part with it was that I always believed that education is central. Education is in many ways the tool that is the great equalizer. So that I would say was very important to me coming to the U.S. I went to Brooklyn, New York, and went to public school for a few years and then went to college. The great change for me was having an opportunity to be educated well. 

TC: At Duke, you have worked in the field of mathematical physics. How did you get interested in that, and what are some of your proudest contributions to the field?

AP: I was especially struck by the night sky in Belize. When you don’t have many lampposts and electricity was a luxury, you could see the breathtaking nature of the night sky. But I’ve always wondered about what are stars, how everything is held together, and as you know, questions of that sort naturally lead you along the philosophical track. During school in Belize, I had a class learning about astronomy and mathematics, particularly curves likes ellipses that would talk about the trajectory of planets. So I had all the bits and pieces and as it got together, I got hooked. 

Then with respect to mathematical physics, there’s several things I’ve done. One was a very long project in which I was developing a mathematical theory of gravitational lensing, and it culminated in a book I wrote on singular theory and gravitational lensing. The second contribution—which was in 2006—was with an astronomer at Rutgers. We worked on this issue of if there was a fifth dimension to physical space. We worked out a gravitational lensing for microscopic five-dimensional black holes and were able to make a prediction that these black holes exist, which would support the possibility of a fifth dimension then have a certain signature in the energy spectrum. So we predicted what that signature is, and now of course, we are hoping that the Fermi satellite data would point to the particular wiggle that we predicted in the energy spectrum. So those are two things that really touched my soul and that I really enjoyed working on them.

TC: What has been the most rewarding part about being at Duke this far in your career?

AP: Oh, the students. The interactions with the students have been deeply moving for me. We have some of the brightest young people on the planet and some of the most interesting.