Arlie Petters, a mathematical physicist, became dean of academic affairs and vice provost for undergraduate education earlier this year. During a break from his work, Petters talked with The Chronicle about his knowledge of Russian, favorite vacation spot and love of HGTV. 

Which West Union eatery is your favorite?

The one with the Southern food. Of course, you can't eat this everyday. Mashed potatoes, collard greens and that day, they had barbecue chicken. It was wonderful. 

When you have a day off, what do you do?

There's a book I've been reading, and my favorite author is Jorge Amado. I just finished "Home is the Sailor." So when I have a day off, I get to do a little bit of reading, just to get away from the intensity of the job and research. That is a delightful read. He is hilarious, and at the same time, touches on certain key aspects of the human condition. 

What surprised you most about Duke when you first came here?

It's a single word: how interdisciplinary it is. Before that I was exposed to universities that had very siloed departments. It just struck me that the culture of this place allows you to freely exchange across different fields.  

What languages do you speak?

So I am from Belize, and our local language is called Creole. We were a British colony and so we have an English creole. Now that's also different from the language I studied when I was in college. I studied Russian, and the reason is that in those days you had to do French, German or Russian if you were going to do your Ph.D. in mathematics. This was during the Cold War, so I was fascinated by getting to know a bit about Russia. When I finished my Ph.D., the Cold War was over, and then all the journals that were in my field got translated to English. 

What's your favorite TV show at the moment?

HGTV. I'm an HGTV addict, plain and simple. I love all of them. If you ask me what sort of hobbies and addictions I have, I'm always looking for a little project to do on the house or the yard. And I love things dealing with architecture, design, the interface between functionality and design. I will admit one thing—I have a home in Belize, a vacation home, and with the construction of that house I was the general contractor. So I got a good HGTV workout.  

Where's your favorite place to go on vacation?

Belize. I was born in the town of Drangriga, and what I love with Belize is about 40 percent of the country is national reserve—marine and terrestrial. So you really get to bond with nature when you're there. For me that is very relaxing because you're in these virtual worlds all day and to just be able to lean back, have the sea breeze blow on you, you look up and see cloudscapes. Something as simple as that just grips me. I feel much more alive. It grounds me in the present really well. 

What do you think is the most interesting thing in your office right now?

So let me tell you how my office will be hooked up. On one wall will be a piece about [Duke Kunshan University]. I had the pleasure of spending one month there. It's just beautiful. Then on anther wall will be a painting, a Mexican piece of art—about the Quinceañera. And then, I'm also a big fan of Johannes Kepler, so I want a piece of some of Kepler work. He's the one that discovered planets go in elliptical orbit. It's on Kepler's shoulders that Newton stood when he came up with his theory of gravity. Then, parents like to see diplomas—to make sure I'm legit. And then, there will be a Belizean wall. 

What's your favorite movie?

I love a variety in movies. For example, Woody Allen i think is fun and a good journey into the nature of dysfunction of human beings. I enjoyed watching "Café Society." And also I like epic pieces like "Ben-Hur" and, of course, "Star Trek." I love sci-fi. I think I've seen every vampire movie there is and every Harry Potter. So you see, I love diversity in movies and I will admit I like Vin Diesel. I like the wide spectrum of them. 

What social media platforms do you use?

I have a decent number of friends on Facebook. What I love is that it gives me a sliver into the lives of people as I look at the newsfeed that comes from them. To me, it's a rich ground of information that shows people's candid opinions about things. They just give it to you straight, and I love that. It's also an opportunity for humor.

What's your favorite thing about Duke?

The energetic and vibrant nature of our undergraduates. You renew the University with each entering class. Continuing regrowth, it's exhilarating.