As he joins UBC Okanagan’s College of Graduate Studies as Dean, Peter Simpson is focused on finding fun in academia
AN EAGER LEARNER HIS ENTIRE LIFE, Peter Simpson decided to pursue a PhD in an area of physics that was less established and more exploratory. This led him to Western University to study electronic materials, positron annihilation and, as he puts it, “fun.”
“When I first visited Western, I met with all kinds of people. And although I didn’t understand the physics they were talking about at the time, I could see they were excited about it — they were having fun, and I thought, I want to get in on that and have fun too.”
Years earlier, when Simpson started his undergraduate studies at the University of Waterloo in physics, he initially chose to study acoustics because of his keen interest in music. But as he progressed through his bachelor’s degree Simpson soon realized that he was fascinated by the science of materials. A self-proclaimed laboratory tinkerer, he thrived in an environment where he could conduct research, experiment in the lab and explore new ideas.
“That’s the beauty of graduate studies,” Simpson explains. “There are so many interesting things that you don’t know anything about until you arrive in an environment where you can delve into them.”
Following a postdoctoral fellowship studying electrical noise in materials at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York, Simpson returned to Western University as a professor of physics. Over the last 20 years he has also taken on several administrative roles in higher education including graduate chair of the physics and astronomy department, associate dean of science, and associate vice-provost for the School of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies — all at Western University.
As someone who has always enjoyed working with people, Simpson says the shift from academic to administrator was natural; in fact, his personal experience as a graduate student ultimately influenced his desire to pursue a career in graduate studies administration.
“I realized that rather than doing my own thing, I wanted to create an environment for other people to have fun in. Doing research, creating new knowledge, learning, discovering and doing creative work — it’s hard work but it’s fun.”
FUN AT UBC OKANAGAN
In July 2020, Simpson made the move from Western to UBC Okanagan, joining the graduate community as dean of the College of Graduate Studies. When asked why UBC Okanagan appealed to him, Simpson stays true to the concept of finding fun.
“At UBCO there’s an ambition to build something unique and a lot of positive will to make it happen — and that excites me. It was another moment when I thought, these people are having fun and I want in.”
As Dean, Simpson will work with leaders across campus toward the ambitious vision outlined in Outlook 2040, which calls for rapid growth in graduate programs through the introduction of 30 new programs by 2025 and a threefold increase in graduate enrolment — up to 3,000 students — by 2040.
Simpson’s vision for graduate studies at UBC Okanagan is a thriving graduate school with new programs that address the needs of a diverse population of students — a true 21st-century learning environment. He hopes many of the new programs will be interdisciplinary and unique, “driven by the exciting research interests and talents of our faculty.”
“Tomorrow’s graduates will be confronting challenges like energy production, food supply, climate change, income disparity, global health and human rights, to name a few. These subjects don’t fit into traditional disciplinary boxes,” he explains.
Since joining UBCO, Simpson has been working remotely as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and has been amazed at what he’s seen so far from the university community.
“The past few months have been difficult for our students, faculty, staff and postdoctoral fellows, but I’ve been so impressed by the hard work and dedication people have shown in helping students transition to online learning.”
Although the pandemic has led to unprecedented challenges for graduate students, Simpson says the community continues to grow; in fall 2020, the College of Graduate Studies saw a seven per cent increase in applications, with enrolment growing at a stable one per cent.
“This year may look different than others for all of us, but my commitment as Dean remains the same: to help create an environment where students are empowered to explore, to innovate and to challenge existing ideas and create new ones.”