MU's Virginia Peterson retires after a student-dedicated career

Monday, July 11, 2011 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 8:58 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 12, 2011
Virginia Peterson talks to Stuart Roderick about his plans as a pre-med student at MU on Friday, July 8.

COLUMBIA — On a recent Thursday, Virginia Peterson sat in her Schweitzer Hall office finishing up an e-mail to a prospective biochemistry student looking for help. As director of undergraduate advising for MU's Biochemistry Department, Peterson makes it a priority to respond quickly to students. This e-mail was 10 minutes old.

"This is a very difficult major for people," said Peterson, who has taught biochemistry at MU for almost 31 years. "If a student isn't doing well or isn't interested in it, then I try to help them find something that they are interested in or something that they are good at."

Now, after many thousands of conversations with students about their aspirations and directions, Peterson is retiring.

"You have to make examples that appeal to all students," she said. "You have to make the hard stuff a little more visually interesting. A lot of these students don't learn just by listening, which is the assumption of the true class lecture."

Peterson has been known to bring in pom-poms to demonstrate molecular relationships and have students make a gooey Gak from glue, water and borax to learn about polymers.

Peterson's dedication to her students hasn't gone unnoticed. Her list of honors and awards include excellence in teaching honors from MU's College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources in 1990 and 1997 and her state of Missouri outstanding academic adviser award in 2006.

Biochemistry professor Frank Schmidt, who has known Peterson since she arrived at MU in 1980, said what stands out the most is Peterson's personal interest in students.

"She talks to them on a regular basis, helps them with career counseling and applauds their accomplishments from the moment they walk in the door," Schmidt said.

Peterson said she tries to show the same level of respect toward her students as she does toward anyone else.

“I always talk to younger students, much younger students, like they’re equal people," she said. "You don’t get anywhere talking down to anybody.”

On the first day of the semester, Peterson hands out a questionnaire asking not only basic information such as name, adviser and major but also whether they have a job and, if they do, how often they work. She asks if they are athletes and what sports they play for the school.

“I ask them all of these questions to better understand the demographics of my class," she said, "and to know what other obligations they have besides my class.”

Peterson wants students not only to grasp the subject matter but to understand how it applies to daily life.

“I talk a lot about heart disease in class because two-thirds of the class knows someone with that," she said. "I try to make things in my class relatable to things in real life. People who need this knowledge for another class will take some of that with them anyway, and others who don’t need it for future classes at least have more knowledge about it than they did before."

Peterson, who officially retires Friday, has already begun relaxing her schedule — no longer setting the alarm to rise before 6 a.m. But she still gets up before 7.

“I’ll be making very good friends with my sewing machine again," she said. "The garden wants my attention as well, and there is always work to do in the house.”

She also plans to travel with her husband, Charles Peterson, an MU associate professor emeritus of physics.

“I’m going to a family reunion in August," she said, "and we are thinking about going to New Zealand sometime this winter.”

Peterson will continue to help future MU students. The biochemistry department has endowed a scholarship fund in her name — the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources' Virginia Peterson Scholarship Fund — from which money will be allocated to students within the department each year.

Royalties she receives from the textbook to which she contributes, "Fundamentals of General, Organic and Biological Chemistry," will be donated to the fund. 

Peterson's status as a professor emeritus will take effect with her retirement.

With emeritus status, "I can use the library and a few other minor things," she said. "You don't just rewrite a textbook without actually going through other literature, and for that I need to use the library. Which means the online journal resources, which is a wealth of information."

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