Impromptu: Scott Sibley
Goucher’s Interim Provost
At the start of the 2018 semester, Goucher College announced that Scott Sibley would take over as interim provost. A professor of chemistry with a focus on physical chemistry, Sibley’s research often pertains to light. He hails from Western Massachusetts and has taught at Goucher for over 20 years.
Tell me about yourself, where are you from?
I’m from Chicopee, Massachusetts, which is in Western Massachusetts, so no Boston accent. I went to Williams College as an undergraduate, which is not too dissimilar from Goucher. It’s a small, liberal arts college up in the mountains in Western Mass, and I thoroughly enjoyed my time there. It was beautiful and a wonderful education, as well.
And for your doctorate program?
I went to University of Michigan and loved Ann Arbor; it’s one of my favorite places. Then I did two post-doc positions. One at San Jose State as a Dreyfus Fellow. I was teaching and doing research there for two years. Then I did a post-doc at the University of Southern California doing research on light-emitting diodes.
Did you always know you were going to work in chemistry?
Not really. When I started college, I thought I was going to be a science writer, so I was thinking maybe chemistry and then English. I took my first English class and I was a little too shy to speak out enough to make it seem like that was the right fit for me. I ended up going to the sciences, which I loved.
You’re a professor of physical chemistry. For a layperson like me, can you explain what that is?
I do teach analytical here, as well. Physical chemistry is more along the lines of physics applied to chemistry. It’s more mathematical than most other types of chemistry. We look at fundamental phenomena and try to understand the way the world works at the small scale for very tiny objects, or for extremely large ensembles of objects.
What would be an example of a large ensemble?
One example might be all the gas molecules in this room. They’re governed by rules of thermodynamics, of probabilities. Physical chemistry is basically partitioned into the thermodynamic side and the quantum mechanics side. I prefer the quantum mechanics side, but I have taught thermodynamics, which is usually looking at the behavior of large ensembles, heat transfer, and things like that. Quantum mechanics is usually looking at the very small with a lot of emphasis on the way matter interacts with light, and that’s been one of my favorite things to study. with a lot of emphasis on the way matter interacts with light, and that’s been one of my favorite things to study.
I saw that some of the published research you’ve done at Goucher has involved insulin. What did you study about insulin?
Most of my research uses light in some fashion, and specifically fluorescence, where molecules give off light in some way, a type of luminescence. We were using a fluorescent probe that glows when insulin misfolds and binds to this probe. We were trying to study the rate at which insulin aggregates by using light-scattering of the insulin as it fell out of solution, but also a glow that this molecule would have as it was hit with light, as the insulin changed.
What are the implications of that?
It’s distantly related to Alzheimer’s plaque formation, so studying the way things misfold and aggregate was of interest from a fundamental level. That was a collaboration that I had with some other researchers. Because it involved light in some way, I was brought in to help.
Most of the research that I have done recently is on molecules that fluoresce different colors or glow different colors, depending on their environment. So it might glow blue if it’s in one solution, in water, let’s say, and it might glow a different color if it’s in a different solution. Students enjoy working on those because they’re colorful, but also fundamentally, the way the molecule’s behaving is of interest.
Does research happen in the classroom with students?
Usually, students take an independent study course to do research, and they work in the lab instead of in a classroom and they check in with me before or during. Then, over the summer, we get the bulk of our work done where students are in every day as a job. So students do a summer internship and that’s where a lot of the science faculty get their research work done, as part of the Summer Science Research Program.
Switching to your new position, what exactly is the role of a provost?
That’s a good question. Basically, it’s providing direction for the overall academic program. So that includes overseeing other people who look at study abroad, faculty promotion and tenure cases, and student advising, and helping shepherd academic policies. We do interface with other aspects of the college, including meeting with people who do student life and providing an academic perspective on other parts of the college.
What are some of the areas you’re focusing on now?
Well, we’re still implementing our new curriculum, and we’re trying to find the best ways to get the courses that the faculty approved as part of our new curriculum offered to the students. There are a lot of challenges that come across the desk of a provost, I’ve learned.
There have been a lot of conversations about how we want to be student-focused. It’s not new, all Goucher faculty and administrators seem to want to do that, but when you change one thing, it affects other things. How do we provide good advising to the students, so that we can help them be successful from their first semester onwards? Then, how do we continue that advising during their four years, so it isn’t just a one-year-and-done process? We’re looking at new initiatives to try to give students, for example, some guidance towards career education. It’s called the Goucher Advantage, and it will be implemented through the curriculum, mentoring, and professional experience. We’ve been having discussions around that.
You have taken part in a number of events and committees over the years. Why is it important to you to be involved outside of the classroom?
I think one of the reasons you go to a small school is to be able to get involved in a lot of the initiatives. Admissions work I enjoy because I think Goucher has a lot to offer, so I like sharing my experiences, especially experiences in the classroom. When students come to visit, they like to see a face and make a connection. That’s part of the reason why you come to a small school. I’ve enjoyed my time on faculty committees, helping to shape curriculum. It’s been something I’ve done a lot of.
There are other things about being at a small school. When students see you outside the classroom, it has an impact, as well. One of the things I like to do is just be supportive if there’s a concert, if there’s a game. I can’t always go, but I try to make a point if I can, if I have a student on a team, to try to go at least once, especially if they ask me to.
Did your experience at Williams made you look for a career in a liberal arts college?
Yeah, there’s no question about that. I loved my time there. I thought my professors were fantastic. I don’t think I was ready for a larger school at that point in time, and so I like seeing the students here change from their first year as they blossom and become scholars over the course of their four years. I did teach at a state school; that had some nice things about it, as well. But I think I’m more at home in a small school environment.
You’ve now been at Goucher for over 20 years. What has kept you here?
It’s a good place. I mean, when I was looking for colleges, I wanted to go to a liberal arts college. As soon as I saw Towson, and Goucher, and the wooded campus near the metro center, it felt like this was the place where I wanted to be. You’re near an urban environment, but if you walk the trails here, you’re seeing deer and all other sorts of animals. I really value the trails here. I think it’s one of the best things about the campus. It’s nice to just take a little break and get outside the building for a few minutes. You really can feel like you’re not quite in an urban setting.