C.E. Byrd alum is first woman to head College of Science at LSU

Today’s installment features the incredible story of a Shreveport native – a protein biochemist — who has made significant strides in the field of science. What a great read!

When Cynthia B. Peterson was named dean of the LSU College of Science in 2014, she became the first woman to hold that position. She also holds the Seola Arnaud and Richard Vernon Edwards, Jr. Professorship in the Department of Biological Sciences.

She leads a college of five departments and the Museum of Natural Science with about 250 faculty and more than 2,900 undergraduate and graduate students. Peterson earned a bachelor’s degree of science in biochemistry at LSU followed by a PhD in biochemistry from the LSU Health Sciences Center in Shreveport.

Peterson then pursued postdoctoral training at the University of California, Berkley before assuming an assistant professor position at the University of Tennessee in 1992. Promoted to associate professor with tenure in 1997 and then to full professor in 2002, she held the Kenneth and Blaire Mossman Professorship in Biomedicine at UT and served as the associate dean of academic personnel in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Peterson (class of 1975) is one of six individuals – five alumni and one faculty member — who will be inducted into the C.E. Byrd 2022 Hall of Fame. The other inductees include Jericho Brown (class of 1994), a Pulitzer Prize winner in poetry; Stephen D. Porter (class of 1973), a decorated artist and educator; William Peatross (class of 1961), a successful attorney and community leader; Merrilee Leatherman (class of 1960), an acclaimed journalist and community leader; and former faculty member Roy Thomas.

Every two years, the C.E. Byrd Alumni Association honors former students and faculty members who illustrate great success in their careers, communities, and made an impact during their time at C.E. Byrd High School. This year’s Hall of Fame Banquet will be held Thursday, Oct. 6th, 2022, with the cocktail hour starting at 6:00 p.m. and the ceremony beginning at 6:30 p.m. at East Ridge Country Club.

When did you develop your love for science?

I was someone who always loved school and I had very broad interests for a long time. I guess I still do. When I got to college, I had a couple of key experiences that shaped my future in science. When I was a senior in college, I was given the opportunity to be a teaching assistant for freshman chemistry laboratories. That was a big responsibility! And it gave me keen insight into the hard work that teaching required – and also to the great joy that comes when your students succeed. I also was given an unexpected opportunity to do undergraduate research as part of a junior-level chemistry lab. Half of the semester was devoted to an independent project that each of the students worked out individually with a faculty member. This was an important encounter with the social nature of science – and how it really works. I learned that science is mostly a team venture. I was part of a group of graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and the professor – all working toward a common goal. It was exciting to be part of the discussion about experiments and the big overarching research question. These two seminal experiences – teaching and research while I was an LSU undergraduate – opened my eyes to science as a career and set me on the path to graduate school, postdoctoral work and a faculty career of my own. In my profession and in my personal life, I still have broad interests and embrace the idea of lifelong learning.

How did Byrd High School help prepare you for your academic success?

I had an outstanding math and science education at Byrd High School. To be clear, I had outstanding education across the board. I enjoyed Biology as a sophomore and then took Chemistry as a junior from an infamous teacher – Major Larmoyeux – who said: “You think this is hard? Just wait until you get to Organic Chemistry in college.” I took that as a personal challenge, I believe. When I got to LSU, I combined my interest in Biology and desire to rise to Major Larmoyeux’s challenge with a decision to study Biochemistry. I stuck with it and have loved that combination ever since. Science majors need strong Math skills. Quite frankly, Math was always my very best subject. I am grateful to all my teachers for Geometry, Algebra I and II and Advanced Math – Mr. Harkness, Ms. Malone and Ms. Moody. The trigonometry and pre-calculus preparation I got at Byrd from Ms. Moody paved the way for me in college for Calculus and beyond. I will never forget the time she asked me to teach our advanced math class! That obviously was my very first experience in teaching – and I learned that teaching is the best way to master a subject.

What are some of your fondest memories from Byrd?

I remember my time at Byrd so fondly. These were such happy times. I love thinking back to pep rallies, football games, flag raisings, homecoming festivities, senior parties, cheerleading practice, debate trips, Mu Alpha Theta competitions, and more. It all seems like a whirlwind of fun now. I was encouraged and supported by outstanding faculty who kept me motivated. My favorite times really boil down to hanging around with my friends, enjoying time together in and away from school. I had a great group of friends who have lasted a lifetime – we pushed each other to do our best and to enjoy life at the same time!

How did you feel when you were told of your induction into the Hall of Fame?

Humbled. I learned that Mike Griffith had spearheaded my nomination, and he had worked behind the scenes to gather information. I got to know Mike in my current position as dean of the College of Science at LSU. Mike earned his PhD at LSU and enjoyed an illustrious career in industry afterwards, working for DuPont, Owens-Corning and ARCO Chemical. He is a highly accomplished scientist and generous philanthropist. For him to have taken time to nominate me for this award just bowled me over. I am very grateful – and I am so excited to celebrate this lovely evening with Mike, my family and so many friends from Byrd.

What is your advice to kids who want to pursue a career in science?

A key piece of advice is that science is based on curiosity – learn to ask questions and then decide what is needed to get answers to those questions. I hope that people understand that science is more about what we do not know than what we know. It goes beyond a set of facts and is about solving problems that have not been answered. I remind prospective and current college students of three things – science is fun; science is important; and science will take you places. While “fun” may not be the first word that comes to everyone’s mind, it is for me. That word underscores how engaging and rewarding it can be to work at the cutting edge – learning new things and working with interesting people all the time. Science allows us to address the most important issues of our time. It is at the beginning of the innovation ecosystem that translates science to solutions for our society. A current example comes from the pandemic. I have had several individuals who trained in my laboratory as graduate students or postdocs go to work at Pfizer. One of them was the lead for the RNA team on the COVID vaccine! While I myself do not study viruses or vaccines, this individual trained with me and learned to ask questions and harness technology to answer those questions. As scientists, we are always looking forward to new, important questions – and we keep abreast of emerging technologies that are the best to tackle those questions. Finally, science does take us places – literally. Science is a global enterprise. One of the great joys in my life has been working with individuals from around the world and traveling for collaborations and conferences in some of the most interesting locations. This work has taken me across the US and to Europe, Asia, Central America and Australia. What a journey!

What is your all-time favorite movie? Favorite book?

Movies – I love the oldies. Dr. Zhivago stands out.
Books – it is hard to come up with one book. Here are a few of my favorites:

Personal History by Katharine Graham
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

What do you like to do to relax?

I love to read and love to travel. The way our family travels is action-packed – not the definition of relaxing – but so rewarding and broadening.

Contact Harriet at sbjharriet@gmail.com