Professor Peggy Cebe

Professional Biography

Peggy Cebe is a Professor of Physics at Tufts University in Medford, MA.  She received her Ph. D. in Physics from Cornell University in 1984 and spent four years at the Caltech/NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, first as a postdoctoral research associate, and then as a member of the technical staff where she was promoted to Technical Group Leader of the Polymer Physics Group.  She joined the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering in 1988, working in the area of semicrystalline polymer structure and properties.  In 1995, Prof. Cebe began her present position on the faculty at Tufts University, in the Department of Physics and Astronomy.  Her current areas of research include the structure and properties of semicrystalline polymers, nanocomposites, and biopolymers. She performs high precision, high accuracy heat capacity measurements on these systems, combined with dielectric relaxation and X-ray scattering.  She is the author/co-author of 170 peer reviewed publications and has raised over $4,970,000 in research support grants.

In 2010, Prof. Cebe was a recipient of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring, for her program to provide research opportunities for deaf and hard of hearing undergraduates.  She is a Fellow of the American Physical Society (2008) and the American Chemical Society (2015), and served as Chair of the APS Committee on the Status of Women in Physics and Chair of the ACS Division of Polymeric Materials: Science and Engineering.   She is a Fellow of the North American Thermal Analysis Society (2008) and in 2013 received the Mettler Award for Outstanding Achievement in Thermal Analysis.  Prof. Cebe served as the President of NATAS in 2015.  In 2014 she was recipient of the Tufts University Graduate School Award for Mentoring.  She received the highest academic award for Tufts faculty in 2016, when she was awarded the university’s Distinguished Scholarship Award.  Over 30 years in academia, Prof. Cebe has mentored 24 graduate students and 143 undergraduate student researchers. Of these undergraduates, 71% are from groups under-represented in the STEM disciplines.

In her leisure time, Prof. Cebe enjoys hiking and bicycling, reading and cooking.

Personal History – The Influences That Shaped Me

(These remarks are adapted from the Introduction to a lecture given by Prof. Cebe at the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics, held at Penn State U. in 2014.)

Good morning, undergraduate students, graduate students, and teachers. I am delighted to be here to present at the American Physical Society Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics.  I never met a professional practicing woman physicist until I was 27 years old and in graduate school at Cornell University.  In many ways, the situation has improved dramatically for women in the years since, and your attendance at this conference is one example.

In preparing for this presentation I had a discussion with one of my senior undergraduate students who is attending a similar conference but at Stony Brook.  I asked Ellen what she expected to hear from the speaker and what would be the most meaningful things for her.  She had actually done one better, and spoken to other Tufts undergraduate women physics majors and got a collected opinion about what they would like to hear.  Ellen said that it was the opinion of the group that first, they would like to learn something about mentoring and how important mentoring was in my career, and second, they would be interested in hearing about choices that students make along the way in their professional lives.  One example of such a choice is whether to work in industry or academia.

In consideration of these opinions, I will begin my presentation with a bit of history about how I came to be a scientist.  I knew by the time I was nine years old that I wanted to be a scientist.  I was fascinated by dinosaurs before it became fashionable.  I spent hours rooting through gravel driveways in our neighborhood looking for small fossils imprinted in the stones.  I had no formal exposure to any science until I was in the seventh grade, so that would be about at age 12.  But I did have an important influence from my father.  My father did not complete college but had to drop out in the middle of his senior year for financial reasons.  But he was excellent self taught engineer and would discuss science topics with me even though I didn’t understand very much.  I’m sure that a large part of the reason that I became a scientist is because I adored my father and wanted to follow in his footsteps.

However I grew up at a time when it was not common for women to be professional scientists so there was not a lot of external support or mentoring for that career choice. The only careers that were highly supported for women were nursing, secretarial, or the teaching profession.  I decided that I would become a high school teacher of physics.  In addition my elder sister, who is 10 years older than I am, was an English major in college and became a high school English teacher.  She had a large influence on my decision to go into teaching.

My interest in the sciences continued all through high school, but my teachers did not think very much of my capabilities.  The reason is that I was incorrigible in high school.    That means “unable to be controlled.”  I did not want anybody telling me what to do, and this inability to be reined in influenced the way my teachers thought about me. They thought I was an intellectual lightweight.  Of course I was aware of this opinion, and I decided to do something that would effectively “quote unquote” show them a thing or two. I thought “what is the most difficult thing that I could do?” –  and the answer was – major in physics.  When I was making applications to go to college, one of my teachers asked me what I was intending to major in.  I replied “I’m going to major in physics”.  Thinking that I didn’t know the difference between the two she asked me “you mean physical ed?”  So that gives you the idea that I got absolutely no encouragement for a career in science from the teachers that I had in high school.

My life story improved dramatically when I got to college. Here is where I found some real mentorship.  I attended a small State College in Pennsylvania called Edinboro State College. Now it’s called Edinboro University, but it is still about the same size as when I attended.  The main emphasis of this college was training elementary and high school teachers.  In my first semester of college I was taking introductory physics, a first course in calculus, and three other liberal arts subjects. At the end of the semester I was meeting with my advisor, and he had just received my grade reports.  I had received A’s in all my liberal arts subjects but I got a B in calculus and a B in physics.  My advisor said something to me that changed my life forever, and it was only two words.  When he opened and read the grade report, he said “Oh, Peg!”  At that moment I realized that he had higher expectations for me, and he was disappointed in me.  It is absolutely the case that when people you respect believe in you, and expect a lot from you, you are more likely to work up to that expectation.  As a result of those two words, I never got another B in physics or math for the rest of my college career.

After college I became a high school teacher of physics and mathematics, and even surprisingly, of chemistry, when the need arose.  I spent seven years as a high school teacher, and while I am very glad of the experience I got, in retrospect I would have to say that I waited too long before going back to graduate school.  After that length of time my mathematics skills had deteriorated significantly.  So, while I think that I can easily recommend that people take a year or two off before heading to graduate school, don’t wait as long as I did.

I was very lucky to be admitted to Cornell University, at a time when there was beginning to arise more strong encouragement for women to take up careers in the sciences.  But, I was totally unprepared for any aspect of research. I had never done research at all, and I was terrified of large and complex equipment.  There had been no opportunity at my undergraduate college to participate in any research.  I can strongly recommend to you that you should take advantage of any opportunity you have to get involved in research as an undergraduate.  Just seeing how a laboratory is managed, and how data collection is arranged and accomplished, and watching other students working in the laboratory – all of these can be invaluable experiences.  Throughout my years in academia, I have tried to provide opportunities for large numbers of undergraduates to work in my research labs, and up to this point over the course of the last 25 years about 110 undergraduate students have worked with me.  For this effort, and a program I developed for deaf undergraduates, I was honored by President Obama with the Presidential Mentoring Award.

Graduate school was undoubtedly the most difficult thing that I have ever done in my life. I was not prepared for the rigors of the academic courses in graduate school because of some gaps in undergraduate coursework (for example, I missed taking quantum mechanics because it was taught in the semester when I had to do practice teaching in the local high school), and also the fact that I had been out of school for a while.  But I fell in love with research and consider my time at Cornell to be some of the best years of my life.  When I started at Cornell in 1978 there were only three women students in the classes ahead of me.  By the time I left in 1984 there were 30 women in the classes behind me.   This is a tribute to the aggressive recruitment effort that Cornell made to bring in graduate Women in physics.  One important aspect of mentorship was peer mentoring.  The graduate women in physics (and other related fields) all got together about once a month for lunch and formed our own support group.  We always had one women give a lecture on a science-related topic, and tried to keep the meeting from deteriorating into a pity party.  It’s generally not a good idea to sit around feeling sorry for yourself.  Life is going to throw some tough things at you – that’s part of the human condition – but if you are a fighter, you will be able to survive and even flourish.

When I was choosing a research topic for my graduate PhD research, I made a strategic choice to select an area that was interdisciplinary and, in my view, highly practical.  I decided to go into the area of polymer physics. One driving force behind this was that my significant other was a low-temperature physicist which was a highly esoteric field of research. I thought that the two of us would have better chances to find jobs in the same city if at least one of us were working in an area of practical importance.

This turned out to be very important choice and it was the reason that I was offered a postdoctoral associateship at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena California after I graduated from Cornell.  Some important new materials called second-generation composites, were just coming online for use as lightweight materials in space applications.  I spent four years at JPL studying crystalline polymers for use as advanced composite materials.

This in turn led to the offer of a faculty position at MIT in the materials science and engineering department studying crystalline polymers.  I have not too many pleasant memories of my time at MIT. It was a time when the treatment of women faculty was absolutely horrid. When I first arrived at MIT there were two other junior women faculty members; I made a third. When we talked among ourselves we were very optimistic. We thought at least one of us would make it.  There had never been a tenured woman faculty member in that department at MIT. The only other woman who had ever been in the department as a faculty member was denied tenure a few years before I arrived.  I was completely unprepared for the level of political backstabbing that occurred.  I would say that I was totally naïve. As a result I could never anticipate what was going to happen, because I could never believe that people would actually behave that way.  There was absolutely no effective mentoring of the female faculty.  Of the three faculty women I mentioned, all of us were removed one way or another.  Despite this negative, there were two positive developments. First, an enlightened faculty member became the chair of that department and made it his duty to change the treatment of women faculty. The situation is much better in the present day.

Second, as a result of leaving MIT, I acquired my dream job, which is the one I have right now at Tufts.  Going to Tufts after being at MIT was like going to heaven.  Now before I consume all of my lecture time with life history, I had better get on with some introduction to the research that I am currently involved in.

In 2000, when I first began collaborating with the Biomedical Engineering dept. at Tufts, I did not know what an amino acid was.  I had colleagues in the department who dragged me, somewhat kicking and screaming, into a brand new area of research.  We’ve made some important discoveries by using thermal measurements on nanogram-sized samples of an important biomaterial, which is silk fibroin protein. A few of these discoveries I will highlight for you today.