Yale People

Piersonite, physicist, vice provost for research – it’s Peter Schiffer

A portrait of Yale scientist Peter Schiffer.

As a Yale undergraduate, Peter Schiffer ’88 admits he spent more time at the Yale Political Union (YPU) than in the lab. It’s rather ironic that, nearly three decades later, the Piersonite and Progressive Party member has returned to Yale as vice provost for research, a role “intended to support research and scholarship across the entire enterprise and not just science and engineering — the social sciences, the humanities, and the arts.”

Along with debating at the YPU and hanging out with friends, Schiffer found time for coursework and undergraduate research in physics. He made the trek up Science Hill on foot — all the way from Pierson. “When I was an undergrad, there weren’t shuttles or even bike lanes,” Schiffer laughed. “Being back in New Haven with a car is a completely different experience.”

Schiffer wasn’t always sure he wanted to be a career scientist, “Some scientists start out with one specific topic or problem that really fascinates them. Others develop into the career, and I’m one of the latter,” he said. “I started with intro physics, and then as I took more physics classes, I became more and more excited by what I was learning, and just kept going from there.”

After completing his Ph.D. in physics at Stanford in 1993, Schiffer did postdoctoral work at AT&T Bell Laboratories where he began to work in emerging areas of the study of magnetism. Schiffer later became an assistant professor at Notre Dame, received tenure and eventually his first administrative appointment at Pennsylvania State University, and was a professor and vice chancellor for research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for five years.

Today, Schiffer is an international leader in experimental condensed matter physics, specializing in the study of “frustrated” magnets. In addition to his role as vice provost, he will run a lab at Yale and advise graduate students who work with him there.

Schiffer’s move into the administrative realm was an outgrowth of his work as a researcher. “I’ve always been interested in more than just the science,” he said. “Based on my involvement in the Political Union, you can see that I wasn’t ever a ‘science and science only’ person. Working to make institutions work better and to have a broader impact than just my own research program appealed to me.”

His first university-wide administrative opportunity came to him while he was on the physics faculty at Penn State. “I was involved with administrative work at the department level,” he explained, “and one day in 2006, the department head came to me and said, ‘Peter, there’s an opening in the central administration, and I think you should apply for it. It will be fun.’”

And it was, Schiffer said. “As a university administrator, I get to meet a wider range of people, learn about many more topics, and have a broader impact than I could possibly have in my own area of research. That’s a lot of fun, and gratifying.”

At Yale, Schiffer is looking to facilitate researchers’ efforts across the university by building support structures, minimizing administrative burdens, and improving communications and transparency regarding how the university operates. Schiffer expects most efforts to be led by what is required to get research done. “Research administration really has to be driven by the needs of researchers themselves because they’re the experts. They have the passion for their fields of study, and I have the responsibility to help them by making it easier for them to navigate the necessary regulatory hurdles and by helping them to find external funding  either from the government or from other sources, including philanthropy,” he said.

Schiffer has also joined the University Science Strategy Committee, chaired by professor Scott Strobel, deputy provost for teaching & learning, and vice president for West Campus planning & program development, that has been convened by Provost Ben Polak. “I expect to take the committee’s recommendations — the recommendations of the great faculty and staff on that committee and the wide range of stakeholders they have consulted — and use them for guidance on ways to help improve research at Yale.”

Because his new role “is to facilitate research — the entire research enterprise — across all schools, across all disciplines,” Schiffer wants everyone at Yale to know that he is here not only for STEM but also the social sciences, humanities, and the arts, in order for Yale to be a balanced and truly great university. “We want to make sure that the spectacular faculty, staff, and students across the Yale research enterprise feel well-supported and have the resources they need to do whatever scholarship they want to do.”

In addition to investing in research across the disciplines, Schiffer will promote research between the disciplines. “So many of the really interesting problems that exist both in science and in society require input from multiple disciplines,” he said.

The convergence of physical sciences, life sciences, engineering, data sciences, computational sciences, you can see that everywhere,” he noted. “The instruments that the life sciences use — the advanced microscopes, the genomics — were enabled by advances in the physical sciences and by the increase in computer power, such as the ability to hold large data sets. In turn, the techniques with which we analyze those data sets come from the computer scientists and mathematicians. It all feeds together.”

Improving communications in regard to research at Yale will only aid these collaborations, said Schiffer. “Getting groups of faculty and researchers from across the spectrum to work together and making it easier for them to work together, that’s where there are just incredible opportunities.”

Of course, there will continue to be an emphasis on basic science, for basic science is one of Yale’s great strengths, noted Schiffer. “People don’t always think about how quickly research in basic physics, chemistry, and biology is affecting our lives.”

Take computers, for example, he said. “The fact that computers have big hard drives in them and can store a lot of data — that wasn’t the case 30 years ago. There was an advance in the late ’80s, early ’90s coming out of basic physics labs on how to sense changes in very small magnets. That fundamental physics research, which ended up leading to a Nobel Prize, turned into better hard drive technology, and those bigger hard drives allowed an enormous revolution in how we use computers.” And that data storage revolution had a catalytic impact on all other fields of the natural sciences and engineering, as well as creativity and discourse in the social sciences, arts and humanities, he noted.

You don’t know when you’re going to discover something that turns out to be really important 5, 10, 20 years down the line,” Schiffer added. “And if you only look where you think something might happen, you’re likely to miss out on the really big leaps forward.”

When asked what he notices now about Yale, returning with fresh eyes, Schiffer said, “The nice thing about Yale is that the scale of the research enterprise offers a wide range of activities in which students can participate. The opportunities for our undergraduates are truly boundless.”

The campus is beautiful. The world-class faculty and students are just a pleasure to interact with,” said Schiffer. “The special resources Yale has in its people, facilities, and infrastructure present tremendous opportunities for research.”