Like many engineers, Tonya Peeples is a problem-solver at heart. After spending six months as interim dean of the College of Engineering, the chemical engineering professor took the position on a full-time basis in January and turned her attention to budgetary challenges, how the college can best match its expanding facilities with an evolving offering of programs, and the day-to-day student experience. Peeples, who grew up in Fayetteville, N.C., has a doctorate degree in chemical engineering from Johns Hopkins University and is a fellow in the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering. She came to Penn State in 2018 as a professor of chemical engineering and the college’s inaugural associate dean for equity and inclusion, and was previously associate dean for diversity and outreach and professor of chemical and biochemical engineering at the University of Iowa.

We recently sat down with Peeples to discuss how her educational background and experience as a classroom instructor, researcher, and student advocate have influenced her vision for the college, and her priorities moving forward.


PENN STATER: What excites you most about the new West Campus facilities, and what do they mean for the college?

PEEPLES: Just the opportunity for students to have this world-class facility that they have a lot of pride in, they’re excited to be there, and to gather and to do collaborative research, to team, to build things [see "Westward Expansion"]. There’s a lot of opportunity for those departments that are moving in there­­­—for collaboration, for tackling problems together, then for also being a home base for the students. There’s going to be a lot of opportunities for the students to connect with staff, to connect with each other, and to connect with the faculty that are housed there. At the college, we’ve always been spread over multiple buildings. So how do we make the most of the new space while also thinking about the climate for students that are going to be engaging across multiple spaces on campus?


PS: What other opportunities for expansion do you envision, whether that’s facilities or majors or programs?

PEEPLES: I’ve been using this acronym [GRACE – Growing capacity, Refining programs, Accelerating impact, Community, and Excellence], talking about responding to the challenges with grace. When we think about growth, there’s a sense of growing capacity, and there are majors that are high-demand; what would it look like if everybody who wanted to get into this major could? How do we grow our ability to reach those folks who are considering engineering? There’s great demand in many of these careers, and it’s trying to get that message to people that, hey, we have scholarships. We can’t graduate enough engineers to solve our workforce needs. One thing that’s important about engineering is that folks go into careers and they’re able to very quickly pay off college. If this is something that you’re passionate about, it’s something that you might be able to afford to do, right?

In terms of [our] facilities, we have several departments that are moving into the new spaces, but we have others that could use renovated space, or a new footprint for their operations, so the next phase is to think about those facilities. We have certainly a great interest in the CHIPS and Science Act, and there’s work going on between the Materials Research Institute and electrical engineering, thinking about, how do we get the right labs for the fabrication of microelectronics? How do we build skills? There are folks in engineering science and mechanics who do a lot of education and workforce training. How do we build opportunities to reach into the sector where we’re providing skills training for folks who are going into these different career paths?


Tonya Peeples standing outside eng building, photo by Steve Tressler


PS: When did you start to gravitate toward leadership positions, and what have you learned from those roles?

PEEPLES: I really started to gravitate toward leadership positions as a faculty member. Some of it came from thinking about the students that we were serving, and recognizing, OK, who’s going to do this? I was a faculty adviser for many student organizations over the course of my career. And as I got more involved in the discipline and in the professional organization, the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, there were opportunities to lead. At [Iowa], I started leading some of the recruitment of students, and then thinking about student success, and then I became a leader in our Sloan program. Penn State is also a Sloan institution. [The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation provides funding for underrepresented students to pursue doctorates in STEM subjects.] Some of my first interactions with folks from Penn State was when we were coming together at this national meeting, [and] we would bring all the Sloan scholars. I got more involved in leadership from that experience. I shared with a friend about a vision I had for student success, particularly looking at things from the terms of graduate students, looking at underrepresented students and how we could do a better job. She said to me, “Your vision is bigger than a department.” That got me thinking more about opportunities in administration, to have this holistic approach to thinking about impact. I think it was always from a service mindset. It wasn’t necessarily, I want to be in charge.


PS: How much does an interdisciplinary approach factor in—whether it’s across programs, or entrepreneurship, or AI—to some of these long-term plans?

PEEPLES: A lot of the work that we do is interdisciplinary, and there’s a lot of connection between the College of Engineering and the College of Medicine. That’s listed as one of the [president’s] priorities of transforming health through academic and clinical synergy. Engineering faculty play a huge role in working with folks in the health sciences; the new [Engineering Collaborative Research and Education] building, there are folks from multiple departments going there. So there’s a lot of cross-fertilization, and even some faculty who are joint between science and engineering, or have affiliations with social science and engineering. Entrepreneurship is a big part of what we do in the School of Engineering Design and Innovation, and I think SEDI has a real role to play in thinking about how we educate students and provide opportunities for folks to come in who want to pursue microcredentials, [rural] campus learning related to some of these emerging areas. We’ve really been thinking about how we position our departments, and how we partner with other colleges for the benefit of the university and the impact we can make. And we do share—ag and bio engineering is shared between the College of Agriculture and the College of Engineering. Interdisciplinarity is a big part of the fabric of how the college operates and how the faculty engage.


PS: Are you still doing any teaching and research?

PEEPLES: I am doing research. [Peeples studies environmentally beneficial biocatalysis and bioprocesses under extreme environments.] I don’t do that much teaching. I might come in and guest lecture in a course here and there.


PS: How do you balance that with your current responsibilities, and what have you missed about teaching?

PEEPLES: I certainly miss regular classroom interaction. I do interact with students in seminars and meeting with the undergraduate council or with grad students. I try to make myself accessible and be able to interact with and mentor some of the different scholar programs. I would say for research, it’s really tough. But I try to keep things going in the lab because I enjoy that mentorship of the students.


PS: How do you hope to build on efforts that you made as associate dean of equity and inclusion?

PEEPLES: I have a great team, and that makes a lot of difference. Equity and inclusion isn’t one person’s responsibility, so it’s important that we have the infrastructure we need to advance our goals. Everybody has a role to play. At the same time, I think about, OK, here’s the challenge that we’re facing: How do we educate people about creating a welcoming environment? If we make a decision about tuition, how does it affect our lower-income students? If we do hybrid, how are we handling accessibility?


PS: Engineering is still a pretty male-dominated field. What can Penn State do to help balance things out from a gender perspective?

PEEPLES: One is our communications, really making it clear that we welcome anybody, and we certainly welcome women into the disciplines, and to really think about the role we play in producing the talent. The diversity that we see in industry is a reflection of the diversity that we see in college. If we’re really trying to graduate enough talent to serve the needs, we have to think about educating everybody. I think some of the issues we face come before they’re college students, as students are making their choices about what math to take in middle school and high school. And so some of the things that we do, like Engineering Ambassadors, where we’re getting out into the schools and changing the conversation around what it means to do engineering—that engineering helps people. The other piece is thinking about it from an admissions yield standpoint. Of the people that apply, we definitely have differential yield in terms of women choosing Penn State versus going to another institution. What are those things that impact that decision? We have a history of having a Women in Engineering Program. If we can get them to campus, they can really see the value of being at Penn State.

Affordability is an issue as well. We have to think about how we leverage our scholarships, how we recruit. And once students are here, we have to think about the climate and culture they’re experiencing in our classrooms, and recognize that not everybody has the same background and comfort level in working across difference. There’s a lot of challenge out there in the world, in the U.S., over DEI education and all that. I think the power at Penn State is to try and anchor everybody in these Penn State values, and say, these are the values. Here’s the policies. Here are our professional codes of ethics. These are things that we should be learning together in terms of how we succeed as a community. It used to be, “Look to your left, look to your right; one of you is not going to graduate.” If you change that conversation to, “Look to your left, look to your right; we expect you to graduate together. This is your community,” it’s a different message—we’re not trying to weed you out; we’re trying to rule you in. And giving you as much opportunity to succeed as possible. And with the modern complexities of identity, some of the students are further ahead than we are in terms of thinking; they don’t want to think about the binary, right? They just want to come and be people. So we have to think about, even some of our assumptions and interventions we have, are they the right things for this time? How do we create that sense of teamwork, community, and success [for] the students?


PS: What can the college do to attract the best students across all groups, beyond the faculty and research reputation? Why else should they want to come here?

PEEPLES: We always talk about the alumni network, that it’s not just the faculty and the research, but the people who have come through there that are your sponsors for this opportunity, or your network. I think students appreciate that network, and we have some great alums who care a lot about Penn State. Then I think you have an older generation that’s thinking about the future in [terms] of the impact on their grandkids. We have [done] some really thoughtful work trying to make sure our students have modern tools, that they’re up on AI and these things. I would like everybody that graduates to look back fondly on their Penn State experience and say that it was the best time of their lives, right? I think the other thing that’s of value is being a part of a comprehensive university. It’s not just an engineering school.


exterior engineering building, photo by Steve Tressler


PS: What does sustainability mean to you, and why has that been one of the core focuses for the college?

PEEPLES: It’s related to stewardship. If you are taking care of the world, you’re minding resources, thinking about minimizing waste, reusing. I’m a chemical engineer, so I think of the green chemistry aspects of sustainability—reducing your environmental footprint in terms of the negative impacts of technology, and trying to think about, how can you build in from the design stage lower waste, lower emissions, ways to recycle and recover, and get the best out of our resources? I think it resonates really strongly with engineers.


PS: You mentioned alumni. How can they be assets for what you’re trying to do here?

PEEPLES: I had the opportunity to meet with our industrial professional advisory council; they come back and give some critical feedback to our departments, whether it’s how are our students doing, industry trends, those types of things. But this group opened the conversation: “Hey, we go through this all the time in business. We can help. Put us to work. Let’s help you think about organizing your staffing, or managing through budget transitions. This is a change management thing.” They’re very interested in helping us think about things like, if we’re developing new credentials, what would be most exciting for folks who are out in the working world, that might be adult learners that want to engage with us? There’s a rich community of folks that could help. And then some of them, I think when they get to a certain stage in their career, they want to help by giving back, not just with their time but some of their resources. And that’s been helpful too as we think about philanthropy and its impact on scholarships and on our facilities, and thinking about, how does it help us with excellence? How do they give us a bead on the things we need to make sure that we’re managing well?


PS: How have your experiences as a faculty member helped you to understand both the research needs and teaching needs of the faculty?

PEEPLES: That experience reminds me of how demanding it is. Depending on what stage you are in your career, not everybody needs the same thing. We have to think about whether faculty are supported in the ways that they need to be, whether their workload is valued and understood. At the same time, I think we’re at a point in the history of Penn State where we really need to examine the workload of faculty. There are some departments where the faculty are advising students. They’re helping recruit graduate students. Those things don’t get counted in the credit-hour model, but are very valuable to the success of our students. Because I remember what that’s like, I try to be an advocate for faculty and to make sure that we pay attention to what’s reasonable and fair.

If you’re a full professor, depending on your career stage, maybe you say, I want to focus my attention on this area of research, and I want to go full force on that. How do we allow space for that? It’s hard for the junior faculty, because they have to get tenure. There’s not as much development for folks in their mid-career to think about the impact that they want to have. And then we have a whole other set of things that we think about the folks who are the [tenure] track faculty in terms of the opportunities to advance. What’s a reasonable workload if you’re full time and teaching, as opposed to somebody who’s doing teaching and research?


PS: Tell me about you. What are some things you’re passionate about? What are some things you do to unwind?

PEEPLES: I read a lot. I spend a lot of time with my family. I have a teenager and a 20-something, and so it’s an interesting time in their lives. I do yoga. I’m trying to do all kinds of things to reduce stress, exercise, and all of that. I haven’t been going to many events since the pandemic. But I would like to start going to theater and music and those kinds of things, and enjoy that with my family. I have a huge album collection that I inherited from my dad, all kinds of jazz albums. All those are things that I really enjoy.



The College of Engineering is the largest academic college at Penn State. Just how big? Check the numbers.

104,000+: alumni

14: Undergraduate degree programs

47: Graduate degree programs

25: Fields of study

11,164: Undergrads enrolled

2,197: Graduate students enrolled

$118.7: Million research expenditures