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Dickinson College Physics Major Investigates the Planets at Carnegie Institution of Science

Peter Driscoll

Inspired by Carl Sagan, former physics major Peter Driscoll ’03 studies the planets in order to better understand our solar system as a staff scientist for Carnegie Institution for Science. In his work, he researches Earth and planetary magnetic fields and interiors using mathematical and numerical techniques.

Can you speak to how Dickinson’s useful liberal-arts education helped you along your career path?           

As a scientist, I think my writing and public speaking skills benefited from Dickinson’s liberal-arts curriculum. Most scientists focus intensely on science in college (oddly enough), whereas at Dickinson I was encouraged to take a broader base of classes, such as in the departments of English, history and philosophy, where I was able to develop as a reader, writer and speaker.    

What was your favorite activity/organization at Dickinson?

Probably being a member/captain of the men’s club volleyball team, and an assistant for the women’s varsity volleyball team. Aside from being able to play a sport I loved, I was able to develop as a leader and coach. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed those roles.

What jumps out as a great memory from your time at Dickinson?

Meeting my future wife Sara Hoover ’03 at a party and catching her trying to cheat at cards. Although Dickinson is a small college, our paths of study were so distinct that we did not meet until senior week during our final year. We now have two daughters and live in D.C.

How do you stay involved with Dickinson?

I spent many years moving frequently on account of the educational trajectory typical to a scientist, so I didn’t have much time with engagement as an alum. If and when my institution offers summer internships again, I will post them at Dickinson. After my junior year I did a summer internship with a Dickinson alum at NASA that played an important role in my career trajectory.

How did you get interested in your work, and what about it excites you most?           

I first fell in love with planets through exposure to Carl Sagan. I remember reading Cosmos in high school, and I knew I had to try to major in physics & astronomy to see if it was something I could do. Dickinson allowed me to do that.           

What does your current work entail?           

I am a staff scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science where I study Earth and planetary magnetic fields and interiors. It is the equivalent of being a professor at a university, except that Carnegie has no students or teaching responsibilities, so I am free to pursue my research. I use mathematical and numerical techniques to investigate planetary internal structure, thermal evolution and magnetic field generation.           

What comes to mind as something unforgettable that you’ve done since you graduated?           

Probably my wedding in 2011 to another Dickinsonian, which was full of other Dickinson alumni, and one professor, I think. Also shaking Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s hand when I received my Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 2010.

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Published March 16, 2021