Profile: Paula Turner
The joy of making thingsPaula Turner, associate professor of physics, is as comfortable with a saw or a hammer as she is with the fourteen-inch telescope housed inside the Franklin Miller Observatory. That comfort with construction has come in handy-both in her work with the observatory and with local community theater groups.
She is, without a doubt, a hands-on person. "Being a physicist, you get a broad and eclectic set of skills," says Turner, who is the member of the physics department most likely to be crafting materials for use in laboratory classes. "The things I most enjoy are making things."
The Miller Observatory's move to its new location west of Gambier at the end of 2004 required Turner to put her skills to good use. While the silo-like structure and its telescope were moved from the old location, a new, computerized mount was supplied for the telescope. Turner has spent quite a few hours at the new site, machining new parts for the telescope and performing technical calibrations to adjust the equipment for its new home.
"It takes some fair nights and some time," says Turner, who has been the College's resident astronomer since joining the faculty in 1992. On a recent clear night, she spent five hours making adjustments. "With a new science facility, you really have to get all of the kinks worked out. It's a recommissioning."
Turner has also been building a wood-framed deck inside the observatory to make the telescope more easily accessible to visitors. The telescope, mounted high, was previously reachable only from a ladder. Her carpentry prowess has won praise from the Knox County drama community. In a recent all-campus e-mail advertising the Mount Vernon Players' production of Cabaret, Jeffrey Delozier '07 jokingly referred to her as "Paula 'I can build the set in an afternoon' Turner"-a hint at her local fame as a builder of theatrical sets.
"My talents seem to be in demand," says Turner. "My daughter's in rehearsal for two productions right now, and there's another one going on at her old grade school. I have built props for all three of them."
But Turner does more than just build sets. She also advises the productions as the adult in charge of Mount Vernon's youth theater program.
When advising the youth theater group, she draws on her skills as a teacher. "Because I'm not a director," she comments, "I don't feel like I have any better idea than anybody else what to put on stage. I let the students do it. I'm present at auditions and rehearsals; I'm present when they're building the sets. But I view my job there the same as I view my day job. I'm there to teach them, to help them take the next step."
Theater has always been a part of her life, beginning with her work on backstage prop and set crews during her high-school years near rural Streator, Illinois. It's an important part of her family life as well. Her husband, Security and Safety Officer Daniel P. Turner '99, was a drama major at Kenyon and is active in community theater. Their sixteen-year-old daughter, Samantha, performs in several community productions.
The family's love of theater extends beyond the stage during Halloween, a holiday that Turner relishes as "family sport." She is widely known for outlandish costumes.
On one memorable Halloween, still talked about by her past students, Turner appeared in class as a clown on roller skates. Another time, when Dan dressed as Santa Claus, she transformed herself into an arboreal accompaniment. "I constructed a Christmas tree around myself. With lights," she says. "I actually plugged in. Walking down Middle Path as a Christmas tree was pretty extreme." And all three family members dressed another year as Lucky Charms. Dan appeared as a leprechaun, while Paula used foam board to turn her daughter into a pink heart and herself into a blue moon. "We were magically delicious," Turner quips.
The family's love for Halloween seems a natural outgrowth of Turner's wide-ranging interests. "I like the technical challenge of making things," she says. "That's what we do as a family. We do Halloween. We do theater."