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 CCSU Professors

Kris LarsenKris Larsen:
A Multifaceted Star and a Great Prof in CCSU’s Universe

“The very heart of science is an ever-changing knowledge base and discovery.”

— Kristine Larsen

CCSU’s premier astronomy professor, Kristine Larsen, held high as a shining example of “A Great Prof of Connecticut” in the Hartford Courant’s “Northeast Magazine” (August 2002), may have her head in the heavens, but her heart is with her students here on earth.

Aware that the mix of physics and astronomy can set student’s brains reeling, she is “intuitively sensitive.” Marty Conners, who has taken several courses with her said, “She has the ability to simplify the subject to help you get your arms around it. She doesn’t hit you right up front with all the glorious complexities.”

A master of metaphor, Larsen invents scores of comparisons (for instance, the universe might be shaped “like a Pringle’s potato chip”) to make white dwarfs and pulsars or abstract ideas on how light is bent by gravity less daunting. Still, Larsen, the co-winner of the 2002 Excellence in Teaching Award at CCSU, speaks with directness to a first-year student staring at her tattoos and eyebrow ring. “Let’s understand: I don’t fit the mold,” she says simply. “Welcome to academe. We try to be open-minded, free thinkers, and shun white-bread and cookie-cutter approaches. You can be unconventional and still amount to something.”

Larsen’s teaching philosophy is founded on her belief that “one size does not fit all: everyone has a different learning style, so teachers need to explain ideas in a variety of ways.” Thus, she may do “the pulsar dance,” whirling and spinning in front of her class in the planetarium in Copernicus Hall to demonstrate a rapidly rotating neutron star. Or, in her General Earth Science class, she tells the Fable of Plate Tectonics: “Pretend you and your friends are at a summer pool party lounging on inflatable rafts (the earth’s plates). You’re all jammed together in the pool. How would you maneuver your rafts on the water (the earth’s interior), say from the center to the edge?”

Her bracing sense of humor puts students at ease. Once, conducting a demonstration in the Planetarium Internship class, Larsen tuned in the 2001 movie theme. Then, recalled former student Steve Hart, now staff research associate at the Arctic and Antarctic Research Center, Scripps Institution of Oceanography: “As the planetarium projector lifted out of the floor, Pink Floyd started booming, and we felt like we were flying through space. The effect was really entertaining. But Dr. Larsen entrusted us with some very valuable equipment, and we gained self-confidence and experience in putting together events for the public, such as programs on solar or lunar eclipses and meteor showers.”

Larsen, who can’t imagine doing anything but teaching science, defies neat “classification.” She is the solicitous owner of pet rabbits, she revels in heavy metal music, and she also follows Tibetan Buddhism’s advice to “revel in the hardships of explaining.” Thus, she has been selflessly committed to her students’ learning. “A friend described me as a dangerous combination of intelligence and passion,” she laughs. “I basically go full throttle. I have one speed, turbo. Don’t expect me to do anything half-heartedly.”

With a mix of high energy and generosity of spirit, Larsen steams ahead. A Class of 1984 CCSU alumna of the Honors Program, which she now directs, she moves agreeably from theoretical physics to advising and registering students. “As soon as she’s finished with shepherding her Honors students, she voluntarily assists in registering all incoming students,” commented Dr. Francis Keefe, director, Advising Center. “She is there in the trenches, operating a registration terminal, advising students, guiding them through the course selection process. She’s in the thick of things from beginning to end.”

A Star Is Born

Larsen holds the Ph.D. and M.S. in physics from the University of Connecticut, and “her doctoral thesis advanced our understanding of the evolution of black holes and their connection to the structure of the universe,” according to her UConn adviser Professor Ronald Mallett. Last year, she was invited to write a biography of Stephen Hawking, the celebrated astronomer whose revolutionary theories on black holes informed Larsen’s thesis.

Early in her career Larsen remembers encountering sexism in a discipline regarded as a male bastion. She has not forgotten the women. Since joining Central in 1989, some of her scholarly work has focused on interrelated areas: the role of women in the history of astronomy; methods of improving pedagogy and attracting underrepresented groups in science; and the role of critical thinking in science education. While she has taught a range of courses in planetary, stellar, and observational astronomy, earth science, and astrophysics, she says, “The Women’s Contributions to Stellar and Galactic Astronomy course is simply my baby.” She also championed the nomination of acclaimed astronomer E. Dorrit Hoffleit, a role model to women in science everywhere, for a CCSU Honorary Doctorate of Science. Hoffleit, who taught for many years at both Harvard and Yale, is renowned for her research on variable stars.

Larsen sheds her light beyond the campus. Since 1990 she has been “indefatigable in participating in the Saturday morning Partners in Science series for middle school students and the residential summer science experience,” said Dr. Kathy Martin-Troy, professor of biological sciences. Her “Night Sky” workshops require time-consuming preparation but are popular and highly educational. Larsen has worked with teachers at elementary- through high school-level to enhance the way science is brought to pre-college students. It was in this role that she was invited to be a consultant in the development of the American Association of Variable Star Observer’s Hands-on Astrophysics curriculum package. It was in recognition of her tireless devotion to education and outreach that she was named Astronomer of the Year by the Astronomical Society of Greater Hartford in 1999.

A 20-year devotee of Stellafane, the premiere international amateur telescope-making and observing convention held annually in Springfield, VT, Larsen this year was voted into the prestigious host organization. “I’m grinding my first telescope mirror by hand,” she grins. “Not bad for a theoretical physicist who is all thumbs. I’m making it 8 inches, not the classic 6, because I never settle for the minimum of anything.”

— Geri Radacsi
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