Michelle Larson's faculty page at Utah State University displays a picture of her cozying up to a bust of Albert Einstein. Lego Albert Einstein.
That combination, science with a populist face, is a pretty fair summation of what she'll have to bring together in her new job as president of Chicago's Adler Planetarium.
Larson, 41, an astrophysicist and lifelong science educator, was appointed the ninth leader of the lakefront science museum by its board in a meeting Tuesday.
Taking over Jan. 1 for the retiring Paul Knappenberger, she will become the Adler's first female president and the first female president of the institutions on Chicago's museum campus: the Adler, the Shedd Aquarium and the Field Museum. Astronomer Maude Bennot ran the Adler from 1937 to 1945, but as acting director.
“I couldn't ask for a better location in which to bring 'em in the doors and turn on their minds,” she said Tuesday in an interview at the Adler before its board made the selection official. “My core value is to interface the scientist — what we do — with the society that we're doing it for.”
She joins an institution that's been mostly made over during Knappenberger's 21-year tenure: redone exhibits that emphasize the planetarium's museum role; the addition of astronomical research and space visualization departments that strengthen ties to academia and cutting-edge science; and a showcase central domed theater that is among the most technologically advanced in the world.
Although attendance (461,000 visited last year) is up 17 percent since 2005, it lags well behind those of its bigger, broader-interest neighbors. Immediate challenges include developing a new strategic plan that will find a home for the massive space shuttle flight simulator it received from NASA and currently has in storage.
In hiring its new leader, the museum's board chairman, John Estey, said, “the No. 1 thing we really wanted to do is continue the conversion of the Adler to a 21st century museum that deals with the kind of ways people learn today.”
Larson has all the necessary skills, Estey said, beginning with her training as an astrophysicist, but also including fundraising and administration.
But perhaps most of all, said Estey, president of S&C Electric Co., “She does have strong interpersonal skills and ... a huge passion (for) translating (science) into terms anybody can understand.”
Like Richard Lariviere, the former University of Oregon president who took the reins at the Field in October, Larson comes to Chicago from a college in the West.
She spent the last six years as an assistant provost and then vice provost at Utah State, where she made a strong impression on colleagues.
“I'm at the other end of my career,” said Utah State Provost Raymond Coward. “She is really among the top two of three professionals I've ever had the opportunity to work with. She's just that good.”
Said Jan Sojka, department head in physics at the Logan, Utah-based university: “The match between her capabilities, her enthusiasms, her training, it's a rather awesome match.”
She helped the Provost's office manage difficult tasks, trimming faculty and budgets as state funding shrank, “humanely” and “as reasonably as possible,” Sojka said.
But Larson still made time for science. She and her husband, astrophysicist and Utah State faculty member Shane Larson, initiated and ran a successful monthly program called Science Unwrapped that regularly filled a 500-seat auditorium and then funneled audience members out into an atrium where they could perform science experiments and talk with scientists.
At those events, Larson said, “One of the most popular stations we ever staff is the one where we just hang a sign that says, ‘Ask me about black holes,' and we put a scientist under the sign.”
Larson's husband, whose own Utah State faculty photo includes a bronze Einstein bust, will stay with their 6-year-old daughter in Utah until she finishes first grade.
Michelle Larson was born in Massachussetts but the family also lived, for a time, in Turkey due to her father's work as an Air Force accountant. When she was 10, the family moved to Anchorage, Alaska. “We drove from Boston to Anchorage, Alaska in an orange Volkswagen van, four children and a bird, my parents. We took a month to make the journey across the continent. By the time we got there the shock was all out of (the move),” she said.
At Montana State University, she earned undergraduate, masters and doctoral degrees in physics. And, invited by NASA to help translate digital images of the sun into something that could be used in classrooms and on the then-fledgling Internet, she discovered her calling.
“I never looked back,” she said. “I remember telling my research adviser, ‘I am enjoying the research … but I will make my career at communicating this research.'”
That career has included stops in astrophysics and education at the Univeristy of California at Berkeley, California Institute of Technology and Penn State. It was during their Caltech tenure, she said, that she and her husband, before they had a child, had season passes to Legoland, and the Einstein photo was taken.
“I'm also photographed somewhere with a Lego pig,” she said. “So I'm glad it's the Einstein one that you found.”