Dr. Kristine Larsen, professor of astronomy at CCSU, has been a science geek since she was old enough to know what science was. Her earliest memory involves holding a bag of plastic dinosaurs on the car ride home from the Bronx Zoo. “I couldn’t open them until I got home. It’s about ninety minutes from the Bronx Zoo to our home in Hamden. It was the longest ninety minutes of my life. And that was the beginning of my love of the natural world,” she said. “My mother has, much to her chagrin, stories about me being five and correcting the tour guide at the Peabody Museum at Yale. Yes, I was really obnoxious,” she said.
Given her passion for science, it’s fitting that Dr. Larsen is the recipient of the 2014 Women in Science Leadership Award from the Petit Family Foundation and the Connecticut Science Center. Dr. Larsen has worked extensively to inspire girls and young women to pursue STEM careers. “I think that the wonders of the world are open to everyone, everyone should have an opportunity to study the universe… Then there’s the issue of if we are turning away half of the population, we are losing half the brainpower. If we don’t include all the best and brightest, no matter what they look like, we as a scientific community are losing,” she said.
Many girls are steered away from science at a young age. Dr. Larsen believes girls must be encouraged to go into science at the middle school level, before they can be discouraged from taking courses like calculus in high school. In her acceptance speech for the Women in Science Leadership Award, Dr. Larsen remarked that “Words matter – encouragement matters. How many other talented young women have fallen victim to the stereotypes of society, to their own self-doubt, to the voices around them that tell them that they can’t, or shouldn’t, do math or science?”
Dr. Larsen knows first-hand how science can be less than welcoming for women. As a graduate student at UCONN, she and her thesis advisor Dr. Ronald Mallett, an African-American scientist famous for his work on time travel, would commiserate and bond over their “non-traditional” status. “Whenever we would walk into a conference, people’s heads would spin around like Linda Blair in ‘The Exorcist,’” said Dr. Larsen.
Dr. Larsen loves teaching freshman, and has taught a First Year Experience course for several years that mixes pop culture and science. “The topic is really the hook. The science is always the content. The pop culture is the window dressing that gets them interested,” said Dr. Larsen. Past topics have included zombies in media, the science of Middle Earth, and a course on natural disasters & pandemics built around the supposed doomsday in 2012. While she enjoys teaching all her courses, this one holds a special place for her. “I love teaching anything with freshmen. You can really make a difference…You can really help make that first semester a positive experience for them. Besides the FYE, I do the freshman-only section of a science course that’s for students who are going to be elementary teachers, which I think is a very important cohort to have a positive attitude about science, because [that attitude] will unconsciously be imparted to the students they teach,” she said.
Dr. Larsen’s work has not only concerned the future of women in the sciences, but the past as well. She completed a clinical study on four decades of astronomy textbooks that found that the accomplishments of women astronomers were systemically underreported. “I noticed that textbooks were very quick to state the name of a man who discovered something, but there were many things I knew had been discovered by women and their names weren’t in the textbooks,” said Dr. Larsen.
She has also completed a project on the life and work of Martha Star Carpenter, who helped produce the first mapping of the spiral structure of the Milky Way Galaxy from the Southern Hemisphere and served as the president of the American Association of Variable Star Observers for three years. Dr. Larsen is currently the First Vice President of the Organization.