Adler Planetarium’s first female president puts families first

Family dinners are important to Michelle Larson. She relishes sitting at the table with her husband Shane and their 6-year-old daughter Kate. The family meal, however, recently has morphed into a “FaceTime” event.

Her new job as the first female president of the Adler Planetarium requires her to spend her days and nights in Chicago, while Kate finishes first grade in Utah and Shane finishes the school year at Utah State University.

So, every night, Larson, a self-proclaimed foodie, fixes whatever concoction suits her fancy, sets a dinner table for one, props her iPhone next to her plate, and then FaceTimes her family. “It’s quite comfortable. We have chit-chat conversation just like we do at the dinner table every night,” Larson says.

Spending six months away from family in a new city might scare some people, but Larson, 41, an astrophysicist and science lover, grew up with a sense of wanderlust and adventure, and along the way developed the confidence and courage to seek opportunities and fulfill dreams. (Her dad was an accountant for the Air Force, and the family lived in Massachusetts, Turkey and Alaska until Larson went to Montana State University, where she earned her bachelor, graduate and doctoral degrees in physics.)

Becoming the president of Adler wasn’t exactly on her radar. She wasn’t aware that Adler President Paul Knappenberger was retiring and didn’t realize she was singled out as a potential candidate. “But it sounded like an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”

Larson had visited the planetarium several times while on business trips. She loves astronomy and science, but even more than that, she loves explaining it to people. Bringing science to the public is where Larson thrives.

As vice provost at Utah State, Larson regularly interacted with students and professors to solve issues on campus. “She’s a great problem solver and a great person to work with people who have concerns. She’s also a brilliant scientist,” says Utah State Provost Raymond T. Coward.

Larson’s passion for science was showcased one Friday a month when 500 people packed the science auditorium at Utah State for “Science Unwrapped”-the Larsons’ brain child. The idea? To explain science to whomever would listen-professors, students, children, plumbers, accountants.

“We designed the program together to show people the inner workings of science-how it works, problems we face and how we use our ingenuity to overcome those problems and understand nature better,” Shane says.

The name of the course evolved from Larson’s obsession with the Food Network Show “Unwrapped.”

Although she has loved science for as long as she can remember, it wasn’t until she was in graduate school that she understood what she wanted to do with her life.

“Science is about wondering and questioning the world around you. I always felt right about that and I always wanted to help people,” Larson says. “Then NASA came calling.”

While studying for an exam in her dorm, she learned NASA wanted her to be part of a life-changing project. “NASA wanted to explain what the sun was doing and translate that to people, and they wanted to take advantage of this brand new resource called the Internet,” Larson says, laughing. “They wanted to use the Internet to get science into every household.”

Getting science into every household still is a goal Larson holds dear, and as president of Adler she feels she can make science accessible to families.

Technology can help. Not only can families enjoy the wonders at Adler because of technological advancements, but they also can continue that learning at home, by researching on the Internet, playing science-related apps or checking out video clips on Adler’s website.

The possibilities are endless, Larson says.

Just as Larson and her family eat dinner together virtually, technology has the ability to bring families closer.

Technology isn’t a crutch to entertain or occupy time for the Larson family. It is used for specific purposes or to enhance experiences. Kate easily melds technology with everything else that interests her. She can color beautiful pictures with markers and paper, yet also create a digital masterpiece on the iPad. She can belt out a made-up song on the new microphone Santa gave her for Christmas, or plug in the iPod to sing along with Taylor Swift. “It’s just a part of her world. It’s not something she consciously thinks about. The lines are blurred,” says Larson.

The Larsons love the outdoors and incorporate geocaching into their adventures, but they’re just as happy stargazing on their front lawn.

Making technology work for families is all about putting the focus on family time, Larson says.

“I think it’s in our own hands to influence how technology will affect the lives of our children. There’s a choice to use technology to enhance our experiences. I think technology is fantastic. I hope as a society we can push technology to the limits and remember to connect it back to our lives. Rather than pulling us apart from people, we can use it to connect our social experiences.”

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