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Trading Spaces

We score a Q&A with the Adler’s new head honcho. 

New Adler Planetarium President Michelle Larson in front of the museum’s Galaxy Wall

Not only is new Adler Planetarium President Michelle Larson the first woman ever to lead a Museum Campus institution—which also include The Field and the Shedd—she happens to be just 41 years old… and an astrophysicist… and a mom… and a really lovely person. We sat down with Larson—whose resume ranges from vice provost at Utah State University to deputy director of NASA’s Montana State Grant Consortium to deputy director of the Center for Gravitational Wave Physics at Penn State—on her eighth day on the job to chat all things Adler. 

Your career path has taken many twists and turns. Is this the kind of position you were always looking for?
I don’t think there was a ‘Where do I want to end up?’ piece to my [choosing my past jobs], but somehow, some way this role is just tailor-made for the path I took in getting here. Each step taken individually might seem disjointed, but they were always of interest to me.

In researching you, I only found positive comments. Are you really that nice?
I’m a genuine person, and so I have a reputation for being direct and upfront, and I do so in a way that I hope you leave the interaction feeling like we are all here for the same purpose, which is to get the best ideas on the table—and let’s go have a beer afterward.

You already sound very Chicago. Had you spent much time here before?
I had been to Chicago a number of times, as many people are for conferences, and had visited the Adler. I’ve grown to love this city during the interview process; every interaction I’ve had with Chicago is one of pride.

What exactly does an astrophysicist do?
That’s a great question. So many people are familiar with the term ‘astronomer.’ An astronomer tends to observe the sky and the objects in the sky. An astrophysicist tends to be the person who studies how those objects work. So we observe the stars in the sky. An astrophysicist might spend their time studying how does the sun burn? How does the sun explode?

If you had to list three goals for your first 12 months here, what would they be?
My goals are to build a sense of camaraderie amongst the staff, even though I’m the new leader. Another goal is to become a part of Chicago, to meet all of Chicago, to feel like this is home—and Chicago has been very welcoming in that way.

Isn’t there a space shuttle simulator in storage somewhere? Will that come out this year?
We’re already talking about the right way to use the simulator. It takes up a lot of space, so if we are going to dedicate space to the simulator, we want the experience to be meaningful. We need to figure out what exactly we want the experience to be, and go from there.