Over the course of the semester, I am conducting this interview series, The Professor Perspective, to humanize professors, and provide us as students an insight into those who spend their lives educating us. We are quick to forget that professors are people, too, and have spent their own time as students in fields similar to ours. My goal of this series is for people to see professors as people that care about student success and that they understand what it’s like to be an undergraduate student.
My second interviewee is Dr. Russell Larsen, a professor in the Chemistry Department here at the University of Iowa. Dr. Larsen graduated from Grinnell College with a BA in chemistry. The Associate Professor of Instruction also earned his PhD in physical chemistry from Harvard University and conducted research as a postdoctoral associate at The University of California-Berkeley. Dr. Larsen teaches the large, first-year class “General Chemistry 1” at the UI.
The following is an abridged and edited version of the interview I conducted with Dr. Russell Larsen.
What was your undergraduate experience like? Grinnell College is very different than the University of Iowa, but do you remember anything you were nervous or apprehensive about with the transition? [Grinnell College is a small liberal arts college halfway between Iowa City and Des Moines]
I’m originally from the Denver, Colorado area and I came to Iowa on a Greyhound bus. Grinnell is a small town in the middle of the state which is a very different setting than I was used to in Denver. It’s sort of similar to the large amount of students we have come from the Chicago area to Iowa City. Iowa City might be smaller than what they are used to back home in the city. So I think I prepared myself for the change, but I still did experience some doubts in my first semester. Doubts in myself as a student and that my institution was the right place for me. I specifically remember how I was good at chemistry but I really struggled in German. I had been successful in high school but to struggle and not have the success I expected was troubling for me. I think a lot of students experience that their first year.
Did you know you wanted to be a professor when you entered college?
No, I only knew that I wanted to study a science. I always valued teaching and some role models I had as teachers helped me project myself into that role. I initially planned on teaching at a smaller school like my alma mater because I’m a natural introvert.
Has being an introvert presented any special challenges to working as a professor? Like speaking in front of hundreds of students during a lecture?
I’m always a little bit nervous on that first day of lecture. I was much more nervous earlier in my career, though. It’s almost easier presenting to a large lecture because it’s more of a presentation and I’m literally on stage in MacBride auditorium. I actually experience more nerves interacting on an individual level. I want to mimic my mentors and their ability to deliver good advice in a sensitive way which is something I don’t naturally do as well as they were able to. I’ve had to really think about the best way to give advice to students.
What’s been the most rewarding part for you about being a professor?
It’s kind of funny because I started off saying I’m an introvert, but it’s the interaction with the students. For about a year, around 2002, I had an administrative staff role and I absolutely hated it because I didn’t teach. It didn’t provide me with the student interactions I love having everyday. Hopefully my students learn some things from me. I’ve learned so much from my students over the years about things not just about chemistry, but life. When you have a course that involves over a 1,000 people you have lots of different stories and points of view about the same things. At times they share glimpses of their lives and experiences and I get the feeling that I get to know them as a group of individuals. Over time, you not only get to see the student during their first semester experience but you also get to see how they are transformed and how much they have accomplished by graduation time.
Going off that, has there been anything that a student said to you that really stuck with you?
I think to have students come back and say, “you made a difference”. It’s those personal statements of impact that I carry away as authentic and meaningful. Usually with some time or hindsight, a student will say, “as a result of your class I made a decision to do X”. Those moments that students share I value and they help me feel that I impacted someone’s life as they developed in college.
That’s gotta feel good when a student comes back and says that. So staying on the topic of your students, are there any common mistakes you see by students in courses?
Students struggle with the fact that it’s different than high school. They come into the course with certain expectations with how the course should be and how they should succeed. It’s just a different environment with new standards so students need to recognize that difference and move forward in a productive way. When a student encounters a challenge, a valuable character trait is to move on through the challenge instead of folding from it. Persistence and making forward progress is key. Progress doesn’t have to be leaps and bounds, but sustained, forward progress is a path that eventually leads to success.
You’ve taken a lot of chemistry throughout your life, was there ever a course that you personally struggled with? Did a chemistry class ever make you doubt your ability?
When I entered graduate school at Harvard, they required me to take a placement exam to see what classes to take for chemistry. There were symbols on that exam that I didn’t even recognize because I didn’t learn it in undergrad. I felt a terrible feeling of “should I be here?” because I didn’t even know what it was or where to start. By the end of the semester though I knew the things that I struggled with on that exam. The placement exam did what it was supposed to do because I was able to gain that knowledge I didn’t have to progress further in my education.
That’s interesting because it sounds similar to the Chemistry Placement Exam that students have to take upon entering the University of Iowa. I’m sure a lot of students feel something similar when taking that exam and feeling some anxieties from that experience.
Right, and it’s important to recognize the function of the placement exam. It informs you what class to take for your best shot at success. Making an authentic attempt at the exam will give you a solid place to start.
Orientation tries to instill that mindset in new students during the summer as well. Besides the placement exams, do you have any general tips of advice for students entering the University of Iowa?
To form connections. Connections to other students in the University, specifically. It doesn’t have to be a huge number because obviously some people are more social than others. Some people need a lot of connections, and others just need a few. I fall into the latter category. Also, it’s important to be a member of the community. If you see someone in need, help out. If you need help, reach out. That’s how a community builds and helps its members.
Thank you so much for your time, Dr. Larsen.