Women Leading the Way: Adler Planetarium’s Michelle Larson

As a visionary, scientist, teacher and mother, Michelle Larson brings all the right skills to her new job as President & CEO of Adler Planetarium.


Larson made her way to Evanston 6 months ago, when she arrived from a university in rural Utah. She’s already made substantial progress on her goals to make science more fun, grow a problem-solving network around the world, and become the destination of choice for Chicagoans.

Make It Better had the opportunity to catch up with her recently.

Welcome to Chicago! What attracted you to our city and this job?

This is a city with heart, as I quickly discovered through similar warm welcomes and offers to help connect me to others. The Adler provides a great stage to have a national conversation in the center of the country and make science relevant to everyone.

And how will you do this, make science relevant to all?

Through our theme—Wonder, Observe, Discover—and the freedom that comes from not giving standardized tests. We ask everyone to look up and wonder, play in the arena of intangible things.

Also by giving them the chance to actually do science with us through our High Altitude Balloon program, online Citizen Scientist team connecting more than 850,000 people worldwide, and our Doane Observatory, which is open more hours than ever now.

Hack Days are also important. In June, Adler joined others in a National Civic Hack Day to try to solve community problems like food deserts and sex education through team thinking.

What does it really mean to be a scientist?  

It doesn’t mean working alone and knowing all the answers—in fact, it’s just the opposite. Teams of people work together because they don’t know the answers, but want to try to find solutions.

Do you have a special message for girls, to help more of them engage in science?

They could join our “Girls Do Hack Day” on November 9, when we will pair them with female scientists to solve interesting problems.

Also, yes, you need math, because it’s a tool, an important basic skill set.  And, being a scientist is all about collaboration—it’s fun!

Amber Gell, 2013 Women in Space Science Award Celebration Honoree, interacts will middle-school students in an afternoon of science at the museum.

What are your goals for the future?

I was hired with the charge to think about the great museums of the future. We already have one of the best archives about astronomy in the world. How do we make this even more engaging for the public?

We want to be the place that people want to come when they have a few free hours, because it is social, engaging and fun, too.  And this is already happening. We just won “Best After-Hours Museum Event,” by the Chicago Reader.

We want to collaborate with others, too.  We welcome partnerships with those who want to grow together.


We asked Larson for her 5 favorite activities to do with your kids at Adler. Here is what she recommends:

1. Get lost in the darkness of space in the Planet Explorers exhibit. 

2. Touch real solar system objects, such as the Moon, Mars, an asteroid and a meteorite, in the Solar System Gallery.

3. Enjoy a breathtaking sky show in the Grainger Sky Theater.

4. Zoom in on craters on the Moon at the Moon Wall in the Shoot for the Moon exhibit.

5. Explore how people used the sun to tell time with our world-class sundial collection.