Montana State University

Mountains and Minds

John Carlsten MSU Regents professor has a passion for teaching, and is "wicked smart" October 13, 2010 by Lee Cook • Published 10/13/10

He looks great on paper.

Physics bachelor's from University of Minnesota, master's and a doctorate from Harvard, associate group leader at Los Alamos National Laboratory, Regents Professor, past director of Montana State University's Optical Technology Center, 27 years in the MSU physics department, and an endless list of published papers and teaching excellence awards.

And in person, John Carlsten is even more impressive.

"Basically he's the adviser and professor you dream of having," said Will Johnson, a graduate student who works with Carlsten and Kevin Repasky. "He has so much care and concern for students, and he's wicked smart."

What stands out about Carlsten is his curiosity, a hallmark of great scientists, and his love of teaching.

"John is always excited and interested," said Robert Swenson, former department head of physics who hired Carlsten in 1984 before Swenson went on to become MSU's vice president for research. "He's just a wonderfully inquisitive guy."

Carlsten was not always curious about physics. In middle school he took an aptitude test that pointed to physics. After writing a report on the topic for a class assignment, he decided it was not to his liking. But, the decision was short-lived. An energetic high school physics teacher piqued his curiosity, and Carlsten decided to pursue physics in college.

Although physics was not a natural choice for Carlsten at first, teaching was.

Even in high school, Carlsten ran a tutoring service through his involvement in an honors society and always enjoyed helping others learn. He tutored and worked in research labs throughout college to pay his tuition, but he never gave much thought to how it would apply to his career.

"The way students today plan just amazes me," said Carlsten. "I didn't have a plan. I was kind of like a pinball--if I got close enough to a hole, I'd just fall in."

Carlsten studied lasers and optics at Harvard for graduate school simply because of a fascination with colors and the recommendation of a professor. After completing his doctorate, he took a postdoctoral position at University of Colorado working on laser-atom interaction. Years before as a teenager, Carlsten had been to Colorado for summer camp and distinctly remembers drinking from a pristine mountain stream and deciding he wanted to end up in the Rocky Mountain West. But when he finished his postdoctorate, a job offer took him to Los Alamos National Laboratory, where his work during the energy crisis focused on separating isotopes of uranium with lasers to be used in finding alternative ways to generate power using nuclear energy.

"I enjoyed the work at Los Alamos, but there was a lot of administration associated with it, and I didn't enjoy that," said Carlsten.

Coincidentally, that was about the time he got a call from a colleague in electrical engineering at MSU, who encouraged Carlsten to apply for a position in the MSU physics department. It was an opportunity to get back to three things he really loved: teaching, research and the Rockies. Since joining MSU in 1984, Carlsten has had a profound impact on the education, careers and lives of many.

"John is an outstanding mentor," said Repasky, a former doctoral student of Carlsten's who is now a colleague in MSU's Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. "He really puts in the time and effort to be an excellent teacher for undergraduate courses and graduate students."

Carlsten said he has found that through teaching, his own learning never ends. He is always seeking ways to make physics engaging and understandable. The math involved can be overwhelming, so he utilizes colorful images and interactive computer programs to help students understand a phenomenon before applying math.

"I have found that students retain more of what they learn about physics when they can really visualize it and get a true sense for what is happening," he said.

Carlsten is always trying to find ways he can modify his lectures to improve his explanation and seeks diversions during class to add levity and keep students interested. The techniques are effective, according to Shane Atwood, a recent MSU graduate from Belgrade, which is how Carlsten is able to make an 8 a.m. quantum mechanics class enjoyable.

"He's so enthusiastic and his classes are so well laid out. You can see where you are going and how it applies," said Atwood. "When you stop by his office, you never feel like you're encroaching on him. He really seems happy to answer questions."

Although Carlsten was not the only reason Atwood changed his major from engineering to physics, he was certainly an influential factor. This impact partly is why Carlsten has earned seven teaching and research awards--virtually every award MSU offers--and several national awards. He was elected as a fellow to both the Optical Society of America and the American Physical Society.
His achievement in both teaching and research is unusual, and Carlsten said he doesn't differentiate between teaching and helping students with research.

"For me, there is only teaching," Carlsten said. "Much of my teaching is done in the classroom, but working with students on research problems is very similar--except often one-on-one in front of a whiteboard trying to figure out what is happening in the research."

Carlsten also has played an integral role in shaping the applied optics industry in Bozeman. In the 1990s, Swenson and professor Gary Strobel encouraged Carlsten to establish the Optical Technology Center to create a research and development engine for the burgeoning optics and lasers industry. Carlsten served as director of the Optical Technology Center for five years in the mid-1990s as it was getting started.

Fifteen years later, the Optical Technology Center is still successful, and Carlsten is pleased that students have opportunities to find or create jobs locally. At least six companies have been formed by Carlsten's graduates. Most of the companies are in lasers and optics, although one is a climbing center, and nearly all are located in Montana.

While his influence spills into industry, it is all about teaching for Carlsten.

"I think what surprises me most about teaching over the years is how much I enjoy and savor each day," said Carlsten. "At the end of each semester, the students will often see a tear in my eye as I realize I am giving them the last lecture of that course. I don't really know why I love teaching those students so much, but they become like family to me and I treasure the moments of learning we share together."