John Carlsten: How to teach the joy of learning

Since 1984, professor John Carlsten has been faculty in the physics department at MSU. Before that, he worked at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. That’s not a career switch many people make. But for Carlsten, it was a simple choice.

As an undergraduate, he absolutely loved the freedom of study college gave him. He recalls the joy of being intellectually stimulated and getting involved in research. What stands out the most are his experiences with other students. He tutored in high school and upon entering university he went straight back to that pastime. Carlsten sheds light on this early passion for teaching, “You know the light bulb that comes on when [students] get it? That was amazing to me.”

Carlsten would later go on to graduate school. He recalls applying to Harvard University, “I didn’t think I’d get in, but when I did, my advisor told me I had to go.” During graduate school, Carlsten continued his academic research, “The fun thing about grad school, for me, was that I had my own experiment to work on.” Later, as a postdoctoral researcher, Carlsten taught for three years in Colorado.

His experiences with higher education weren’t all academic however. “It was a rough time in history,” Carlsten shares. “In 1968, at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, many of my friends demonstrated against the [Vietnam] War. I wasn’t there, but I saw many of them get clubbed by the Chicago police … At Harvard, there were buses from campus and from MIT that would run to the protests. I remember participating in those protests to get the war stopped. Of course, I lost friends that died in the war.”

In spite of this, Carlsten is full of enthusiasm and joy for what he does. When he had finished schooling, he moved on to the job market. As a student, he “really wasn’t thinking about getting a job.” He did, though, at one of the most prestigious labs in the world — Los Alamos National Laboratory. While he enjoyed his work, “when [I] was at Los Alamos … [I] really missed teaching.” For five years he continued to work there, all the while running seminars and lectures in order to keep instructing. Eventually he realized, “I should really be at the university.”

While at MSU, Carlsten has had a large impact. He has advised students since 1989, writes for and reviews physics GRE problems, teaches a variety of classes and started a NSF-funded optics program that is still going strong today. He’s had 15 graduate students, many of whom have started optics businesses in town.

As far as Carlsten’s official viewpoint on the job market, he thinks “it is important to find a career in one’s life, and proper guidance, like you get in higher education, helps.” While he knows that frequently it isn’t easy, he feels that “every student has to ask themselves how important money is in their future … ‘Do I want enough money to buy a jet plane or private yacht?’ If those are important to you, you need to choose a career carefully … [because] that [economical success] varies so much by field.”

Even with all of his personal success, Carlsten’s life (and college) philosophy is simple. He states, “I think the most important reason [to get higher education], beyond a career, is to be intellectually stimulated and to learn the love of learning … If you can get to the point where you love learning, you can teach yourself anything. There’s so much information out there for people these days.” This ties directly into why Carlsten loves to teach: “I want to show [students] a little bit of that fun I feel so they can catch it. It’s my calling to share the wonderful excitement of learning.”