Great Professors: James LaBelle

Image Courtesy of Dartmouth College

The Review interviewed Professor James LaBelle, Department Chair of Physics and Astronomy.  Professor LaBelle’s Physics 13 and 14 classes are well liked by many students of all majors. In addition, he teaches several intermediate level Physics classes and a writing seminar on the Arctic.  His research focuses on high frequency radio emissions from the aurora borealis.


The Dartmouth Review (TDR): How did you come to teach at Dartmouth? What appealed to you about Dartmouth at the time and has it lived up to those expectations?

James LaBelle (JL):In academia you don’t really get to pick your location.  In my Ph.D. I specialized in upper atmospheric space physics, and there are only thirty or forty universities across the U.S. that do research in my field.  Each one only hires every ten years or so, and there’s a limited amount of time in your career where you’re at the right experience level to apply for a professorship. So, when your training is at the point where you can apply, you tend to apply everywhere you think you might be able to get a position.  I feel very fortunate because I feel like Dartmouth was a particularly good match for me, both for the teaching and the research that I do.  But it was definitely a stroke of luck in a way.


TDR: When you were younger, did you ever envision yourself becoming a professor one day?

JL: Not when I was very young, but by the time I was a freshman in college I had a pretty good idea that I wanted to be a professor.  I went to Stanford for undergrad, which was an environment kind of like Dartmouth, and I loved being in that environment.  I basically decided that I never wanted to leave college!

Also, my freshman year I got invited to dinner at a professor’s house, Professor Alan Cox, a famous geophysicist.  He told us about all of the places he had been and work he had done and that really interested me.  When I had the opportunity to go into geophysics, I thought back to talking to him, and I knew that was really what I wanted to do.


TDR: What has been your favorite teaching moment in your time at Dartmouth?

JL: That’s a tough one, I haven’t really thought about that before.  There are a number of the demos that are a lot of fun to do, of course.  I guess my favorite moment would be in Physics 14, when I do an Einstein lecture on relativity.  I purposefully time my haircut when I know the end of 14 is coming up and I let it get more and more unruly.  You notice that can of hair spray over there?  I use a ton of hair spray and my hair stands out straight on end, I put a fake mustache on, and then I go in and give a lecture on Einstein’s theory of relativity.  That’s probably my favorite teaching moment, I like that lecture a lot also.  It’s fun to go in looking like Einstein since I have enough hair I can almost pull it off.


TDR: For someone such as myself who wasn’t always a natural at STEM subjects, your teaching style was one of the clearest I’ve ever seen.  How did you develop the way you teach today?

JL: First off, I would argue that virtually no one is a natural STEM thinker. There’s a reason that physics didn’t get developed until Newton’s time, because I think none of us naturally think the way you have to think in order to do physics.  So, I don’t think you’re alone at all on that, and I think that’s a really natural thing.   You have to train yourself to think differently to do physics.  To go back to your main question though, I’ve always tried to be very clear and organized in my lectures.  But a big change in my teaching methods came when I read this book Peer Instruction by Eric Mazur.  Since then I’ve tried to make my teaching more interactive by breaking up one hour-long lecture into several ten-minute lectures broken up by questions that I ask the class to answer.


TDR: You have been at Dartmouth since 1989. How has Dartmouth changed since you first came here?

JL: There have definitely been some changes.  We talked earlier about instruction, and this book by Mazur really changed Physics instruction a lot.  Now we’re seeing a shift towards studio physics, where you do a lot of laboratory in the lecture.

At Dartmouth specifically there have been a few changes.  Graduate education has definitely gained in stature.  That was a process that was ongoing even before I came here, and there has been a steady increase in the prominence of the graduate schools and the research done here.  I wouldn’t say there has been any dramatic changes, but more of a steady shift towards Dartmouth focusing on research in addition to teaching.


TDR: How did your fellowship working in Germany at the Max Planck Institute compare to your time at Dartmouth?

JL: They’ve really been quite different, since those fellowships were more research-based and I didn’t teach any students.  The Max Planck Institute is funded by the German federal government and focuses entirely on research, so it’s not very comparable to Dartmouth.


TDR: How many students in your Physics 14 class go on to become Physics majors or Engineering majors?  Do you get very many students in non-STEM majors?

JL: We take a survey of all the students in Physics 13 and Physics 14 at the beginning of each class.  From the responses to that, we usually see that about 80% of students plan to be Engineering majors while about 20% want to be other science majors.  Probably about 5% want to major in Physics, and there are only a few non-STEM majors in each class.


TDR: There are so many students, such as myself, who go on from early Physics classes into the Engineering major. How is the relationship between the Physics department and the Engineering department?

JL: We’ve got a very good relationship with the Engineering department! They do have some influence on the material that is in Physics 13 and 14 because engineers have to be ABET accredited. We cooperate with them to make sure that 13 and 14 meet the criteria that the ABET organization desires, but it only has a slight effect on the material presented.


TDR: If you could go back would you focus on one of the humanities in addition to physics?

JL: When I went to college, most schools had just gotten rid of their distributive requirements in the 60s.  So, I didn’t have to take a lot of classes outside of physics.   I took some standard ones like Psych 1, Econ 1, so on and so forth.  I have a natural curiosity for a lot of subjects, so I do a lot of reading on my own. I don’t feel any regrets for the courses I took in college.


TDR: If you could only do one, would you rather have focused on research or teaching?

JL: My research is somewhat esoteric since I work on high frequency radio emissions for the aurora borealis and trying to figure out what causes them. For scientific research, you have to find a niche that no one else is doing at the time.  When I was at Stanford, I worked at a lab that was researching low frequency radio emissions, but there was no one else doing high frequency when I started at Dartmouth.  It is somewhat esoteric and if it was all I was doing I don’t think research would be very satisfying.

I think from a service standpoint teaching is more satisfying, and I really enjoy interacting with the students.  But I think that solely teaching would get boring after a long time if Physics 13 and 14 were all I was teaching.  I think it’s essential to do both research and teaching and that you need to do both to feel complete as a professor.


TDR: How do you balance your research and the classes you teach?  You spend a tremendous amount of time interacting with students in office hours, but you also run a space physics lab studying the aurora borealis.

JL: It’s very hard to do research while teaching classes, especially while teaching Physics 13 and 14.  Generally while I am teaching classes I only do what I have to keep my research moving forward.  I have a staff of graduate students and others who help me with research, so they can pretty much keep the lights on while I am teaching classes.  Fortunately, there is a lot of time outside of classes. If you teach three courses a year, you are teaching for thirty weeks per year, which leaves twenty-two weeks for research.


TDR: How often do you travel to the Arctic/Antarctic area for rocket launches or to look at ground stations?  How long does it take to set up a ground station or prepare a rocket launch?  When do you decide to do a rocket launch?

JL: Over the years, we’ve had anywhere from three or four to a dozen ground stations in the Artic or the Antarctic.  I go to the Arctic typically one or two weeks per year – not very much and I’d like it to be more.   Generally, the purpose of field work trips like that is to adjust and maintain the experiments since you’re constantly trying to answer new questions that come up over the course of research.  When you do an experiment and get an answer to one question, it brings up other questions, so you have to go up and change the antenna array to measure direction or polarization or whatever you might want to measure.  These days you can do a lot of stuff remotely, and there is a person up there to help at most of these sites so there is a little less need for travel.

On the rockets it’s a little bit of a different story.  We have a little less control over the schedule than we do with ground-based stuff since we have to depend on NASA for rocket launches.  We make a consortium with other universities and apply to do a rocket experiment.  Typically, we launch a rocket every two or three years but it’s a bit uneven.  For example, we’re doing two launches this year, but it might be four years before we do another one.  We have to negotiate with NASA since they handle all the logistics, the rocket propulsion, and getting the data back from the rocket.  Typically, we just have to build the instruments that are the rocket’s payload and find a time for launch that works with their resources and with our timetable.


TDR: What is the most interesting thing you’ve discovered in your research?

JL: We’ve discovered new types of radio emission from our own atmosphere that we didn’t know about before.

We’ve also found out some new information about a very powerful type of radiation that is emitted from all magnetized planets.  Until the 1970s, people didn’t know that the Earth emitted this type of radiation, but we could see it from other magnetized planets such as Jupiter. Now we’ve discovered that we actually can see it from the surface of the Earth, although it’s a little controversial still.  I think there’s some mechanism by which some small amount of it actually comes back and can be picked up by our sensors.   If that turns out to be confirmed, that will be a noteworthy result.

And we made a number of more technical contributions having to do with the structure of a number of these radio emissions.  This is important because a lot of other planets emit the same types of radiation as the Earth does, so if we can understand that radiation here on Earth, we can apply that knowledge to better understand it from other far-away sources.

One thing about science is that you often don’t know what research is important or not until some time has passed, so even though our research hasn’t gotten on the front page of the New York Times, it could still turn out to be important. We’ll really only find out how significant a discovery is as time goes on.