Q&A Karen Gipson

Professor of physics

by Michele Coffill

photos by Amanda Pitts

Professor of physics Karen Gipson wears several hats on campus.

She serves as chair of the faculty governance body and faculty director for a living center designed for women students who are science, mathematics or engineering majors, in addition to her roles as professor and mentor to students who collaborate with her on research projects. Gipson also wears the hat of stroke survivor.

Karen Gipson

GVM: Four years ago, you suffered a stroke. Have you fully recovered?

KG: I wasn’t expected to fully recover. I had lost my speaking ability and all movement on the right side. I spent two months in the hospital and underwent 10 months of therapy.

My hand is back to normal, my arm is almost back but I do not have full range of motion, and I walk with a cane. I have some residual expressive aphasia (a disorder caused by damage to the parts of the brain that control language) so the words don’t always come as fast as I would like. I am so grateful for all the support I had during my recovery. I continue to visit stroke survivors who are staying at Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital.

GVM: What did you learn about yourself during that process?

KG: I learned to be very patient with myself. And meditation, which I have always been interested in, has helped me a lot. In fact, I employ a brief moment of contemplative practice at the beginning of each class period; for example, having students concentrate on their breathing. There is a whole pedagogy on how students benefit from concentrative habits.

GVM: What drew you to physics during college?

KG: Actually, during my high school years I was interested in chemistry, journalism and psychology. I was recruited into physics in college because of a scholarship, but once I took modern physics, I realized it was a good fit. I enjoyed studying quantum theory and relativity, and learning to look at things deeply, not only at the surface level.

GVM: You took a rather non-traditional path to becoming a faculty member.

KG: Right. I worked in a medical lab right after my bachelor’s degree, then I taught English in Japan for a few years. I earned my doctorate only two years before coming to Grand Valley.

Gipson next to the Van de Graff generator.

Gipson’s hair resembles Albert Einstein’s because of the high voltage
of the Van de Graaff generator.

GVM: Why did you choose a university that emphasized teaching, rather than a large, research-based university?

KG: I wanted to be at an institution where I was able to teach the full range of undergraduate courses and labs, and to collaborate with students on research projects. I chose Grand Valley because of its first-generation access. I wanted to give back. I couldn’t have gone to college myself without receiving what is now known as the Pell grant.

GVM: You serve as the faculty director for the WISE living center (Women in Science and Engineering). Are there new plans for next year?

KG: There are 60 women who live there now. Next year, we plan to establish a new student organization for women majoring in science, mathematics or engineering who don’t live in WISE housing. We’re hoping to host more events for all women STEM majors to attend.

GVM: As chair of the Executive Committee of University Academic Senate (faculty governance), what are you most proud of as you reflect on the past year?

KG: We worked hard to improve communications and made progress on many long-term issues. Among other accomplishments, we set three task force groups in place. One to study the feasibility of establishing an Ombuds Office, another on setting a collegiality policy, and a third to explore a university standard for student assessment of teaching, the student evaluations.

GVM: What is a collegiality policy?

KG: While we have academic freedom in the classroom and free speech on campus, you don’t have the freedom to make life uncomfortable for someone else. This policy and the task force to explore the Ombuds Office stemmed from the campus climate study.

GVM: You helped establish the Teach-In, one busy day in March when more than 1,100 people attended sessions dedicated to difficult conversations around power, inequality and privilege.

KG: It was a very productive event and addressed all forms of social justice. I felt it was extremely successful and I hope it is offered next year. Credit also goes to the other members of the planning team: Wendy Burns-Ardolino, Marlene Kowalski-Braun, Christine Rener and Sean Huddleston.

GVM: How would you describe your leadership style?

KG: I was also the physics department chair. I really don’t see myself as a leader, more of a servant leader. I understand the importance of being organized and listening to all sides. I also learned as faculty senate chair, that you don’t necessarily jump right away during a crisis. It’s important to first take a breath.

About Karen

• Bachelor’s and master’s degrees from University of North Texas
• Doctoral degree from Washington State University

Career Highlights
• Joined Grand Valley’s faculty in 1999
• Received Student Award for Faculty Excellence in 2001
• Received Women’s Impact Award from Grand Valley’s Women’s Commission in 2008
• Earned Outstanding University Service Award in 2014
• Chairs the Executive Committee of University Academic Senate