Dr. David Larrabee: Engineer, Physicist, and Student of Theology

By Chris Powers
SC Staff Writer

Dr. David Larrabee, professor of physics at East Stroudsburg University, was born in Boston and raised in the farmlands of Central New Jersey near Princeton Junction. He attended Princeton High School in Princeton, New Jersey.

Dr. Larrabee completed both his undergraduate and graduate degrees at Cornell University, where he majored in applied and engineering physics.

According to Dr. Larrabee, “It is sort of a hybrid field. I am technically an engineer who is studying physics.”

Dr. Larrabee enjoyed many unique experiences while attending Cornell.

He said, “The formative thing there was I got involved with a group called the Eco Justice Task Force, which was community, faculty, and students that were looking at environmental issues and social justice issues.”

This experience sparked his lifelong obsession with social critique of engineering and science.

He stated, “That has really become my lifelong passion in many ways.”

Dr. Larrabee explained the purpose of the Eco Justice Task Force, saying, “It is a matter of finding the right type of technology for the right place. How do we mesh the right technology towards the right solution for the right opportunity, and that is a harder issue.”

He gave a simple example: “If I have a country that has a fair amount of labor, but not a lot of infrastructure, then giving them a high-tech tractor is not a particularly useful thing to do… but wheelbarrows and hoes may be the appropriate tools.”

According to Dr. Larrabee, “My original intent was to go to theological seminary and to do this kind of work in ethics” after completing undergraduate school.

Dr. Larrabee said, “[Ethics] is very dry…whereas, in a broad sense, theology is more applied to the here and now and concrete.”

However, these plans quickly fell through.

He said, “When I was all set to go in senior year, I found out there would be no jobs and that it was a career with a dead end.”

After realizing this, Dr. Larrabee said, “I came back, and I was allowed to stay at Cornell to do the Ph.D. work and still work on the Eco Justice Task Force and what was, at that time, supposed to be a fusion energy type program.”

He also mentioned, “I went on to work at the Princeton classical physics lab in Princeton, New Jersey, and I was part of the group, first as a post-doc and then as research staff.”

After graduate school, Dr. Larrabee worked in industry. Specifically, he worked “in avionics, designing cockpit instrumentation for aircrafts.”

Eventually, he worked his way to becoming management staff, chief electrical engineer, chief engineer, and then active vice president of engineering.

However, Dr. Larrabee noted, “With every promotion I enjoyed the job less… I loved lab work and getting my hands dirty.”

During this time, the company “sent [him] to MBA school to teach [him] to be a good manager, for which [he is] eternally grateful because it was a great opportunity.”

Dr. Larrabee noted, “It taught me one very powerful lesson, and that lesson is that I don’t want to be a manager.”

As a result of this discovery, Dr. Larrabee decided to return to academia to teach as a college professor. He came to ESU twenty years ago.

After teaching at ESU for a while, Dr. Larrabee found that, as he said, “Life settled out in a way that I could go to seminary.”

Now Dr. Larrabee attends Union Theological Seminary in New York, which is part of Columbia University.

Columbia University, according to Dr. Larrabee, “has a historical reputation of being involved with social justice, which is really its claim to fame.”

“It is that kind of engagement with social justice issues that drew me,” he said.

Being both a professor and a student simultaneously has left an impact on Dr. Larrabee.

He said, “It has been very interesting to be teaching full-time and being in a classroom part time, giving me insights into both worlds, which has been very valuable.”

Currently, Dr. Larrabee said, “I am done with my classwork, and I am now writing my master’s thesis.”

Dr. Larrabee’s master’s thesis is based largely around “the work by some people trying to do some work in environmental ethics, and my concern is with what is called the meta-ethics, which is the decisions you need to make before you start making ethical decisions.”

Dr. Larrabee is writing his thesis with scientific ideas, as well as ethical ideas, which tests whether “the assumptions being made about the environment and the nature of the things in it are valid scientifically.”

Once he completes his thesis, Dr. Larrabee said, “I think the next step is to do some serious writing. I have been given a tremendous amount to think about, and I have more ideas for papers and things to do than I’ve got time left in this life.”

In order to pursue his work, Dr. Larrabee said, “I am handing in my official notification to retire at the end of June to do that.”

According to Dr. Larrabee, ESU’s mission is to produce people who can enter the workforce and perform. Based on his experience in the industry, he did not see that happening.

One of the reasons that Dr. Larrabee came to ESU was that, he said, “I think we need to put more emphasis on schools that produce a more typical non-Ivy League, non-Caltech person, so that they can do the quality job that they need to do.”

Another of Dr. Larrabee’s passions is interdisciplinary studies.

He said, “I cannot think of a single major issue that we face today, or that your generation is going to face, that is not inherently interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary.”

He believes that the major problem is that “we don’t know, between disciplines, how to work well as teams.”

Dr. Larrabee believes that ESU has the capability to impact this problem in a meaningful way.

He said, “Where ESU could really make a difference would be developing both a strong interdisciplinary focus and a willingness to ask hard questions, and bring people with a strong interdisciplinary focus together in a way that they can meaningfully converse about those questions.”

Email Chris at:
cpowers@live.esu.edu

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