Kristen Larsen ’08, MS’10 is on the cutting edge of innovative work that marries technology and athletic performance. Now living in San Francisco, she is an applied sports scientist with Athos, a sports performance technology company that merges biometric sensors with high performance clothing to capture muscle activity and help coaches make impactful training decisions. (Above, Larsen with the Philadelphia Phillies MLB staff.) She is an athlete herself and was a record-setting swimmer at Clarkson. Here, Larsen shares how Clarkson helped shape her life and career. She gives some advice to current students, too, on how to make the most of the Clarkson experience. Hint: try to climb a High Peak!
"Clarkson grads... put our brains on really hard problems and don’t give up..."
You have said, “You can find me where STEM meets performance and rehabilitation.” That sounds like a space that virtually screams “Clarkson!” How did your experience at Clarkson shape your career?
Before college, I knew I was interested in technology and rehabilitation, but I had no way to even dream up the career I am in now. At Clarkson, I was able to choose the classes and the professors that truly moved my needle. I never felt like I had to check mandatory boxes through school, which gave me to opportunity to mix my courses from engineering and biology to neuroscience and kinesiology. The more classes I took, labs I worked in and mentors I spoke to, the more I realized the potentials that were out there. By the end of my four years, I had honed in on the experiences that helped me actually understand what I liked doing and how this little passion for innovation and the human body could come together in the real-world.
The fitness industry has taken off, especially in the areas of science-based applications such as personal monitors (FitBits) and the products at your company, Athos. You’re an applied sports scientist – how new to the industry is that job, and where do you see the future for similar positions?
The title “Sports Scientist” is newer jargon in our industry with the amount of data available to better understand human movement and function. As a group, we are a mix of people with backgrounds spanning from strength and conditioning, math, data science, biomechanics, etc. who work to interpret data collected from the body, more specifically around training and competition. Our industry was becoming inundated with data collected in-game and in-practices, but the challenge was and still is interpreting those metrics. Sports scientists are the folks usually bridging the gap of technology across the coaching staff and/or athletes. It is the sports scientist’s job to interpret and then translate the data in the context of the sport, timing of the season, position, injury history, practice type, etc. The issue across the industry with being a “Sport Scientist” is that there are no pre-requisites, certifications, or tests to gain this title. Over the next few years, I believe that you will start seeing more sports scientists, plus some dedicated educational tracks, with the growing need of making sense of all of the data we are collecting.
You are passionate about preventing injuries, not just treating injuries. Can you elaborate on that?
Many injuries are preventable. For example, about 70% of ACLs (one of the ligaments in the knee) are non-contact injuries (i.e., no blunt trauma like a bad tackle) and over 20 ACLs happened even before the NFL season started this year! That means in the 2018 NFL pre-season, 14 ACL injuries could have been prevented. But these 14-plus injuries occurred because of some underlying issues jeopardizing the players’ careers and the success of their team. Many of the injuries occurred because of the way these athletes move and how much or how little they train in preparation for the season. Think about the athletes here, many of them work really hard to keep their positions on the team and play their best each weekend. Many of us believe that the harder we work, the better we will be when its go-time. But in actuality, there is a cap to how hard we can push our bodies. So, by measuring the demands of the season in comparison to each athletes’ unique movement patterns and the stressors on a day to day basis, we can help solve this problem. Ultimately, reducing ACLs and other injuries before they happen so that each season can be played and surgery/treatment doesn’t even come into the picture.
Was Clarkson the right choice for you because it combined academics with college-level competitive swimming?
When it came to selecting a school, I set out to make my decision based on academic opportunities but I also knew that I really didn’t want to give up swimming. I lucked out that Clarkson gave me both the academic track I was looking for and the best team/coach I could have asked for. Without swimming, I wouldn’t have had an outlet that I personally needed. The laps, laughs, and competition between the books were what empowered me. I have always worked better when I have less time, so balancing swimming, a full-course load, and my research were key to my success at Clarkson. Could I do all that now? Likely NO! My times would get me cut from the team before try-outs and I would be way too tired to pull all-nighters, let alone anything with less than eight hours of sleep.
In what ways did Clarkson give you an edge when it comes to your career?
Living and working in San Francisco, I get to meet some of the most talented, inspiring people. But, a few themes hold true for Clarkson folks: framing of the problem, critical thinking, dedication, and humility. I believe Clarkson grads are extremely valuable in the workplace as we can put our brains on really hard problems and don’t give up when the answers don’t come easy (in fact, that motivates us even more), all while maintaining our upstate New York roots. Anyone who can tread through the snow to get to the Bagelry (in downtown Potsdam) has to be determined, have some master plan and feel humbled each freezing step of the way. I look around now at my college friends and though they might not admit it, all are leaders at their companies who have each successfully tackled real-world problems while being dedicated to their causes and simply doing the right thing.
In addition to your education, what helped propel you to succeed?
One of the things I am most grateful for at Clarkson is my time spent in the CREST (Center for Rehabilitation Engineering Science and Technology) lab during grad school. I had taken research courses and many undergrad lab courses, but there is nothing like coming up with a question that no one else knows the answer to and finding out how to get it. Through my lab experience in grad school I got to think about what problems really mattered and focus on the ones that we believed could make the biggest impacts. This experience taught me how to ask the right questions, have strategic focus, create short and long-term goals, and think about problem solving at a whole new level.
If you could go back to your days at Clarkson and give yourself advice, what would it be?
I would tell myself to not rush and feel pressured to make all of the right choices. As “kids” and adults, we all put pressure on ourselves based on our interpretation of success. I would want to slow down those years and stop trying so hard to figure out life after college. At the time, I felt like I had to figure out “who I was going to be.” But no matter how hard you try, life changes: you will have more than one job, live in a different place, take a career shift, and continue to learn who you are “supposed to be.” Life and careers are never fully figured out and while there are no perfect answers, you will get closer to it each day if you are patient and listen to yourself.
What advice would you give to Clarkson students today?
Go travel and be okay being uncomfortable! Take advantage of the Adirondacks, try a new hike, challenge yourself to a new activity, and save up for a trip that brings you new experiences. I promise you will never look back and regret taking a trip, learning to paint, or tackling the High Peaks. But you might regret not making the time to.