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English and women’s studies professor wins Polanyi Prize

POLANYI PRIZE: Katherine (Katie) Larson has won a prestigious award that honours young researchers. (Photo by Ken Jones.)

by Mary Ann Gratton

Katherine (Katie) Larson, a U of T Scarborough professor of English and women’s studies, is the recipient of a John Charles Polanyi Prize, the Government of Ontario announced. A ceremony to honour this year’s winners was held at the University of Toronto’s Massey College on December 4.

The John Charles Polanyi Prizes are given annually to up to five recipients in Ontario, and are awarded by the provincial government in honour of John Polanyi, a U of T professor and the recipient of the 1986 Nobel Prize in chemistry. The Polanyi Prizes are awarded to outstanding researchers in the early stages of their career who are continuing their post-doctoral work at an Ontario university. The prizes have a value of $20,000 each and are available in five categories broadly defined as: physics, chemistry, literature, economic science, and physiology or medicine, to be consistent with the categories for which Nobel Prizes are awarded.

This year, four of the five prestigious 2008 Polanyi Prizes have been won by U of T post-doctoral researchers. The other recipients are: Nadina Katherina Kolas, a post-doctoral fellow at Mount Sinai Hospital’s Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute; Professor Warren Lee of respirology and medicine; and Professor Mark Taylor of chemistry. The fifth award went to economist Philip DeCicca of McMaster University.

“I was absolutely thrilled,” said Larson, who won in the literature category. “I got a phone call at home, and I wasn’t expecting to hear the results that way. I feel completely overwhelmed and very honoured. I had a lot of support from my referees going into the process, but one never knows in these situations, and the Polanyi is very competitive. I’m excited to have that kind of recognition at this stage, and I feel that it’s a very strong affirmation of my work.”

John Milloy, Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities, congratulated the recipients. “Supporting research is the key to developing and keeping talented knowledge workers. In honouring these researchers’ early achievements and confidently anticipating their future discoveries, we are cultivating a unique resource benefiting all Ontario.”

Larson joined the University of Toronto Scarborough and the graduate department of English at St. George a year ago. Her research area is 16th and 17th Century English literature with a focus on women’s writing and issues of gender and language. Completed in 2007, her dissertation is titled Politic and Civil Words: The Textual Conversations of Early Modern Women, 1590-1660.

Women were expected to be seen and not heard in those days, she said. “That was considered the ideal, but the reality was that a lot of women were using their writing to express their views. My research demonstrates that conversations in written texts constituted an important strategic forum for women. Women created conversational spaces in their writing that enabled them to establish positions of authority for themselves. My work considers how women writers were negotiating the complex relationship between gender, language, and cultural space in the 16th and 17th Centuries.”

In her PhD dissertation at the University of Toronto, Larson examines the conversational strategies and conversational spaces created by a series of women from two prominent literary families of that period: The Sidney family, connected to Renaissance poet Sir Philip Sidney, specifically his sister Mary Sidney Herbert and his niece Mary Wroth; and the Cavendish family, particularly Margaret Cavendish and her stepdaughters, Jane Cavendish and Elizabeth Brackley. Larson is currently revising this project for publication. Her book manuscript also considers the intertextual conversations between the women writers featured in her dissertation and male canonical writers like Ben Jonson, Shakespeare and Philip Sidney.

A Rhodes Scholar, Larson studied literature and women’s studies at the University of Oxford, where she earned two Master’s degrees. “I became interested in women writers of the 16th and 17th Centuries while studying at Oxford. It is a field that has expanded dramatically in the last two decades, and it continues to transform our understanding of early modern literature and culture. I was particularly drawn to the conflation of women’s bodies and women’s words in the period. I began to explore how women writers used language and conversations strategically in the face of assumptions that their words were sexually threatening.”

Born in Edmonton but raised in Switzerland, Larson earned two undergraduate degrees from Minnesota’s St. Olaf College -- one in English literature and women’s studies, and the other in vocal performance. Larson and her husband, opera singer Lawrence Wiliford, first met as undergraduate singers at St. Olaf. Wiliford is performing this season with Opera Atelier, the Canadian Opera Company, and Tafelmusik. “When I heard I had won the Polanyi Prize, my husband was in Vancouver performing, and I called him right away. He was delighted to hear the news, and we celebrated once he got back to Toronto.”

Larson’s own musical bent is emerging in her new book project. She is beginning a book that explores the role of songs in 16th and 17th Century literature and culture, with a study of selected writings by William Shakespeare, Mary Sidney, Mary Wroth, Richard Crashaw, John Milton, Katherine Philips and Margaret Cavendish, studied in the context of the musical settings of Henry Lawes, an important Elizabethan musician and composer. The book also examines the role of women in early modern English musical culture.

She is pleased to be with the University of Toronto Scarborough. “The University of Toronto was my first choice when I was finishing my PhD,” she said. “It’s a top-notch university and among the best places in the world for my field, but the Scarborough campus with its sense of community also appealed to me. I was attracted to Scarborough because of its commitment to undergraduate education while also benefiting from the resources of a major research institution. To be engaged in undergraduate and graduate teaching and to do it in a close-knit community setting gives me the best of both worlds.”

The structure of the humanities department here also appealed to her. “My own research is quite interdisciplinary, and so I value the opportunity to interact with researchers and colleagues in different disciplines. To have the connection to U of T’s resources and the various centres of study and institutes, along with this connection to a smaller campus community, is very rewarding.”

Already in her young career, Larson is the recipient of numerous prizes and awards, and has published a variety of journal articles. As well, she has presented her research at numerous conferences and symposia.

“We are extremely pleased to hear that Katie Larson has been awarded the prestigious Polanyi Prize -- an award which recognizes a handful of the finest PhDs at Ontario universities who have graduated in the last four years,” said Professor William Bowen, Chair of the department of humanities. “Although Katie is in her second year at U of T Scarborough, she has already made a substantial impression as a scholar, teacher and colleague, not only in English and women's studies, but also in important conversations being held across the department of humanities. The prize will provide welcome support for her major research projects and will help her to sustain the hectic pace that she has set for herself.”

© University of Toronto Scarborough