Keeping pace with Radford University's Niels Christensen

Professor of Psychology Niels Christensen

Professor of Psychology Niels Christensen

It's challenging enough to be one of Virginia's finest educators and scholars, but Radford University Professor of Psychology P. Niels Christensen, a husband, father of three and multiple-marathon runner believes in staying active and pushing himself to excel.

As a scholar, educator and runner, the nationally-recognized social psychologist seeks to understand why people strive for their best and how they can accomplish it.

"I'm interested in how people think about themselves, especially in terms of self-control," Christensen. "We try to understand how these people think. Why do they do the things that they do?

Although Christensen's marathon medals are won in his spare time, the lessons he's learned from the long runs have informed, influenced and engrained themselves on his career in academia.

"I try to run a marathon every year. Running a marathon is hard. The hardest part is getting up every day to run. The first day is easy, the second day is not as exciting and the third day you're thinking, 'I just want to hit the snooze button and go back to sleep.'  So how do I get myself out of bed? How do I make sure I eat the right food? How could I understand people's ability to resist temptation?"

After receiving a B.A. in psychology from the University of Notre Dame in 1993 and both an M.S. ('96) and a Ph.D. ('99) in psychology from Texas A&M University, Christensen chose to join the faculty at Radford University, a school that would let him combine pedagogy and research in complimentary amounts.

Niels Christensen in class

Professor of Psychology Niels Christensen offers advice a student conducting research in one of his classes.

"I came here in 2003 and knew it was a school that would fit me," he said. "Not only was Radford supporting research in the psychology department, but they clearly cared about undergraduate excellence. It's so student-focused. I think that is the strength of a place like Radford."

Since his arrival at RU, efforts in exploring his research agenda have led to Christensen's national recognition as a scholar in social psychology. Among his many career accolades: selected as an associate editor for the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology; named as Fellow of the Society for Experimental Social Psychology; awarded a Distinguished Scholarship Award from Radford's College of Humanities and Behavioral Sciences; earned over $450,000 in research grants; and published work in 23 peer-reviewed journals and edited books.

"I don't want to pretend that we can quantify everything that goes on in the human mind, but there are things that we can understand," Christensen said of his research. "How can we understand human behavior from a scientific quantifiable perspective?"

In addition to his work as an outstanding scholar, Christensen is considered by his students to be one of Radford's top instructors, with an average teacher evaluation of 4.74 (out of 5). In addition to capably teaching students from across seven different lower-level, upper-level, honors and graduate courses over the past four academic years, Christensen has mentored more than 40 student authors as they prepared professional presentations and publications.

Niels Christensen

Christensen's teaching philosophy mirrors his dedication on the marathon route. Although the material he teaches is difficult and he expects success, Christensen believes anything can be achieved with the right training program and he does so by telling students what they need to do ("the training plan"), assessing them on a weekly basis ("the training runs") and supporting them as they tackle a cumulative exam, a final paper or both ("the marathon").

"Students maybe haven't seen the information before," he said. "It's all wonderfully new, but it's a challenging place to be where you have uncertainty and you don't understand. And there are times in my own life when I'm uncertain about new things. I do my best to get everyone to the level where we can pass the tests and succeed together."

In 2012, Radford University recognized Christensen's success in the classroom by awarding him the Donald N. Dedmon Distinguished Teaching Professor Award, named for RU's former president and given each year to a faculty member who is dedicated to and demonstrates excellence in teaching and advising of students.

"If anyone came to Radford to take a psychology class, I'd recommend Dr. Christensen right away," said Caitlyn Foley, a junior psychology major from Virginia Beach. "Psychology is not straightforward and you need so much background in our classes. He makes sure that you know it."

In addition to having class with Christensen, Foley works with him as a co-teacher in RU's University 100 program and is an advisee. Foley cites his influence in these roles as a major force in her time at Radford and while she initially expected to pursue only a master's, it was Christensen's support and advice that have inspired her to think about a doctorate.

"He's pushed me to my limits, but he's always willing to help," she said. "I know I can ask him about anything, from questions in class to potential grad schools and he will help me figure it out."

After about 18 miles of running, marathoners often feel like they have hit a wall and the race becomes even more difficult. If there's a wall in contributing to RU, Christensen still hasn't hit it.

Outside the laboratory and classroom, the professor is known across every discipline on campus for his work as an associate director of the RU Honors Academy, a community of Radford's brightest that encourages students to embrace challenging situations that require creativity, critical thinking and adaptability.

Christensen's role with the academy has seen him advising students on executing senior capstone projects; traveling with students to honors and interdisciplinary conferences; compiling data for assessment of honors programs and admission processes; and coordinating the RU Undergraduate/Graduate Engagement Forum, which, in 2013, featured more than 300 student research presentations in a three-day symposium.

Christensen was the first new psychology faculty member hired under the tenure of current Department of Psychology Chair Hilary Lips.

"We were absolutely overjoyed to get him," said Lips, who is internationally-known for her research and teaching on sex and gender and women's studies. "He was focused, but enthusiastic and he seemed to have the balance of things we looked for."

From day one, it was clear that Christensen was an asset to the university. According to Lips, he applied himself to the fullest in the classroom and spoke very highly of his students. At the same time, he pursued research that was important to his interests.

"He put those things together and that's characteristic of his entire time here," she said. "He has always worked to engage students in the process of pushing back the frontiers of knowledge and getting them involved."

In addition to his stellar work as a member of the Highlander community, Christensen is a five-time nominee for the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) Outstanding Faculty Award, the Commonwealth's highest honor for faculty at Virginia's public and private colleges and universities. These awards recognize superior accomplishments in teaching, research, and public service.

Christensen's work has earned him a spot as one of Virginia's brightest stars in higher education and he has a long career of influencing students and the research in his field.

After all, it's a marathon, not a sprint.

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Sep 4, 2013
Dan Waidelich
(540) 449-2470