At its heart, the Ad Astra Institute for Science Fiction & the Speculative Imagination is a community:
Educators and practitioners of science fiction, a unique genre of storytelling that allows both writers and readers to explore new realities, address difficult questions about humanity, and understand the current world with greater nuance.
Creators of speculative literature, with a strong drive to explore the genre by writing it, and to help others do the same by offering coursework, workshops, and writing programs in the university and in the speculative-fiction field.
Fans and champions of the genre, believing that science fiction and speculative literature can be enjoyed at any level and still have the potential to change the world.
Organizers who've run SF conferences and events for decades, bringing together many voices under one roof to study and celebrate our field with like minds.
On this page you can meet some of the people who are Ad Astra, and learn a little about our history, philosophy, and vision - we're storytellers, teachers, students, and fans of SF with hundreds of cumulative years working inside science fiction!
Chris McKitterick (he/they) has lived in seven states and two countries, but calls Lawrence - where he's taught science fiction and writing at KU and several SF educational programs - home. His "Ashes of Exploding Suns, Monuments to Dust" won the AnLab Reader's Award for best novelette, his debut novel was Transcendence, and he's published short fiction, essays, and poetry widely since the 1990s. Current projects include Ad Astra Road Trip, Empire Ship, Stories from a Perilous Youth, and more.
Among other careers, he has worked in gaming, tech, and astronomy before landing in education. He's a popular speaker, Campbell Award juror and chair, ran the Sturgeon Award for decades, and served almost as long as director of James Gunn's original Center for the Study of Science Fiction. He's run 1930s carbon-arc movie projectors and printing presses, and restored all kinds of machines. He sees surviving his youth as evidence of quantum realities.
Chris just got married in late 2023, and spends much of his free time helping care for a menagerie of animal friends and occasionally rehabilitating wildlife. He believes that, if we pay attention, the little animals with whom we share the world can offer a great deal of wisdom.
Kij Johnson (she/they) is a writer of short stories, novels and occasional other things. Her first sale was in 1987 to a small Minnesota magazine, Tales of the Unanticipated; since then she has sold more than fifty shorter works of fiction, as well as poems, nonfiction, and game materials. Her books include The Fox Woman (Tor, 1999); Fudoki (Tor, 2003, a finalist for the World Fantasy Award); the short story collection At the Mouth of the River of Bees (Small Beer Press, 2012, a finalist for the World Fantasy Award); The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe (Tor.com, 2016, winner of the World Fantasy Award); and The River Bank, a sequel to Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows (Small Beer Press, 2017). There was also a Star Trek: The Next Generation book with bestseller Greg Cox, Dragon's Honor.
She is a three-time winner of the Nebula Award (2010, 2011, and 2012) and the World Fantasy Award (2009, 2017, and 2019), winner of the Hugo Award (2012) as well as the French Grand Prix de l'Imaginaire (2017), the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award (1992), the Crawford Award (1999), and others. Her short stories include award-winners "Fox Magic," "26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss," "Spar," "Ponies," "The Man Who Bridged the Mist," and "The Privilege of the Happy Ending." She's been translated into seventeen languages, and her work has been optioned for Hollywood twice.
Here's a good list of her fiction that is available online, some here on this website, some not so much.
In the past, she's had all the cool jobs: managing editor for Tor Books, Collections and Graphic Novels Editor for Dark Horse Comics, Continuity Director and Creative Director for various worlds at Wizards of the Coast/TSR, a subject matter expert for Microsoft, and a manager for user educations groups in several tech companies.
Currently, she lives in Lawrence, Kansas, with a cat, Jurat.
Desirée Neyens (she/her) first got connected with Chris, Kij, and the Lawrence SF community in the summer of 2014 when she participated in the Intensive Science Fiction Institute on the SF Novel. In the years that followed she participated in the Institute two more times, took an assortment of SF classes from Chris and Kij, and became involved with planning and orchestrating the annual ConQuesT benefit auction.
Professionally, she works at the University of Kansas where she changes jobs every few years to keep things interesting. In addition to being a staff member she is also an instructor for a few Leadership Studies classes, which are, by far, her favorite part of working in higher education. Well, that and the tuition assistance.
Desirée has earned a Master's degree in Library Science, a Master's degree in English, and a PhD in Library Science. She currently lives in Lawrence, KS with her spouse, an assortment of critters, and entirely too many houseplants (according to her spouse). We call her Flight Control Director (technically "Assistant Director" in our bylaws) because without her organizational assistance and help with finances, we would be lost.
Isaac Bell is our all-around assistant and occasional faculty. From 2012-2013, he served as AboutSF educational-outreach coordinator. He also launched James Gunn's Ad Astra magazine, helped build our our lending library, and has been a vital part of our operations for more than a decade.
Isaac earned his MA from the English Department at the University of Kansas, where he now teaches writing and rhetoric. For years he was a professional journalist. He writes science fiction and studied SF and writing under James Gunn, Kij Johnson, Chris McKitterick, and others.
Ruth Lichtwardt has worked with Ad Astra staff since our earliest days, starting with serving as administrator of James Gunn's Campbell Conference.
As a University of Kansas student, she took several of Jim Gunn's writing classes, and later initiated the tradition of the annual Campbell Conference book signing while working as a trade book buyer in the KU Union bookstore.
Ruth is active in Kansas City and Lawrence-area SF clubs and conventions, including ConQuesT, where she runs the benefit auction with AboutSF (and now Ad Astra) as the recipient. She has also held various positions at several WorldCons including Hugo Awards administrator. Ruth was Chair of MidAmeriCon II, the 74th Worldcon, held in Kansas City in 2016, and the World Fantasy Convention 2023, also in KC.
Her day job has nothing to do with science fiction but helps feed the habit.
Since 2022, Logan has served Ad Astra as our all-around research assistant, helping manage and record presentations for our "Science into Fiction" series of talks and workshops, researching SF in STEM and academia, and more.
Affiliated faculty of the Ad Astra Institute for Science Fiction & the Speculative Imagination work in many disciplines across the University of Kansas and other organizations all across the world.
In addition to Ad Astra directors Chris and Kij, many other SF, STEM, and creative professionals contribute their expertise through our talks, events, courses, and other educational offerings.
Stay tuned to meet more of our growing team!
Philip Baringer, PhD, has more than 35 years of teaching and research experience. He's Professor Emeritus of Physics and Astronomy who's received numerous awards for his teaching, including the Department Undergraduate Teaching Award, the Kemper Award for Teaching Excellence, and the University Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE) Excellence in Teaching Award, chosen by graduate students in Physics and Astronomy. His research focuses on experimental particle physics, particularly production of the top quark. Phil is a member of the Compact Muon Solenoid collaboration, an international group operating an experiment at the European Organization for Nuclear Research's Large Hadron Collider. He believes in the importance of communicating science to a general audience. He has also received the Steeples Award for Service to Kansans, an award that recognizes faculty members for sharing their teaching and research with the people of Kansas.
Phil served as inaugural speaker for Ad Astra's Science into Fiction writing workshop series, also participating in the developmental and critique workshops in Series #1 and #3, where he not only shared his scientific expertise but also a deep understanding of SF narrative. You can find his inspirational talk - "The Higgs Boson in This Particular Universe: Facts, Speculation, and the Story of a Little Ripple with a Big Bang" - on the Ad Astra YouTube channel.
For the 2023, Phil served as Special Guest Instructor for the summer Speculative Fiction Writing Workshop and "Repeat Offenders" Workshop. For nearly 20 years, Phil has co-taught "Science, Technology, & Society: Examining the Future Through a Science-Fiction Lens" with McKitterick, taught several science-fiction Honors courses at KU, served on many graduate thesis and dissertation committees on SF writing and literature, serves on the nominations committee of the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award f for best short SF, and is a ravenous SF and comics reader.
Barbara Kerr, PhD, holds an endowed chair as Distinguished Professor of Counseling Psychology at KU, and is an American Psychological Association Fellow. Her research has focused on the development of talent, creativity, and optimal states, while training psychologists and counselors to be talent scouts who provide positive, strengths-based services.
She founded the Guidance Laboratory for Gifted and Talented at the University of Nebraska; was Associate Director of the Belin-Blank National Center for Gifted and Talented at the University of Iowa; and co-director of the National Science Foundation projects for talented at risk girls at Arizona State University. She is editor of the Encyclopedia of Giftedness, Creativity, and Talent Development; and author of Smart Girls: A New Psychology of Girls, Women, and Giftedness; A Handbook for Counseling Gifted and Talented; co-author of Smart Boys: Talent, Masculinity, and the Search for Meaning; Counseling Girls and Women; and more than 100 articles, chapters, and papers in giftedness, talent, and creativity.
Dr Kerr directs the Counseling Laboratory for the Exploration of Optimal States at KU, a research through service program that identifies and guides creative adolescents.
Barbara Webb is a successful self-published author of three novel series, and long-time writing instructor, affiliated with Ad Astra faculty for decades.
In addition to writing, Barbara enjoys cooking (her chocolate chip cookies are always in high demand), crochet, and video games. She's been an avid table-top role-playing-gamer since she was ten. Like most of her family, Barbara began music training when she was very young, and has played in the Columbia Civic Orchestra, the Missouri Symphony, and the band Hurtsickle Fade. In the early 2000s, she participated in the Speculative Fiction Writing Workshop with James Gunn, Kij Johnson, and Chris McKitterick; and Kij Johnson's original Novel Writing Workshop, among others.
Barbara teaches the residential Novel Architects Workshops and Online Masterclasses alongside Kij Johnson.
Learn more about Barbara on her website.
History: Ad Astra staff and faculty have been involved in science fiction studies - literary, scholarly, and creative - for decades. We got started running conventions, conferences, writing workshops, and academic and educational research centers in the early 1990s.
Ad Astra is the spiritual successor of James Gunn's original Center for the Study of Science Fiction, established at the University of Kansas in 1983. Our directors began working with Jim in 1992 and served as directors of his center from 1995-2022. Like so many small university-based organizations, shortly after Jim's death (a profound loss for those who had worked with and loved him for so long), our little chosen-family center was subsumed into a college department. So in 2021 we founded the Ad Astra Center at University of Kansas to serve as an umbrella organization for our ongoing workshops and other educational-outreach programs, and to continue sharing our vision to "Save the world through science fiction." In 2023, a new KU rule interfered with our ability to operate effectively within the university, so we re-established Ad Astra as an independent, not-for-profit Institute. Freed from university politics and administrative constraints, we're finally able to build the comprehensive, not-for-credit educational program we've always dreamed of!
Philosophy: Our vision to use SF as a tool and mode to help make the future a better place is something our director has been working toward since grad school. Inspired by his mentor, SF Grand Master James E. Gunn - who also believed that speculative narratives might be our best hope of helping humankind avert self-imposed disaster - he created a youth program to get SF into the hands of young people in 1996 (formally established as AboutSF.org in 2004 with David Brin and James Gunn). We believe that the power of the arts grows empathy - necessary for creating a livable and hopeful future for all those who will live there. The arts touch our hearts and souls, narratives bring us closer, and the fresh perspectives of SF deepen our empathy so The Other becomes someone we can care about.
Practically: We're reaching for that goal by building a comprehensive program that brings together creatives, educators, and fans of speculative fiction with scientists and technologists to study and create work that changes the world. We encourage the "two cultures" - STEM and the arts - to work together to prepare the broader public for what's to come, bridging the divide between fields by showcasing cutting-edge science and tech research while helping creatives engage with forces rapidly re-shaping our world. Through a rich series of expert talks, creative workshops, masterclasses, teacher-education and public-interest courses, social-media and blog outreach, video and textual inspiration, and more, we seek to educate and enrich creatives and the broader public alike.
Most of our offerings (except the intensive Science Fiction Summer residential workshops) are available in-person and live-streaming, and much of that content will be posted to our YouTube channel, and social media, and we also share a great deal of our materials on this site. We actively encourage people from diverse backgrounds to participate - part of why we offer our talks and other events online - to enable people from around the world to participate whether or not they're local or have the ability to attend in person or in real-time, and to bring people from diverse backgrounds together to collaborate in the creative process.
We also offer scholarships to enable people of all economic situations to have equal access to our classes.
The Ad Astra Institute is a registered 501(c)3 educational, arts, and research nonprofit chartered in Kansas, so your donation is fully tax-deductible. If you wish to support our activities by making a charitable donation to help others attend the workshops who might otherwise not be able to, or to support our educational outreach, check out our donation page.
We also partner with Farbeyond Books - a fantastic spec-fic bookstore - which donates at least 50% of all sales to Ad Astra, so if you have books you'd like to donate, let us know.
Thank you so much to our donors and supporters! You make all this possible.
Stay tuned for lots more coming soon. In the mean time, Ad Astra!