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Vicki Hansen: Celebrating Research and Inquiry, and Respect for Different Ideas

December 30, 2010

Vicki HansenVicki Hansen is the McKnight Presidential Professor at the University of Minnesota-Duluth’s Department of Geological Sciences.  Dr. Hansen studies Venus and the early Earth, and is the PI of an NSF ADVANCE IT-Catalyst grant at the University of Minnesota Duluth. She also has published eight Venus VMaps through USGS, the most recent ones coauthored with past Ph.D. and M.S. students.  

Her latest peer-reviewed publications are:

  • Hansen, V.L. and I. Lopez, “Venus records a rich early history,” Geology, April 2010; v. 38, pp. 311-314.
  • Hansen, Vicki L. and A. Olive, “Artemis, Venus: The largest tectonomagmatic feature in the solar system?” Geology, 2010; vol. 38, pp. 467-470.

I interviewed Dr. Hansen by email:

1. When did you first become interested in space science?

I first became interested in space science, and planetary science in particular, as I was chatting with Ph.D. students and postdocs who were working with a colleague of mine, Roger Phillips, at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. We were chatting at a department gathering and the students were sharing with me their excitement about the upcoming NASA Magellan mission to Venus. From a geophysical perspective they were explaining the rheological model of Venus’ crust or lithosphere (strong, weak, strong), and from a geological perspective they were explaining that some researchers thought the equatorial region on Venus was similar to Earth’s mid-Atlantic ridge, forming a major divergent plate boundary, based on the topography of the region. As a structural geologist interested in global-scale tectonics, yet acutely aware of the role in of rheology in tectonic processes, the two views the students presented seem contradictory to me. IF we had a planet with a continental crust-like rheology and you pulled it apart, we should not get a mid-ocean spreading center, we should instead get continental extensional terrain like I had worked on the on North American Cordillera. So it seemed to me that one of the views was likely incorrect, and perhaps both views were flawed. I shared my skepticism with the students and soon after I was talking at greater length with Roger Phillips. That wonderful puzzle piqued my interest in Earth’s sister planet – believed by some at least to have a continental crust-like rheology, but at a global scale. I needed to know more. When Roger received the first Magellan images my interest exploded. One of the first images I saw of Venus was a region in the northern hemisphere Itpapalotl Tessera. Itpapalotl Tessera looked to me then, and it still does, like a fantastic example of huge regional-scale shear zone fabrics marked by S and C fabrics, a distinctive and elegant microstructural fabric that develops in rocks in ductile shear zones. With that one image Venus had my heart and my mind.  I was bitten – or was it smitten – I think it was love at first sight.

After viewing that first image I went on to write a research proposal to the NASA Venus Data Analysis Program, which was selected for funding – and I was off on a wonderful ride to a new planet of structural and tectonic adventures.

2. While your first post-Ph.D. job was an Assistant Professor position at SMU, it’s rare for a scientist to skip the postdoc these days.  What advantages did starting as tenure-track faculty afford you?  What are the challenges of being a new faculty member straight out of graduate school?

Indeed it is rare to go directly into assistant professor position at an academic institution these days. It was rare at the time that I started at SMU as well. However it was also at a time, like today, that academic jobs were equally rare. And given the opportunity to jump into such a job I jumped in with great gusto. Although it was a challenge to go directly from student to professor, I doubt I really had any idea what I as getting into at the time. I will always remember when my first potential graduate student stepped into my office and asked if she could work with me on a Masters degree. I quickly looked behind me to see who in the office she was addressing. It took me a moment to realize that she was talking to me.

I would say that the disadvantage of going directly into a tenure-track faculty position was my incredible naïveté. I would also say the advantage of going directly into a tenure-track position was my incredible naïveté. I must admit I was very excited to begin teaching my own classes, and to try to get a research program off the ground. I was very lucky in that my SMU faculty colleagues protected me from membership on a number of committees that would have sucked up much valuable time. It was, however, also challenging, as I was the first woman on the faculty. I recall some comments in which it was quite clear that some of my colleagues viewed male graduate students with significantly more respect than they did me as a colleague. I don’t think they actually meant anything personal – they simply had not had a woman colleague before, and quite honestly, they simply did not know how to treat a woman as a professional colleague.

Another very difficult thing for me was in the early years as I went to professional meetings and saw a number of my contemporaries presenting exciting research results from their postdoctoral appointments. In contrast, I felt I was barely hanging on to a research program, nor did I feel I was doing a fabulous job in the classroom. But like most things in life, once one takes on a challenge, she simply moves forward with the changes. 

Looking back (once I survived) I feel that I was very lucky to have had a faculty position right out of graduate school, and in particular to begin teaching classes right away. For me teaching and research are so intertwined. I hope that my research complements my teaching, and I know that my teaching positively affects my research.  SO many of my ‘ah ha moments’ – and I had many, as I had so much to learn – came while I was preparing material for class, lecturing, or discussing concepts with students.  It is true that I sometimes wished for more time to teach, free of research responsibilities, or wished for more research time free of teaching, but truly, for me at least, the two activities so complement one another that doing both simultaneously improves each activity. Or at least that is how it felt for me.   Therefore, being given the opportunity to teach – to have to teach – courses right out of graduate school, this in the long run complemented my own research immensely. I found that students’ questions and answering students’ questions helped me to question, and to try to devise ways to better answer those questions. Life is linear in that you can’t go back and run the experiment again. Looking back I would say that for me the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages, but that’s an experiment I’ll never be able to run.

3. We’ve been hearing more and more about programs supported by NSF ADVANCE grants.  What have you and your colleagues been able to accomplish with yours?

I am the P.I. on an NSF Advance IT-Catalyst grant at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). The goal of NSF Advance Catalyst grants is to give institutions the opportunity to collect data to be able to understand the status of tenure-track women faculty in the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math). At UMD we have collected data—hard ‘quantitative’ data and qualitative data gained from interviews—in order to be able to both establish a baseline of what is the status of women in the STEM fields and UMD, and to begin to develop programs that would benefit women faculty in the STEM fields (and we believe will benefit all faculty, and many staff and students as well). Our goal is for UMD to be a place that women faculty apply, are hired, and flourish—that is, achieve the highest levels of success in their teaching research and into leadership positions. I grew up in Minnesota and I was raised to believe that anyone can do anything.  Issues that I dealt with as a women faculty member at SMU I attributed to Texas, quite honestly.  I must admit that I was both taken aback and deeply disappointed to find at UMD, in my home state, quite a poor environment for women in the sciences.  UMD has an OK record (OK, not great, but OK) with regard to hiring women to the STEM faculty; UMD has a very poor record however of retaining women in the STEM fields, and particularly women with strong research programs and strong leadership skills. We are entering a transitional year at UMD with a new chancellor and new leadership. We don’t know yet what we will be able to accomplish with recommendations to the program. I am, however, optimistic that the new chancellor cares about the issues of women in the STEM fields, but perhaps more importantly that he will put real energy into addressing these issues. I have heard from too many administrators that ‘care about women in STEM’, and yet I see example after example of situations which require action, and the necessary actions are not forthcoming.  We have the data, we have some recommendations; we’ll see where we get with campus leadership.  Please send any good thoughts our way!

4. I’m impressed with your history of professional and university service.  How do you balance teaching, research, and service?  And speaking of balance, what else is important to you?

Wow, first, thank you for your kind words. I don’t think of myself as a balancer (and anyone who knows me, knows that organization – which it would seem balance might require – is not a word that comes to mind to describe me). I guess I just try to do the things that seem most important to me at the time. I don’t mean this in a short-sighted sort of way; but rather to think long term, and to do what I see as important to my broad values and goals. I have been very lucky to have the opportunity to work in professional societies, to serve in advisory roles to the National Science Foundation and NASA, as well as to my home institutions. Fundamentally I care mostly about teaching and the students. I love to learn, and I love to help others learn.  Discovering something myself, and watching another person discover a concept (even if others are already aware of the concept) puts a smile on my face I can’t wipe off, and to me, that is critical. But teaching – and learning – don’t just happen in the classroom; and it is not just about what happens in the classroom, the lab, or the field.  There are so many things that have an impact on the quality of both learning and teaching—I consider these things as part of the cosmos of learning and teaching. So caring about learning and teaching requires that we take on many roles. I love research; I love the act of discovery. I love the puzzles that we get to contemplate. I love watching students gain the ability to puzzle on their own. But in order for all of these things to happen, we have to have a much larger, broader environment that truly celebrates research and inquiry, and respect for different ideas; and I guess for me, this is where the service within my university and within the broader community, comes into play; this where/how I can do my part to help encourage the healthy development of an environment that celebrates inquiry and respects a wide difference of opinions.  So perhaps this is where/how I balance teaching, research, and service.

Vicki HansenWhat else is important to me? My family, including an extremely supportive husband who is also a professor (and my best friend); two young adults (no longer children), one now a freshman in college, the other a junior in high school; and two rambunctious Australian shepherds, Tazzy and Shiraz. The environment is important to me – local environment, regional environment, and the environment of our wonderful, but fragile, planet. The planet itself is not fragile, simply fragile with regard to humanity’s place. Creativity and new ideas are important to me. I value the expression of differences in as many dimensions as I know. I value time in my natural gardens, where I am awed day after day by the simple beauty of botany and bugs. I value time in my potting studio where I get to play with rheology, metamorphism, and fire. I value my time walking in the woods and along the edges of rushing creeks, and majestic Lake Superior, I value time canoeing, kayaking, biking, nordic skiing, rollerblading, walking with friends—not all at the same time or even in the same season. I also love to travel, although I haven’t traveled near as much as I would like to.

5. What advice can you offer our early career scientists looking for that first job, or that first “permanent” job?

What advice would I offer the early career scientists? I guess my advice would be two-fold and seemingly contradictory. 1) Follow your heart and 2) be flexible and jump into opportunities, even if at first blush the particular opportunity might not be your first choice. Once in the job, don’t look back, don’t question what you should have done.  Instead, make the most of the opportunities that are open to you. See the opportunity as a little kid in a candy shop. Explore the various different directions in which you could go. Finally, honestly put your all into the job, and work your butt off. Looking back at my answer I guess that’s actually advice for when you have your first job perhaps not looking for your first job.  So in looking for first jobs, I would look quite broadly and not rule out what you think you might not like to do. Perhaps it’s my ignorance, but I have found that in so many opportunities there was so much more richness than I ever could have expected from reading a description of the opportunity. I went to SMU as a ‘practice interview’; I was offered a faculty job, and though that opportunity, I went in many directions that I never ever could have envisioned, much less evaluated.  I hope that your ride is as wonderful as mine has been. 

Thank you, Vicki!  And good luck on both your research and your efforts through your NSF Advance grant!

Dr. Hansen is being featured here as one of 51 Women in Planetary Science, a series of interviews with successful women scientists on career choices, sequencing, publishing, review panels, and other tips for success. Questions or suggestions for future interviews can be sent to us directly or to our email list, which all women in planetary science can join!

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. sutari permalink
    December 30, 2010 1:33 pm

    What a great interview. Ahhhhh Magellan. How I miss that. What a great time to be a grad student.

    • December 31, 2010 10:39 am

      We are happy to have Dr. Hansen as part of this series! Thanks for your comment, Susan!

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