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The Magnetism of Microbes

Blue microorganisms

Chris Hansen

Chris Hansen has always been drawn to the sciences. But after graduating from the University of Oregon with a bachelor’s degree in biology, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do right away. He stayed in Portland and got a job in a hotel, where he enjoyed interacting with guests but was never completely satisfied.

Finding the Right Fit

Chris spent a few years in the hospitality industry, then went to work as a project manager. And he was good at it.

Chris Hansen

“I love the project aspect and emphasis on collaboration, but my dream was to do that in the context of something I love,” he says. “Working from home, I was like, you know what, I love biology, I gotta get back into this.”

Chris found the Master of Biological Sciences (MBS) program online and felt that “it seemed like something perfect” for him. He talked with (retired) advisor Brad Fruen, who encouraged him to apply. “He was a blast; he's like, Chris, you'll fit in here. And he was right.”

He made the big decision to move to Minnesota in February 2020 after living in Oregon his whole life. “I had to step outside the geographic bubble I was confined to, and that's what made this opportunity even more appealing.”

Scratching an Itch

When he was a teenager, Chris thought he might go to medical school. “But when I got to college, I really leaned towards evolutionary ecology. I'm a little bit squeamish of blood, too, so I’m glad I made the move.”

Chris Hansen in front of Coffey Hall

So instead of medicine, Chris started to think about what else he could do in biology. He took a microbiology course as an undergraduate that opened his eyes to a whole new world. “That was incredible. We were doing stains for bacteria and performed a myriad of selective experiments. It was fascinating. That stuck with me for years after graduating.”

Today, Chris’s focus is on evolutionary ecology in bacterial communities, specifically how environmental factors may drive adaptations. In addition, he’s eager to investigate how the metabolic activity of microbes in situ may dictate large-scale biogeochemical cycling.

“Microbes are biochemical factories, they could do everything,” he says. “They really push the limits of life. Their interactions with resources in their environment and with each other affect human health and resource cycling throughout the world. So being able to work with these organisms that have such a big impact, it scratched the itch that I was hoping to get scratched and may lead to a huge contribution to the world around me.”

He still works as a virtual project manager yet finds time to come to campus a few days a week to work in Dr. Trinity Hamilton’s lab.

His busy schedule has been challenging, but it gets him closer to his goal, which is a PhD in microbial ecology. “I want to be able to apply what I learned from a project management position in this different context, towards what I love, which is microbiology.”

The Big Takeaways

“The biggest thing that I learned is just how influential microbes are. They touch everything: they cycle carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, which are necessary for life everywhere. And even though we can't see them, their disproportionate impact on the world around us is wild.

"Don't be afraid to pivot, stumble, pick yourself back up, and stumble again as these are all necessary steps when chasing a dream career."

You can still learn once you’re older and are always able to pick subjects back up if you put in a significant amount of effort. You start to read journal articles pushing our understanding of a complex subject (e.g., microbial ecology) and you're like hey, I can understand this, instead of missing key takeaways. Of course, though I’ve got a long way to go, I’m getting there.”

Memorable Courses

  • Microbial Ecology and Applied Microbiology with Dr. Trinity Hamilton
  • Prokaryote Genetics with Dr. Jeffrey Gralnick and Dr. Kathryn Fixen

Advice for Future Students

Don't be afraid to ask questions. Because a lot of people in the MBS program are working simultaneously or returning to school after a long hiatus. There's no reason to not ask questions in class, during one-on-ones with professors or mentors, or during advising sessions. Be open about these things, it's how you understand, even though you might sound silly at times.

Don't be afraid to revisit what your initial plans were. You do want to come in somewhat knowing your area of interest, but don't be afraid to follow your passions if they take you down a different road. Don't be afraid to pivot, stumble, pick yourself back up, and stumble again as these are all necessary steps when chasing a dream career.