Hannah L. Harrison, PhD

she/her/hers

Where to find her!

Education

I went to the University of Alaska Fairbanks for my bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and the Norwegian University of Life Sciences for my PhD.

B.S. in Natural Resource Management (2006 – 2010), M.S. in Environmental Ethnography (2011-2013), PhD in Ecology and Natural Resource Management (2015-2018)

Current Job Title: Postdoctoral Scholar

What experience first got you interested in science and is that field the same one you went on to pursue?

I first because interested in science as a young kid. Whenever we did an exercise in class that asked “what do you want to be when you grow up?” I would always say “scientist!” My parents gave me a microscope kit when I was probably 7 or 8, and the first thing I did was cut my finger on one of the glass slides. My dad helped me squeeze a bit of my blood onto a slide and look at it under the scope, and I remember being so amazed to see a piece of me up close. Sometime during high school I began to realize that most of the problems I was seeing in the environment were because of people, and not the environment itself. So I started pursuing environmental science where I could learn about how people interact with and use the environment. I’ve been in that field ever since, and I am reminded daily of the importance of drawing people into the conversation of conservation. 

Tell me about some people who helped or inspired you along the way, in your early training and later in your career.

I’ve been really lucky to have a series of incredible supervisors/mentors in my academic career. Starting in my undergrad, I had a trio of professors at University of Alaska Fairbanks who really encouraged me to be ambitious, inquisitive, and pursue thesis topics that I found interesting and challenging. 

My master’s supervisor, Dr. Philip Loring, was really a transformative mentor. From day 1 he saw my natural talents and helped me develop them into skill sets that have benefited me through to my current job. He also challenged me daily to broaden my thinking and trust myself and my intuition. We developed a really strong collegiate partnership and stayed in touch after I finished my M.S., which led to my current job working with Dr. Loring as a postdoc! 

But, I never would have made it to the postdoc at all if not for my supervisory team in my PhD. My primary supervisor, Dr. Øystein Aas, was incredibly supportive of me during my PhD. He understood my ambitious and persistent style of work from Day 1 of the PhD program, and we struck a great balance of him encouraging me to pursue my interests and research questions while also helping me to not take on too much and stay on track to finish the program.  

Can you tell me about any moments of doubt you had as a student or early in your career and how you dealt with it?

I have often doubted myself due to what I call the opaque veil of academic competence. So many people you encounter in grad school seem like they know it all, and I often found myself wondering where I had missed out on obtaining this somehow perfect knowledge of the literature, the field, the methodology, grant writing, etc. For a while I felt like I was faking it until I could (?) make it (hello, impostor syndrome!), but eventually I came to realize that I actually know many things, and my way of looking at my field, at the world, at my topics doesn’t (and shouldn’t!) have to be identical to everyone else’s to be valuable. Finding ways to deal with self-doubt and stay productive during grad school, particularly the PhD, was very helpful in getting through anxious times. For me, it meant working through challenges, staying on top of my work load, and celebrating my successes abundantly. 

Can you share two or three surprising twists or turns in your early scientific training and your later career path.

My first surprising twist was going to grad school at all! I swore I would never do a graduate degree when I finished my undergrad, and yet a year later I couldn’t wait to get into an M.S. program. The same thing happened with the PhD – no one was more surprised than me to find myself applying to a PhD. 

At the time I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Zambia, and an email popped up in my inbox advertising The Perfect PhD (TM). I couldn’t believe such a perfect program existed – well funded, ample opportunity to travel, methods I enjoyed, a topic I loved – how could it be?! I applied, thinking surely I would never be chosen for such an incredible opportunity. But, I was (thankfully, delightfully) wrong! Looking back, I see that my swearing off of further degree pursuits had a lot more to do with burnout after each degree rather than a lack of interest. In fact, I love being in “school”, and even now as a postdoc I sometimes wish I could still take a full load of courses each semester (so many interesting options to choose from!). But, as I move up in my career I find new things to love about my job that surprise me. 

Most recently, I’ve been surprised to find myself loving supervising and teaching responsibilities. The opportunity to support the growth and development of young(er) minds is so rewarding, and I look forward to developing my teaching philosophy over the remainder of my postdoc. In short, this job never stops surprising me and I look forward to who I will be as a researcher both a year from now and 10 years from now. 

Can you give some examples of how you have incorporated your non scientific interests into your work.

I’m really interested in science dissemination and communication, and conservation in general. I also have a background in radio, so my latest work-personal life integration project has been to start recording my publications in a digestible audio format. My goal is to create podcast/audiobook style listening experiences where I narrate my work, take time to explain complicated or dense concepts, and share little personal anecdotes about the research experience or writing the paper as a team, etc. I plan to release my first one in the next few weeks alongside my most recent publication. My hope is that researchers and lay people alike can enjoy catching up on literature or getting a more personable experience with research while doing their daily commute, cleaning the house, or at the gym. I personally love podcasts, so this is my attempt to experiment with how science can be made more accessible to a wider audience. I also hope that the stakeholders who participate in my work can enjoy this format when it comes time to share the research findings with them. 

**This “pubcast” has been posted, check it out here.**

Is there some advice you could you share from your own experience to help someone with a science degree who is just starting off on their own career path.

First, I would encourage early-stage researchers to spend time getting to know themselves. Get to know your work style, what intrinsically motivates you (or demotivates you), what type of support you need, how you best receive criticism of you work (and compliments!), and what sort of recovery/self-care system works for you. So often ESRs get into a program and feel that they are drowning in the expectations of others. If you have a structure that works for you to be able to work consistently and effectively, it will serve you through your hardest times in both school and your career. 

As an example, I have a productivity system that works very well for me. I call it the “Do what I want, when I want to” system. I make a to-do list that contains every single task I have to do, no matter how big or how small. Seriously, it will have things like “print article”, “read article”, “add article to reference manager” all the way up to “design course curriculum for next semester’s seminar”. My rule is that I can do whatever I feel like doing from the list, but I have to do SOMETHING. Inaction or doing nothing is not an option. I take great joy in crossing things off my list, and I enjoy the benefit of not having to keep a mental library of all my tasks since it’s all down on paper. This may seem like a silly system, but it works for me and keeps me productive day in and day out. 

That sort of knowledge about yourself and consistent system makes a big difference making the most of each day, each week, each month of your program and career. Invest the time to figure yourself out!

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