Alumnus earned bachelor’s, master’s, doctoral degrees from UI
Friday, October 17, 2014

When James Hansen first began his studies at the University of Iowa, legendary UI space scientist James Van Allen was building instruments in the basement of the physics building.

Though the climate pioneer began his studies as a mathematics student and always had an interest in space studies, Hansen says he was too nervous to approach Van Allen directly.

"I was a very shy student, and very unconfident, and I specifically avoided taking any of Professor Van Allen's courses because I didn't want him to know how ignorant I was," Hansen says. "And, by the way, that was a very bad strategy, if you want to succeed you should not sit in the back row and try to be unnoticed."

Luckily, Hansen was noticed during his senior year when an astronomy professor convinced him to take the physics qualifying exam as an undergraduate. Hansen tested well, and it caught Van Allen's attention.

"That led him to telling me about data from Venus," Hansen says. "He showed me that data and that was to stimulate me, and I wound up doing my Ph.D. research on that topic."

Hansen says he then became caught up in the exciting scientific environment at the UI, going on to earn his bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees from Iowa.

"It was really the environment that Professor Van Allen created. It was showing us how science works," Hansen says. "There are interesting questions and you can have ideas about how something works, but you have to be completely objective in trying to understand things, especially new things."

Hansen went on to direct the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and was one of the first scientists to forecast global warming and raise awareness about climate change. He says he retired from that post in 2013 to pursue drawing connections between policies and climate change full time.

Now, Hansen directs the Program on Climate Science, Awareness, and Solutions at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. He has also been visible in the public arena, outlining actions the public must take to protect the future of young people and other life on our planet.