Darrick Hansen explored the world in pursuit of adventure and an undergraduate degree. Now, he sees his PhD program as a chance to explore biomedical mysteries alongside an international community of scientists.
This post was sponsored by the Stowers Institute
Darrick Hansen has a low threshold for the mundane. On his way to earning his undergraduate degree, he took time off to work in far flung places in between his studies in the US, Singapore, and Scotland.
After earning his degree from University of Glasgow, Hansen knew he wanted to find a non-traditional PhD program. While working at King’s College London, learning induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC) technology with biologists Fiona Watt and Davide Danovi, Watt suggested he apply to the Graduate School of the Stowers Institute for PhD studies.
Now in the fourth year of his PhD program, Hansen is investigating intestinal stem cells and the signaling of surrounding cells in their role in gastrointestinal issues such as celiac disease, autoimmune disorders, and irritable bowel syndrome. He works in the lab of Linheng Li, PhD, at the Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City, Missouri.
What have you learned from working and learning in different countries and cultures?
Science is such an international community — there’s less of a focus on the differences between us and more on who’s got the best idea and who can help that idea blossom. It brings people from all over the world together in a way that not many other things do.
Being exposed to different countries and cultures really helped me understand the value of working in a more diverse environment where there is a variety of ideas and perspectives. It’s just fun.
What would your advice be for someone considering a PhD program?
Take the extra time to decide what you really love and what will make you happy. By the time I got to college, I’d considered or tried the military, missionary work, construction, and traveling the world. At university, the students around me were five, six, seven years younger than me. Many chose science because someone had told them that’s what they should do, or they tested well in a certain area. They didn’t necessarily have a passion for the work.
Originally, I wasn’t going to pursue a PhD. Then I talked to people working in science and science-related jobs who hadn’t got one and they wished they had because it would have helped their career.
Because I took a circuitous route, I know this is what I want to do. There’s not another thing in the world that’s going to make me happier. This helps me enjoy the day-to-day grind more than most people I know.
What has been your biggest struggle as a PhD researcher?
My biggest challenge has been learning to find confidence in my own judgment – when to listen and when to speak up, and when to do what you’re told and when to disregard what you’re told. You have to find the balance between following the guidance of your mentors and listening to yourself and putting the data first.
This has also been one of the most rewarding things, because there have been times when I’ve been steered away from doing an experiment and I kind of sheepishly did it in the background and it worked out. That’s incredibly rewarding, but it’s a hard one – knowing when to listen to yourself and take risks.
Why did you choose the Stowers Institute for your PhD?
I chose this programme specifically because in my undergraduate studies and travels, I came to dislike traditional academia where you could spend a year or more in classrooms before ever getting hands-on research experience. The PI I was working for at the time, Fiona Watt, heard some of my more critical views towards academia, and she thought the Stowers Institute would be a good fit.
In the Stowers graduate program, the course modules last only the first few months. You don’t have to take classes and tests continuously. I just want to do research. I want to contribute to the overall pool of human knowledge. You can do that here, even as a predoctoral candidate.
What do you like best about your PhD program?
The thing I value most is that I feel like I’m being taught well, that I’m developing an in-depth, fundamental understanding of scientific processes and how to apply them in different scenarios. If I have a question, I can ask somebody in my lab or I can talk to an expert in the core facilities. Whether it’s microscopy or proteomics or molecular biology, you can draw upon the expertise of people who do these techniques every day and have for a decade or more.
Those phenomenal support scientists help lead us to some unorthodox, out-of-the-box thinking. Right now, we’re using imaging techniques for cryo-electron microscopy, and it’s not something I’ve seen anyone else do.
My friends’ jaws drop when they find out the resources we have access to compared to their programmes. We have technicians to help us work with animal models or handle a microscopy sample that’s too complicated for our experience. Instrument specialists are available to guide me and teach me about these giant expensive toys so that I don’t break them.