Prof Personalities: Carolyn Hansson

Hasan Ahmed - 1B Nanotechnology
Posted on: March 10, 2017

Funny, sarcastic, and an overall wonderful person. Carolyn Hansson is a professor who teaches both graduate and undergraduate students and I got to sit down in her office to ask her questions. Learn more about her extensive background in this issue’s Prof Personalities.

How long have you been teaching at Waterloo?

21 years.

What courses do you teach?

Currently, I’m only teaching one undergrad course: BME 282 (materials science for biomedical engineers). I also teach a grad course, ME 731 (corrosion and oxidation).

Favourite course to teach?

I’ve only taught the BME course once, and it was delightful. There were only 35 students in my class. Prior to that, I’ve been teaching ME 230, where there were typically 120. Teaching 35 is a lot easier, especially for the labs. It was great fun, and I got to learn something new, which is always good.

How’d you end up as professor?

Long story. I was teaching at Queen’s University, where I was head of a department. I got a phone call from friend at UBC saying, “I think you should apply for this job at Waterloo.” I replied, “What job and why?” He said “Because you’d be good at it and it’s your kind of university.” The position was for the vice president research position. I got the job, did a 5 year term, and then reverted to being a professor. That position gave me a window on research across the university. I had no idea how to do research without a lab, but now I do. However, I couldn’t see my being in administration for the rest of my life.

Favourite part of being a professor?

Trying to find out what research results mean, especially when you don’t get expected results. When students come for undergrad, all the labs they’re doing have been done before. They know what to expect. In grad school, students are not used to not knowing what the answer should be. That’s really fun, because they get to figure things out and question results. Another thing which is great fun is when a student is struggling, then you explain it in a few ways and they suddenly get it. I love when students come into my office saying, “I’m going to do materials in the future.” That’s a good feeling.

Hardest part?

Least favourite is bureaucracy. Let me give one example. We now have a software program called concur for dealing with expenses (eg. for conferences, trips, etc.). I have to fill in a form. It goes to an administrator, who checks it to make sure things are reasonable, fair and allowed. It then goes to an admin assistant, then to a department chair, then the office of research, then the finances department. So many people getting paid to check bureaucracy. I’ll give an example. I went to a conference in Germany, took a taxi to the train station, to go to the airport. When I came back and filed receipts, the date on taxi receipt was not the same as on the form. Apparently, the taxi driver wrote the wrong date. I had to fix it, change it, and resubmit the documents which then had to be approved by all five levels again. That is not a way I want my tax money to be spent. The software’s supposed to be helpful…it isn’t. Similarly, when I write a research proposal it’s not the hard part. The forms I have to submit along with them are. When I was a young professor, there were just secretaries, no computers. She typed, I checked, she retyped, and the paper was submitted and the publisher did the rest. Now, the journal publisher expects you to do everything and format it all specifically for that journal: graphs have to be in this format, photographs need this DPI at this specific size, etc. Formatting used to be done by the publisher. Now I have to market my expertise to get research funds; I need to be an administrator, accountant, etc. and, most of all, a good communicator. It’s gotten worse and worse over the years.

Teaching philosophy?

I was a professor before they taught you how to be a professor, so I don’t really have a philosophy, but there are a few things I’ve picked up.  I was talking to grad students who wanted to be profs, and told them they need to be an actor when they’ve got to keep a class of 120 awake. I have a bit of a problem: I was born in England, where the sense of humour tends to be playing on words and sarcasm; it’s not slapstick. I often make what are meant to be humourous comments. Half the class thinks they are hilarious, half think I’m being sarcastic. This is all because of different cultures in the classroom. It’s hard to be funny when someone’s sense of humour doesn’t match yours. But I – and the students – will survive.

If you weren’t a professor, what would you be doing?

I’ve spent ~40% of my life in the non-academic world (industrial research, consulting) so I’d probably be doing that. Advantage of that is you’re doing one thing. Theoretically, our job now is 40% teaching, 40% research, 20% professional service. Each could easily be full time. And you’re trying to do them well and efficiently. Compared to doing things in industry, where you have one job, and that’s it, it’s a challenge to be good at all of this.

So interviews are upcoming. Do you have any tips for 1B students?

Show enthusiasm. Also, nothing is worse than interviewing someone who didn’t do their homework. I’m astounded that some don’t do it. Don’t spend a huge amount of time on it, but figure out the basics. What do they do? What position are you applying for? Be enthusiastic! Sell yourself. Think of some questions you want to ask them. E.g. have you had co-op students before? Can you tell me what kind of job they had? Show some interest, show you care, show you looked them up. Be interested in that job, not just any co-op job.

3 tips for undergrads?

  1. People skills are something people are looking for. I’m not talking English, just being able to talk and the ABILITY TO LISTEN. Listen to the full question of your interviewer. It’s better to ask, “Could you give me some time to think about that?”, rather than answering a question they didn’t ask.
  2. Study together for exams. Discussing a problem makes it go in better. Secondly, I use clickers. I ask the students to discuss the answers with each other, and explain why this is the answer, and why this isn’t the answer. You’re a generation younger than most profs. Your language is different. Therefore, expressing is different. I may explain something some way, and another guy in class may get it, but you may not. If he/she explains it to you, in a way you normally communicate, then it’s a way you can get it too. When you’re studying, “hey do you know what this means?” is a good question. Discuss it! You’ll remember on the day of the exam better. If you just read it, you probably won’t remember.
  3. Do NOT trash all the information after the exam. You’ll need to remember that for your future as an engineer.

Favourite memory of undergrad?

I was in a situation which was different. I went to Imperial College, where I was the first woman in that faculty ever, but I didn’t know that at the time I applied. Schools were still segregated in UK, so I went to an all-girls school. I didn’t know how to deal with men, and the men didn’t know how to deal with women, because they went to all-boys schools. The first 6 months were terrible, but I actually had a good time overall. It was hard at first though. They told me if I didn’t succeed, they wouldn’t hire any more women.

Be proud of being an engineer.