ASU Professor Rolf Halden (during a Feb. 8 lecture about his research on non-degradable toxins that reside for generations in humans' fat layers) is the spokesman for the American Chemical Society — but none of his four degrees is in chemistry. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now
HaldenRolf Halden is director of the Center for Environmental Security at the Biodesign Institute, professor in the Ira A. Fulton School for Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, and senior sustainability scientist in the Global Institute of Sustainability at ASU. began his career studying zoology and botany in Germany.
“Then I looked at the job market and found there are not a lot of jobs in that area,” he said.
He specialized in microbiology, biotechnology, and sanitary engineering as a second elective, and earned his diploma.
“Even with those changes, there wasn’t a lot of opportunity,” Halden said.
He then started working on a doctorate in genetics: “I also thought this is probably not going anywhere good.”
He rebooted as an engineer by leaving Germany and studying civil engineering in the U.S.
“What I took from the biology was an understanding of microorganisms,” Halden said. “When I went into engineering, I used engineering quantitative tools to design remediation strategies for cleaning groundwater and soil.”
However, “neither engineering nor biology work well if you don’t have a good understanding of chemistry,” he said.
Halden always liked chemistry. When he started working in engineering, he worked on dioxins, cancer-causing agents that pollute groundwater and soil. He was in soil remediation, looking at how to move these carcinogens, using microorganisms that are supposed to gobble them up. In order to see what worked, he had to extract chemicals from soil and analyze them with tools like high-resolution mass spectrometers.
“In order to complete my studies I needed to learn analytic chemistry,” he said. “I always had an appreciation for chemistry. A lot of people don’t like chemistry. It’s just painful. I see chemistry as a unifying scientific discipline that brings all aspects together.”
Halden is a board-certified professional civil engineer, but he runs a mass spectrometry facility and is one of the experts for the American Chemical Society.
“They have selected me as a spokesperson to best represent their science, although I don’t carry a degree in chemistry, which is a bit bizarre,” he said.
A bug for space
Phil Christensen (with doctoral student John Hill, left, and project engineer Greg Mehall last summer in the thermal vacuum test chamber on the Tempe campus) went from working on other's space instruments to proposing his own, to eventuallying helping design and build his own. The geologist has four instruments in space and three more slated for flight. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now
Christensen was always interested in geology. When he was in high school, he watched the moon landing and became intrigued with space.
“But it never occurred to me growing up that I could work for NASA,” said the Regents' Professor in ASU's School of Earth and Space Exploration. “That was smart people.”
He got a degree in geology. During his senior year at UCLA, he worked for a guy who was building an instrument to go on a NASA mission to Mars.
“Wow, this was incredible,” Christensen said. “Mars. Geology. Planetary science. Space.”
Christensen went on to earn a doctorate in planetary geology.
“But that involvement with a mission ... that was an addictive process. It was so much fun,” he said. “You wake up every morning, and you go in and you see new pictures coming back from Mars today that no one has ever seen. Early on I really got this bug of wanting to be involved with missions: the exploration part, the new data, the new discoveries.”
Christensen knew he could be a part of someone else’s mission. A faculty member at Arizona State — Mike Malin, now CEO of a San Diego company that designs, develops and operates instruments to fly on unmanned spacecraft — said to Christensen, “Why don’t you propose your own instrument?”
Christensen called up an engineer he knew through his adviser and said he wanted to propose an instrument.
“I was 30 at the time. I knew nothing,” he said. “This man — Stillman Chase, who is still one of my best friends — was amazingly supportive. Here’s this young kid, calls him out of the blue, says, ‘Sure, come out to Santa Barbara. We’ll talk. We’ll see how this goes.’”
Christensen went out to the Santa Barbara Research Center, became a lead scientist and proposed an instrument.
“To everyone’s amazement, including my own, NASA selected that instrument to go on a mission,” he said.
That was in the late 1980s. For years, Christensen worked with the center, as a scientist working with engineers who did the hardware. Then he got a new bug. Instead of telling engineers what kind of measurements he wanted to make and what kind of data he wanted to collect, he wanted to be involved with the building and design.
Jump forward 20 years. The Santa Barbara company closed down. ASU wanted to build more capability on campus. About five years ago Christensen suggested hiring some of the engineers to come work for him at ASU.
“Now suddenly I find myself the CEO of a little aerospace company,” he said. “I’m now an engineer, working with 20 engineers. They look at me as sort of a pseudo-engineer: ‘OK, Phil — we’ll take it from here.’”
Jobs that don’t even exist yet
Randy Nesse was laughed at when, as a professor of psychiatry, he began asking biologists about evolution. He's now one of the world's preeminent researchers in the field of evolutionary medicine and is the founding director of ASU's Center for Evolution and Medicine. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now
There are some pitfalls to avoid when transitioning from one field to another. Halden has a long and distinguished track record — his resume is 67 pages — of chasing chemistry through food and water and soil into people, but he is humble.
“I know I lack a lot of knowledge, which is a risk when you move into an area where you have not been formally trained,” he said. “There are things you are not aware of. You can make mistakes that others would not make, but you also bring more creativity and awareness of other fields with you.”
Christensen’s progression went from being interested in the science to wanting to use science data to wanting to get his own science data to wanting to build the instruments that get that science data.
“A lot of science is that way — it’s an experimental process,” he said. “A lot of scientists end up designing and building their own experiments. It’s not that unusual.”
Now he builds instruments to go to strange places like asteroids and Jovian moons and study strange objects.
“It’s been this wonderful transition and it’s been a lot of fun,” he said. “I really enjoy what I do now.”
A lot of people in school right now will ultimately perform in a job that doesn’t even exist or for which there are no training programs, Halden said.
“That might sound odd, but if you look at the environment and the marketplace and how quickly it’s changing — self-driving cars and solar power and decentralization of a lot of services — people have to be willing and able to work in areas where they have not been trained,” he said. “It really pays off if you have engineering training because there are certain things you can always use that are always applicable.”
Nesse, a professor in ASU's School of Life Sciences, said he doesn’t consider his path as switching fields.
“I’ve always been an evolutionary biologist at heart,” he said. “It’s just there aren’t any evolutionary biologists in medicine.”
Top photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now