ASU grad uncovers a love of archaeology

April 16, 2021

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2021 graduates.

Nearly two decades after graduating from high school, Nicolas Hansen went back to school as an investment in his family’s future — discovering a passion for archaeology along the way. ASU graduating student portrait Nicolas Hansen Nicolas Hansen and family. Photograph courtesy of Nicolas Hansen. Download Full Image

Hansen is graduating from Arizona State University this spring with a Bachelor of Arts in anthropology from the School of Human Evolution and Social Change and as a student with Barrett, The Honors College.

Hansen met his wife at a writing workshop for aspiring science fiction and fantasy writers. He said being a pair of “starving artists” together was fun, but once they were expecting their first child, they decided to invest in education to provide more stability for their growing family.

Starting at a local community college, Hansen was majoring in English but took an elective class called “Buried Cities and Lost Tribes: Old World Archaeology.” He found it so interesting that he changed his major to anthropology.

Once Hansen transferred to ASU, he took two more courses that helped him realize his love for anthropology and archaeology. One was about hunter-gatherers taught by Foundation Professor Curtis Marean, and another was a lithic analysis class taught by Assistant Professor Kathryn Ranhorn.

Now, Hansen is on a path to learn everything he can about stone tool technologies used by our human ancestors. He’s learned a lot already.

He took the initiative to learn flintknapping and completed a research project about heat treatment in jasper, a local gemstone commonly used by past peoples to make tools. The study compared how the stone fractures differently before and after being heated.

The extensive research involved obtaining proper legal permissions, best practices for ethically collecting raw materials here in Arizona, and heating the stones then measuring how they fracture. He presented his findings at the Society for American Archaeology conference this spring.

While parenting and keeping up with schoolwork, Hansen also gains experience by working part time as a field technician with a local archaeology company.

After graduation, Hansen will work full time this summer and return to ASU for graduate school in the fall. He plans to earn a PhD in anthropology and wants to continue his career in academia studying human origins and stone technologies.

Hansen received the Transfer Achievement Award and Nita Siegman Scholarship.

He shared more about his academic journey and experience at ASU.

Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Question: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

Answer: I have been continuously surprised by the level of mentorship and support I have received as part of the SHESC community. Both my professors and the graduate students I have met have been generous with their time and expertise, offering guidance and assistance that has allowed me to exceed my own expectations and achieve success on a level that would not have been possible on my own.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I chose ASU because of the Sun Program that guarantees admission for community college transfer students who maintain a certain GPA, and because I was accepted to Barrett, The Honors College. It wasn’t until I arrived and began taking courses that I narrowed the focus of my interests and realized how lucky I was to be at one of the top institutions for studying human origins.

Q: Did you experience a challenge or overcome an obstacle in pursuing your course of study?

A: Aside from being a nontraditional student returning to school after a nearly 20-year hiatus, my first child was born in the first semester of my freshman year. Keeping up with all my courses as a full-time student while also being primary caregiver to an active little boy has not been easy. The challenges of balancing school and family responsibilities has been extremely difficult, and I could not have managed it without the support of my wonderful wife.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Get involved. Don’t just show up for your classes and turn in your work. Talk to your professors, go to office hours, ask how you can participate in research, ask if you can be part of journal clubs (informal research discussion groups), get to know the graduate students in your field and look for special lectures and presentations outside of class. I was able to complete several research apprenticeships in my time as an undergraduate and I cannot overstate how valuable it has been for me, both in terms of learning experience and in connecting with mentors who have provided guidance and support in countless ways.

Q: What about advice for someone considering returning to school?

A: My advice for anyone else considering a return to higher education is to not be afraid to reach out and ask for help. I could never have navigated these last few years without a community of people out there to guide and assist me through the process. A graduate student named John Murray has really taken me under his wing and been an amazing mentor. He has taken the time to help me with so many things — from my own research project to grad school applications. There are great people out there like John who are willing to support and guide you because they had someone do it for them when they were starting out. I only hope I can be as good a mentor to someone else when my turn comes around.

Taylor Woods

Communications program coordinator, School of Human Evolution and Social Change


Solving problems through the lens of sustainability

April 16, 2021

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2021 graduates.

To think, it all started with a little competition and some cheese. Dylan Ellis grad profile 2021 Dylan Ellis is graduating as a chemical engineer in spring 2021 from the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. Download Full Image

In high school, Dylan Ellis competed in the nationally recognized Science Olympiad — a competition that paved a path for this learner's journey at Arizona State University, and his pursuit in chemical engineering. During this competition, Ellis and his partner characterized and extruded cheese — a memorable process that left him wanting to know more about materials science and its relation to chemical engineering. He immediately started doing research. 

“When I saw how well-equipped the field was to solve our biggest problems in sustainability and medicine, and how it combined all my interests of biology, chemistry, design and business, I knew it would be the best choice for me,” Ellis told ASU News.

This spring, Ellis, whose hometown is Fort Collins, Colorado, is graduating as a chemical engineer from the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. He is also a student at Barrett, The Honors College and the director of Changemaker Central — a student-led initiative that encourages the ASU community to drive social change.

Among his many accolades, Ellis was a New American University Scholar – National Merit Finalist and an American Slovenian Education Foundation fellow to Slovenia. He received a number of scholarships, including Chapel of the Flowers Scholarship, Slovenian Women's Union Scholarship and the Slovenian Union of America Scholarship. Ellis also received Fulton Undergraduate Research Initiative funding twice, to research work aimed at advancing sustainability.

This impressive scholar’s journey at ASU is far from over. Next year, he plans to pursue his master’s degree in chemical engineering, working on a thesis to metabolically engineer bacteria for the sustainable reutilization of waste and biosynthesis of valuable products. After that, he plans to take his skills to the biotech industry in hopes of making a positive impact on the environment and human health.

In his own words, Ellis explains his experience at ASU and shares his wisdom with future students.

Question: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

Answer: ASU drilled the concept of sustainability into my perspective. At both Changemaker Central and in chemical engineering, I learned that in order to make lasting change, the solution must be novel and self-sustaining. Solutions now must not compromise the future. Because of ASU, I now thankfully view every problem through a lens of sustainability.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I chose ASU because of the energy. The word gets thrown around a lot, but I do think it is meaningful that we consistently place No. 1 in innovation — we have so many resources, expert faculty and cutting-edge activity going on. I knew coming here would help me grow and prepare me to make an impact.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: Dr. Arul Varman taught me how to be an effective researcher and how vital having a good community is to success and happiness.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: I would urge students to be strategic and listen to themselves. College is a time of exploration and self-discovery, but a frequent problem I encountered was spending time doing things out of obligation or that I think I "should" do rather than what I want to do. Students owe it to themselves to make the most out of this exciting time by trying different things to find what they enjoy and what will help them grow.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: The Changemaker Space in the (Memorial Union) was always my favorite spot — the atmosphere is always so lively and the community is amazing and inspiring.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I would spend the money on efforts to close the loop on the circular economy. The buildup of waste is a huge problem our generation has to face, and technologies for breaking down and repurposing waste are in dire need in order to maintain the health of the environment and society.

Jimena Garrison

Media Relations Officer, Media Relations and Strategic Communications