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Your career may not match your degree and that's ok, say these ASU professors.
August 28, 2017

3 ASU faculty aren't doing what they originally set out to — and their lives are better, and more interesting, for it

Education is what’s left after you’ve forgotten what you learned in school, Albert Einstein said.

Curiosity and learning how to learn — what some call being a master learner — are far more powerful indicators of success than a choice of major. A specific field of study might just be a stepping stone to something else.

Only 51 percent of college graduates working said their job is related to their major, and 32 percent said they never worked in a field related to their majors, according to a pair of surveys by CareerBuilder.

As crushing as that might sound right now to students immersed in differential equations or thesis wrangling, it’s not the end of the world.

In fact, it might be the beginning of a whole new one. Three of Arizona State University’s most accomplished faculty members aren’t doing what they set out to do, and they couldn’t be happier or more successful.

Rolf Halden is an engineer who practices chemistry. Phil Christensen is a planetary geologist who engineers instruments. Randy Nesse is a psychiatrist who studies biology.

Curiosity carried all three of them away. They more or less fell into what they do now.

Halden has a bachelor’s degree, two master’s degrees and a doctorate. He is the spokesman for the American Chemical Society, but of those four degrees, not one is in chemistry.

“I’ve found a place I really appreciate and love to work in,” Halden said. “I got the job based on being an engineer, but I keep the job by combining chemistry and biology and using the quantitative tools from engineering. It’s a convoluted professional path. It’s also a long one if you look at how many degrees I’ve picked up.”

Christensen has four instruments in space and three more slated for flight.

“For me, it’s really been fun,” he said. “I’ve gotten to the point now where I find coming up with the idea, designing it, making it happen and seeing the end product of this instrument that was a cartoon on the back of an envelope five years ago and now it’s a piece of hardware sitting on a desk — that is really satisfying. … That creative process is almost more fun than the science you do with that instrument once you’ve built it.”

Nesse became curious about evolutionary processes when he was a professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan. He asked some biologists a few questions about evolution. They laughed at him.

“It was really made possible by these really receptive biologists at the University of Michigan,” said Nesse, founding director of ASU’s Center for Evolution and Medicine. “It really started with curiosity, not just about evolution again, but how things in the body seem out of design. ... A lot of it is we just can’t help ourselves. We get interesting ideas and that’s how we are.”

A chemist who isn’t

ASU Professor Rolf Halden
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

Scientists work in a clean lab
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

ASU Professor Randy Nesse
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

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now


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ASU engineer's art exhibit explores how science can be used to illuminate art.
August 28, 2017

ASU Art Museum exhibit 'Material Beauty' is just the latest artistic endeavor for engineer-turned-curator Nathan Newman

Artists and scientists are not such strangers as one might think. An overarching curiosity drives both.

Arizona State University engineer Nathan Newman sees in his fellow scientists — and in many of his students — “an unbridled passion that dominates their life, just like the desire to create imagery that I find among artists.”

Newman himself has traversed both realms, contributing his expertise in physics and materials science to the art world over the years. His latest foray is as guest curator of an ASU Art Museum exhibit designed to explore how a scientific eye can illuminate aspects behind the creation of various works in the museum’s collection and the visual effects that enhance their aesthetic appeal.

“I like being around artists because they have the same appetite to create art as I do to understand science and the world around us,” said Newman, the Lamonte H. Lawrence Professor in Solid State Science in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

Titled “Material Beauty,” the exhibit focuses on artworks that examine:

• The connections between chemistry and the ways the human brain discerns color. This involves wavelengths of light and energy absorption, along with the interplay of oscillating electrons and positive ions, among other things happening at the atomic level.

• Explanations of how neurological factors and certain brain functions play a role in our facial recognition ability — or the lack of it — and how these things shape the work of artist Chuck Close, whose work is in the museum’s collection.

• The “mathematics of geometric perspective” and how it allows two-dimensional paintings and drawings to depict three-dimensional images, enabling them to replicate the way the human eye visualizes the natural world within its sight horizon.

Piece of art from Material Beauty exhibit
Works in the exhibit provide examples of the ways in which artists’ images reflect how human neurological factors and geometric perspective can shape our visual experience of objects. Photo by Marco-Alexis Chaira/ASU

“The show is part of our ‘Encounter’ series, for which we invite outsiders to put their own spin on our collection,” said Brittany Corrales, curatorial coordinator at ASU Art Museum and co-organizer of the exhibition.

“We invited Nate to be a curator because he has a curiosity about artists and art materials and offers the unique perspective of an expert on physics and materials science.

“The collaboration is a great way to welcome new audiences from science-based disciplines into the museum space to engage with art.” 

A frequent arts collaborator

It’s not Newman’s first time offering a scientific expertise to the art world.

A few years ago, he performed scientific analysis to aid an investigation that determined a painting owned by the ASU Art Museum titled “The Pioneer and Indian,” purported to be an original by American artist Frederic Remington, was in fact a forgery.

The detective work for the Danish artist collective SUPERFLEX included producing infrared images to reveal graphite underdrawings on the “The Pioneer and Indian” painting’s canvas and teaming with Dana Tepper, the museum’s chief conservator, to analyze the materials used in the painting at the atomic and microscopic levels.

In 2016, Newman and Fulton Schools Assistant Research Professor Shery Chang at the LeRoy Eyring Center for Solid State Science collaborated with two artists from Argentina — Guillermo Faivovich and Nicolás Goldberg — for research on small fragments of the 4,000-year-old Campo del Cielo meteorites. 

Employing petrographic electron microscopy and microphotography, they produced ultrahigh-magnification images to observe the atoms in the iron that made up the meteorites, capturing images of their brilliant silicate inclusions — which are solids, gases or liquids enclosed within the mass of a mineral.

Painting of people on horses
Newman's scientific analysis helped reveal that "Pioneer and the Indian" was in fact not an original by American artist Frederic Remington. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

The images that came out of this research have since become part of exhibits in a number of shows at reputable museums and galleries.

“I’m pleased that I played a small contributing role in that,” Newman said.

All in the family

Newman’s entry in the arts community comes by way of his wife, Penny, who is a figurative oil painter. She is the reason, he said, “I spend almost all of my vacations in art museums.”

He met the director and staff members of the ASU Art Museum through his wife’s fundraising efforts there. That led to the investigation of the forged painting and the research on the meteorites, and eventually to the invitation to be a guest curator.

Newman decided to take on the curator role because he thought it would be fun.

“I also thought that my wife would either get involved or at least be impressed,” Newman said. “She did not get involved, nor can I tell whether she is impressed.”

He adds: “I do know that she is befuddled that I have been involved in the creation of some very well received exhibits without any formal training in art. I must be a natural at this or a very good fake.” 


‘Material Beauty: Encounter with Nathan Newman’

What: Artworks chosen by ASU engineer Nathan Newman that engage with the chemistry of color, the neurology of facial recognition and the mathematics of perspective. 

When: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, till 8 p.m. Thursdays. Through Dec. 9.

Where: ASU Art Museum, 51 E. 10th St., Tempe campus.

Admission: Free.

Details: 480-965-2787,


Top photo: Nathan Newman curated the ASU Art Museum exhibit “Material Beauty,” which explores how a scientific eye can illuminate revealing aspects about the creation of artworks. Photo by Marco-Alexis Chaira/ASU

Joe Kullman

Science writer , Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering