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Robyn Hannigan, PhD

When I was young, my father bought me a toy microscope. I used it all the time. I collected objects to observe and made up experiments. When we studied frogs in high school, I would turn in extra projects I did on tadpoles I had studied at home. But my science teachers weren’t impressed. I was usually bored in classes, and I even got a D in biology.
My mother, who was from the Narragansett nation of Rhode Island, had advice that helped through the boredom of school and the apathy of my teachers. She always told me, “There’s time and then there’s Indian time. Make sure you get done what needs to be done, and you do it well. But don’t let a clock dictate what you’re doing.”
From what she said, I eventually realized that it is okay to learn at my own pace and to remember there’s nothing I can’t do. I learned this for myself after a rough start in school. We moved around a lot when I was growing up, and lived in six towns in five states by the time I graduated high school. We were poor and had to move as my father got new industrial construction jobs. He emigrated from Ireland without a high school education, so he didn’t have many opportunities. My mother also had a limited education, but my parents both knew college would make a difference in my life. However, most of my friends just thought school was something you had to do until you finished. I am a first generation college student, but not necessarily because I wanted to be!
After high school, my parents said I should go to college and that they would help me find a job to pay for it, or I could live at home and go to work. In Baskin Ridge, New Jersey, where I lived, a high school education meant a job at the gas station or 7–11.
I chose college because I thought it was one big party—I didn’t know college also meant work. It was an awful surprise! I called my parents all the time begging them to let me please come home. But they told me if I wanted a better life I had to get through college; I had to at least try. I majored in premed biology because I thought I wanted to be a doctor since they make a lot of money. But you had to attend class to be a doctor, and I didn’t really want to do that.
I eventually graduated from the College of New Jersey with a 2.9 GPA. I was happy to be done, and I got a job at the health department. One of my duties was running the scientific instruments, and I came to really enjoy it. A coworker told me, Why don’t you go back to graduate school and do what you want to do? But first I had to figure out what that was.
Within the year, I applied to graduate programs in geology, remembering how I enjoyed finding dinosaur bones with my mom when I was little. Although I had low grades, my future advisor at the University of New York, Buffalo recognized my intent to learn. As I continued, eventually I found a match for my interests—geochemistry.
After getting my Ph.D. at the University of Rochester, I thought I had finally finished with school. I just wanted a regular teaching job. But my advisor insisted I apply for a postdoctoral scholarship at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. He explained that it would help me go farther in my career, knowing the experience would mean working with scientists in other disciplines. He was right, and now I can help students by connecting them with well-respected professionals in their fields.
Being able to make a difference is important to me. Here at Arkansas State University, I started the summer Research Internships in Science of the Environment (RISE) program, so undergraduate students can get hands-on research experience. Besides undergraduates, we also bring in underrepresented minority high school students from across the country. These are students like me, interested in science, who maybe were told either directly or between the lines that they weren’t good at anything and weren’t going anywhere. They really bring unique insights to the design of their projects, inspiring my own research.
Science cannot grow without diverse perspectives. But it took a long time for me to understand this and to trust my own capabilities. This couldn’t have happened without the help of mentors who saw my potential and gave me a leg up when I needed it. Thanks to them, I went beyond even my own expectations. Now part of my job is showing students how important their contributions are to science. When I started my geochemistry research laboratory, I asked them to come up with the name. They decided on “Water-Rock-Life” (WRL), which summed up our research and gave us a unique name. My favorite aspect of running a lab is working with students, introducing them to the excitement of discovery, to help them realize that they are very capable people who can do anything they really want to do.