Helen Greenwood Hansma, PhD

Emeritus Biophysics Research Professor
University of California Santa Barbara
AWIS member since 2021

“Try something out and see if it looks promising before investing lots of time and money.”

AWIS member Dr. Helen Hansma

What do you consider to be your most important career achievement or milestone?

In December 2007, I presented my research at the American Society for Cell Biology’s 47th annual meeting. My hypothesis described how flaky layers of the mineral “mica” could have created the perfect conditions to jump-start the formation of molecules necessary for life.

What do you aspire to accomplish in your career and why? What obstacles will you overcome?

I have accomplished more in my career than I could have imagined. I aspire to enjoy life and do useful work.

Describe an amazing opportunity in your STEM career.

My paper, “DNA and the Origins of Life in Micaceous Clay”, was published in the December 20, 2022 issue of Biophysical Journal and promoted with a press release.

What is your favorite word?

Mica

How do you define it?

A layered silicate mineral that formed on Earth before the origin of life and might be where life originated. Its sheets are held together by potassium ions, K+, which are present at high concentrations in the cells of all forms of life; but sodium ions, Na+, are usually much more common on Earth!

How has this word influenced or inspired your career?

I ‘fell in love’ with mica because it’s an atomically flat substrate for imaging molecules like DNA in an Atomic Force Microscope. I was looking at a piece in the dissecting microscope in my home when it occurred to me that life might have started between its sheets!

What are you currently reading or listening to?

Sherlock Holmes’ The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire.

What do you consider the best professional or personal advice you’ve ever received?

“Do an experiment as poorly as possible,” attributed to the late physics professor, Herb Broida. The idea is to try something out and see if it looks promising before investing lots of time and money in it. It was useful advice for doing simple ‘kitchen’ experiments on mica and the origin of life.

Helen Greenwood Hansma, PhD, believes that the types of energy used in living cells can provide clues to help us understand the origins of life. She has been published over 100 times and has taught physics and biology. In her recent research, she explores how mechanical energy could have driven the processes that gave rise to early life in the absence of chemical energy.