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Alumnus Spotlight: Jim Hanson

Jim Hanson in Kathmandu, Nepal

Jim Hanson’s (BS Physics ’85) path to the University of Utah and college was different from most students. When he graduated from high school, Hanson had little interest in attending college and no clear goal as to what he wanted to do with his life. He worked odd jobs until he got tired of living out of his car.  

Finally, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and trained as a jet engine mechanic. He was stationed in New Mexico for nearly three years.  Although he was doing well, he still had no real direction until he was offered an opportunity to train as a flight engineer.

Flying meant a lot of training: physiological demands, understanding performance metrics, learning aircraft systems, and attending survival schools, but once he made the decision his life changed. He was assigned to a weather reconnaissance squadron whose primary duty was to monitor compliance with the nuclear test ban treaty. These missions took his squadron to all corners of the world. His squadron was nicknamed the “Pole Vaulters” because of the many Arctic missions that took them over 90 degrees north latitude. “Military flying was exciting enough by itself and being in the company of highly educated professionals opened my mind to so many new possibilities and opportunities that I had never considered,” said Hanson.

Although Hanson loved what he was doing, he realized that a university degree would open many more doors. He had family in Salt Lake City and was a Utah resident, so the U was the logical choice for his education when he left the Air Force. “Initially, I thought I could schedule my classes early or late enough and still manage a full day of skiing, but I quickly realized that if I wanted to get through college, I had to commit to studying and forget about skiing for a while,” he said.

Experiences at the U

His experiences at the U made all the difference. “When I look back, I realize my time at the U not only changed the direction of my life professionally, it fundamentally changed the person I would become later in life,” he said. “To see the doors that education opened for me and the opportunities that resulted from it has been remarkable. I’m eternally grateful for having received not only a valuable education but also for having developed an intense desire for learning that has sustained me and enriched my life.” 

One of his favorite professors was the late Dr. Lynn Higgs, a physics professor, who also served as the Physics Department advisor. Hanson isn’t sure he would have graduated without Higgs’s mentoring. He particularly enjoyed the Introduction to Modern Physics course taught by Christopher Stone, who was a graduate assistant at the time. Dr. Stone is still with the department, serving as associate professor (lecturer). Hanson remembers that Stone had a gift for teaching matched only by his enthusiasm for the subject. Another favorite was the late Dr. Fritz Luty, who taught an optics course.

Being at the U felt like a new lease on life for Hanson after experiencing some difficult years. In retrospect, Hanson believes he had to learn things the hard way. “I appreciated my college experience a lot more when I was older than if I had started at the U right out of high school,” said Hanson. “Physics wasn’t an easy major, but I was much more focused on my studies having been out in the world and having seen the value of a formal education and, especially, the limitations for not having one.”

Navy career

Following graduation from the U in June 1985, Hanson was offered a chance to become a naval officer. He was advised that it might be a year or more before he could attend Naval Officer Candidate School (OCS) so he continued taking classes at the U and even started a master’s program in electrical engineering before leaving for OCS in June 1986. He received his naval commission in September 1986 and spent the next four years at sea. He found being a naval officer, especially a junior one, was as challenging as anything he had ever done up to that point. “Whenever we were confronted with adversity or a crisis, which was fairly often, we told ourselves that it was just another chance to excel.” said Hanson. “Funny as the expression seemed at the time, I’ve realized that often I’ve learned the most when faced with adversity or failure.” He elected to transfer to the Naval Reserve at the end of his first tour at sea, primarily so he could complete the master’s degree he had started four years earlier.

After he completed the degree in 1993, Hanson accepted a civilian engineering position with the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) in Coronado, California. He was happy to be back in San Diego since he had spent much of his time there in the Navy. The Naval Air Station at North Island also had a great flying club, and Hanson gave countless airplane rides in the T-34B trainers to friends and co-workers. Later, he accepted a senior engineering position with the U.S. Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command (now known as the Naval Information Warfare Systems Command (NAVWAR) in Japan. He had traveled to Japan many times during his military career, but actually living there was an unforgettable experience, and Japan remains one of his favorite places. 

Sept. 11, 2001 and retirement

September 11, 2001 became a defining moment for all Americans. For Hanson it meant returning to active naval service, where he served in various operational and senior staff positions, mostly overseas, for the next 13 years until he retired from the Navy after 28 years of commissioned service in 2014. During this period, Hanson received a Master of Arts degree in National Security and Strategic Studies from the United States Naval War College in Newport, R.I.

Following his retirement, Hanson returned to full-time civilian employment in San Diego. As the propulsion and power team lead for the NAVAIR, he managed a large team of engineers, technicians, and contractors tasked with supporting naval aircraft.

Life as a Navy civilian was very different than being on active duty. “At times it seemed like managing civilians was a lot like herding a bunch of feral cats; it required a whole new set of management skills,” said Hanson. “Yet, I was truly fortunate to be associated with such highly motivated and gifted individuals and still maintain contact with many of them following my retirement.” His organization actively supported STEM (Science, Technical, Engineering and Mathematics) initiatives in the local San Diego area, and mentoring the next generation of scientists and engineers was one of the more rewarding aspects of his work.

Advice for students  

Hanson recently moved from San Diego back to Utah after a 30-year absence. As much as he loves the beaches and weather in Southern California, he is a skier at heart. He’s delighted to live within 15 minutes of Snowbasin.

Hanson believes there has never been a more exciting time to be a scientist, mathematician, or engineer. “A degree in physics gave me a solid foundation for every endeavor I pursued,” he said. “It also instilled in me the ability to think critically and reason effectively in all facets of my life.”   

“Everyone hears that life is a journey and it’s true,” said Hanson. “At the end, it really is the journey you’ll remember. Enjoy the ride and make the most of it, maintain a sense of humor, and try not to take anything personally. Believe in yourself and never stop learning.”

Hanson spends time skiing, climbing, and trekking in far-flung parts of the globe. He has traveled to nearly 40 foreign countries and lived in several during the course of his military or civilian duties. One of his favorite places is Norway, where his grandparents immigrated from. Except for 2020, he tries to spend a couple months in Norway each year. He reads, mostly non-fiction. “What I read is not as important as why I read,” he said. “I think my studies at the U left me with an insatiable curiosity to explore and dig deeper, regardless of the subject.”