Meet Closing the Gap Featured Role Model (March 2021): Barbara Hanley

We’re proud to present this month’s featured role model, Barbara Hanley! Read our interview with Barbara below.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about your educational background

Getting a college education was a big deal in my family because neither of my parents had the opportunity to go to college. As a first-generation college student, I was excited to be accepted to Northwestern, but my father died shortly after I graduated high school, so I decided to go to Colorado University at Boulder to be near my Mom who had recently moved to that area. I enrolled in Pre-Med courses, but had to quit for financial reasons.

I went back a few years later after saving some money and pursued a science education degree. As a student teacher, I taught middle school science and math and loved it. I was looking for part-time work when I was recruited by HP. The pay was much more than what I earned as a student-teacher. I decided to leave school and work at HP for a few years to get out of debt and save for grad school. I job-transferred to Oregon and completed a degree in General Science at Oregon State University, focusing on Environmental Chemistry, which is an interdisciplinary program of Chemistry, Toxicology, and Environmental Science.

I began a graduate degree in International Affairs when I was job-transferred to Ireland for 3 years. When I returned to the U.S., a health crisis made me realize I was not living the way I had intended so I made a plan to be a teacher again.

I’m currently a Ph.D. candidate in Environmental & Occupational Health at Oregon State University (OSU). Prior to my Ph.D. program, I earned a Master’s in Public Health and an adult teaching certificate from OSU.

Q: Can you tell us about your current work and occupation?

I currently work for Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU) as a Research Associate at the Institute of Occupational Health Sciences. I also taught undergraduate Public Health courses at OSU as a Graduate Teaching Assistant for 3 years.

I retired from HP to pursue a second career in public health education, research and engagement in community outreach. I had several jobs within HP: 1) a process operator in an integrated circuit fab, 2) a chemical technician in the R&D chemistry lab, 3) environmental health and safety program manager for the R&D chemistry labs, 4) an environmental product steward where I got to be involved in the nascent electronics recycling program and help start the green chemistry program, 5) a chemical regulatory consultant to help the company comply with applicable chemical laws in Europe, and 6) as the Regulatory Affairs & Compliance Program Manager for North America.

Q: What have been the proudest moments/highlights/accomplishments of your career so far?

I am most happy and fulfilled as an educator. I’m not teaching now because I am finishing up my dissertation, but I miss engaging with students and continue to tutor/mentor and engage with the community in an advisory capacity. After a circuitous path, I feel I am close to reaching my goal of making a difference in the world through public health education, research, and outreach.

I am also proud of my involvement with the electronics recycling program and with multi-stakeholder groups promoting green chemistry & sustainability in the electronics industry.

Q: What are some of your future goals or things you would like to accomplish?

After completing my Ph.D., my career plan has four objectives: education, research, mentoring, and community outreach.

I hope to be hired as an instructor by a university to teach undergraduate public health courses and to conduct research centered on environmental & occupational exposures that adversely affect maternal & child health.

I plan to provide mentorship for students, especially non-traditional age women, or first-generation college students like myself, who might benefit from the advice of someone who has “been there.”

I would like to work with communities to help dispel some of the misconceptions regarding the maternal & child health risks from environmental & occupational exposures. I would also like to work with K-12 students, especially girls and racial/ethnic minorities, to help them overcome obstacles so they can visualize and achieve their academic goals.

Q: What have been some of your biggest career challenges?

Looking back, I feel fortunate to have had the career experiences I did, but at the time, it didn’t always feel like that way. In my early career fields and there was more tolerance of sexism, with little or no recourse if a woman was subjected to sexual harassment or discrimination. Sometimes, it felt like I was in the wrong place, surrounded by the wrong people, and performing work that seemed meaningless. Basically feeling stuck and knowing I could do more if given the chance. I recognize now that each time I felt that way, it motivated me to reach out to people who could help me get “unstuck.”

There were few women in my early career fields, but some were able to provide advice and one recommended I talk with Human Resources to see if there were other jobs available. This was scary because I didn’t want to jeopardize the ability to earn money from the current job, but it turned out to be a good decision because the HR person I met with signed me up for a career development class, which in turn, led to a new career within the company.

In my current field of public health, a big career challenge is the willingness to fail. In order to advance public health knowledge, I ask a specific question and try to answer it through statistical analysis. There are a lot of things to consider, such as: Do I have enough people in my study population? Did the exposure occur prior to the health outcome? Are there other exposures linked to the health outcome and can I control for those effects in my analysis? Sometimes, the answer to these questions is “no” and the analysis fails. When that happens, the challenge is to step back, re-evaluate, and try again.

Q: Many young women might not be aware of the career available in STEM fields. What do you think can be done to spread the word to women about career options in these fields?

I like the slogan of the Closing the Gap program “girls cannot be what they cannot see”. That was true for me. I wanted to be an astronaut, but there were no women astronauts when I graduated high school and started college so I chose to go to medical school because that’s what people told me I should do if I wanted to work in a scientific field. Today, there are women in almost every field I can think of … astronaut, doctor, mechanic, soldier, Vice President!

I appreciate the Closing the Gap program because it expands the view of what is possible to young women by showing them women working in STEM. I would like to see more outreach by programs like this in K-12 schools, home school curricula, and after-school programs. To help spread the word, I think it’s important to remember the underlying purpose of science, technology, engineering, and math is to answer a specific question. The question might be simple, but the answer might be complex and always leads to more questions. But that’s STEM! We will never know it all. There’s always more to learn. For me, that is the best part because it means there is a place for me in the science world – there are questions I can work on and hopefully answer.

Even in my field of Public Health, there is plenty of room to accommodate a range of interests. My research focuses on how exposure to air pollution can affect infant and child development, but others are looking at metal exposures from drinking water and how they might affect our health. Others are looking at behavioral health aspects, like smoking or substance abuse. Still, others focus on nutrition and exercise to improve health outcomes. That really is just scratching the surface of public health research, and public health is just one STEM field!

Q: Do you have any advice for women who are looking to follow a similar career path?

It can be difficult to know where to start, but technology is making things a little easier. Get comfortable with asking for help and use the resources available to you.

As a new student, I was afraid to ask for help if I didn’t know or understand something, but I realized quickly that I needed reliable information to make good decisions and I couldn’t do that on my own. I made appointments with department heads, teachers, librarians … anyone I thought might be able to help. I wish I had done it sooner.

Q: What do you like to do for fun in your spare time?

My sweetheart, David, and I have been friends for almost 30 years, and have been together for 20 years. We own a sailboat and love to spend time on the water and travel. We also like to hike and camp with family and friends. We’re introverts so we like to hang out at home, cook together, listen to music or watch good Sci-Fi. I also like to read. I’m currently reading Barack Obama’s book, “A Promised Land.” My sister-in-law is a music teacher and she bought me a ukulele so I am trying to learn how to play. Such a fun instrument!

March 2021 Closing the Gap Resources

Visit our Closing the Gap page to learn more about this project and meet our other featured role models.