Story by Erin Hallissy
Biology Professor Allan Hansell loves his protozoa. He's nurtured the same line of the single-celled animals for 30 years, studying things like cell division and heat shock response in organisms. He makes sure they don't get overcrowded in their test tubes and talks enthusiastically about them. "They're my friends from long ago."
He nurtures students too. Hansell fondly recalls taking groups on trips—car camping during spring break, rock climbing in the Sierra, and backpacking in the Trinity Alps after graduation. "He'd take the whole class home for dinner every now and then," says Dr. Carl Wu '74, one of Hansell's first students, now a distinguished research scientist and chief of the Laboratory of Molecular Cell Biology at the National Cancer Institute. "It was really a very personal experience." Wu appreciated the relaxed atmosphere in Hansell's classes, saying they were "more like a tutorial than a class."
Hansell has worn a lot of hats at Saint Mary's: chair of the Biology Department, acting dean of the School of Science, chair of the Academic Senate, and member of the Faculty Rank and Tenure Committee. But he's most at home in his lab. "I like working on stuff that I can pour down the drain when I'm done and not feel guilty," he says. He enjoys teaching, even on topics that students may not find useful in their future medical careers. "I'm not entirely sympathetic to the need for relevance," he says.
Professor Lawrence Cory says Hansell wants students "to try to understand the universe for its own sake." Asked for words to describe Hansell, Cory lists "straightforward, decent sense of humor, honest, industrious."
Intense while working, Hansell is easygoing when relaxing. He readily goes along with students throwing cream pies in his face on "Pi Day," a March 14 tradition celebrating the mathematical ratio pi (3.14). He agreed to a last-minute request to coach men's cross-country, and then kept doing it for 15 years because he had fun. "To me, winning or losing was completely irrelevant." He's a caregiver for his wife, Margy, who has Parkinson's disease, and takes her bird-watching at wildlife refuges, developing his own interest in birds while her life list has grown to about 500.
Hansell appreciates the freedom he's had at Saint Mary's to branch out and teach classes in things like human genetics, microbiology, and even a Jan Term class at Lake Tahoe for a few years on altitude physiology.
"I wanted to come to a small college because I could have an effect, which I might not have at a large place," he says. "I found a lot of academic freedom. I could do anything I wanted."