A conversation with dr. Nina Hansen

Have you ever wondered how (and why) researchers at our faculty arrived where they are at today? Whether you did or did not before–this article will give you a brief insight into how dr. Nina Hansens pathway looks like and how it influences her current work. Dr. Hansen is Associate Professor of Social Psychology at the Faculty of Behavioral and Social Sciences. Her research focuses on cultural change in the context of development aid in transforming and developing countries.In the course of an Introduction to Psychological Research class, I was lucky to have had the chance to meet her for an interesting conversation about her career path, national differences in academia, and how the reality of being a researcher can look like.

Dr. Nina Hansen’s academic development began with her Social Science undergraduate studies in Göttingen, Germany, that included Social Psychology, Economics, International and European Law, and Sociology as majors. Studying as she experienced it back then was different from what Psychology students at our faculty live nowadays: Most of her professors were men who were closer to their retirement than to the beginning of their teaching careers (editor’s note: meant as an observation and not negatively by any means) who read out overhead transparencies and mainly tested students’ memorization of facts. There was hardly any room for vivid discussions and exchange on questions that students think should be asked on a given topic. After finishing her undergraduate studies, dr. Hansen spent a year as graduate student at the University of California, in Berkeley. In the US, she got to know a fairly different approach to science. Students were actively encouraged to think about possible ways to conduct research in order to answer their own questions. They discussed different lines of research to find gaps in previous work and learned to apply this research to societal phenomena. Having had the chance to attend various courses throughout her studies, dr. Hansen realized that she had a true passion for understanding societal and cultural change. By the end of her year as graduate student, dr. Hansen was assured in her curiosity to learn more and decided to return to Germany to do her PhD in Jena on “The impact of perceived legitimacy and social identification on self- and other-directed anger after experiencing social discrimination” in Social Psychology while learning how to conduct systematic experimental research. She completed the work summa cum laude and was one of three finalists of the 2005 dissertation award by the American Psychological Association. Still, dr. Hansen , she took the leap and returned to Berkeley; this time as Visiting Post-Doc. Amazed by the creative and supportive environment she encountered on the west coast, dr. Hansen felt lucky having had the chance of joining the (at that time) newly forming Social Psychology Department at the University of Groningen in 2007. Today, her main motivation is to create knowledge that is useful for society with the potential to positively affect people’s lives.

Considering that dr. Hansen came from a fairly interdisciplinary background and later specialized and focused more and more on Social Psychology, she asserts: “Everything I have learned is the basis for what I do now and I am still learning every day”. She especially pointed to the fact that this interdisciplinary background gives her an understanding of how experts from other disciplines approach problems and phenomena and gather the information they need. Dr. Hansen added for consideration that the real world is not one-dimensional and thus, multidisciplinary approaches are promising in making sense of it and improving it. Nevertheless, she views being an expert in one field as crucial; minors are helpful additions that enable an insight into other areas, but knowing some matter in depth is important to be able to combine different perspectives and study complex societal phenomena (such as cultural change) to become a scientist.

“Everything I have learned is the basis for what I do now”

Comparing academia in the US, Germany, and the Netherlands, dr. Hansen shared her experience of some kind of culture shock when learning the totally different approach to matters in America after her studies in Göttingen. To make matters more complicated, the average structure of the hierarchies within the academic bodies in those countries differs. In Groningen, there are several professors in the Social Psychology department who work and teach together and make for a dynamic and fruitful exchange of ideas. By contrast, it is common to have only one professor per department in Germany. In her position as Associate Professor, dr. Hansen greatly values the freedom to develop research with academics from other fields, to join together in different research groups and examine phenomena with a connection to the real world.

Much of dr. Hansen’s recent work originates in those multidisciplinary research groups and incorporates interesting collaborations. From conducting field research in Ethiopia evaluating the effects of a laptop for students program to collecting data on the impact of micro-credits in Sri Lankan communities, she is now preparing a large-scale study with dr. Judith Daniels. The study is going to aim at examining the impact of trauma due to intimate partner violence on women’s empowerment in a cultural context that is likely to face economic development in the next years. Together with their research group, they are planning on regularly interviewing and following 500 young Bolivian women who are now 16 years old for 12 years until they might be married and have children. Here again, the fruitful exchange among researchers in our department is visible. All of the projects mentioned adapt evidence-based problem analysis, an applied form of research that strongly relates to the real world while closely considering experimental standards and methods of analysis. For example, the studies attempt to translate macro-level theories to a micro-level and examine their validity for individuals. In a new course, the societal challenge lab (which starts again in block 1b), dr. Nina Hansen and dr. Liesbet Heyse try to teach students the 21st century skill to conduct a systematic problem analysis and develop evidence-based policies and interventions to improve current practice. Students consult research and structure the knowledge on a topic to then give advice to policymakers on an issue such as improving the involvement of refugees in the labor market. Students get to practice to capture the complexity of the real world instead of coming up with research proposals based on solely previous scientific papers. As dr. Hansen knows from experience, the reality of advising governments and NGOs can be less rosy as one might conceive: For instance, in the case of a larger scale evaluation of development aid projects which was intended to offer recommendations for development aid funds and was requested by a Dutch ministry, politicians then decided to cut the funding dramatically even before the report was completed. With the previously budgeted amount of aid, prospects would have been quite promising. However, after the shortage, things looked quite different.

Although incidents like this are frustrating, one could tell dr. Hansen’s passion for and appreciation of being able to do the job she does. I had the impression that she has an urge for knowledge, belief in positive change and appreciation for exchange with different people that keep her going.


When I asked dr. Hansen about role models she met along her way, she replied that she learned something from almost everyone she encountered. The one person she could specifically recall was a female professor back in Göttingen when she was an undergraduate student. The professor was the age dr. Hansen is now, pregnant at that time and brought to her mind that there are other ways than (male) academics of advanced age in science. Maybe, this paved the way for her dynamic and ever-evolving understanding of the field in the attempt to create useful knowledge that has a positive impact on people’s lives.

Helena Punjer is a Bachelor student at the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences. The broad range of the subfields and topics dealt with within the discipline of Psychology never cease to amaze her. She is especially interested in Social Psychology–how human behavior, feelings, and thoughts are influenced by the presence of others, and how this relates to dynamics within societies. However, to Helena’s knowledge, there is no single dimension capturing and accounting for the complexity of human life fully (yet) and, therefore, she aims at acquiring a basis for a holistic understanding before concentrating on one specific field.

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