Whitney Hansen ’17 says she only speaks two languages: Italian and English.
But seated across from her at a picnic table in the BioLabs courtyard, I have to disagree. Hansen isn’t looking at me—her eyes are trained upwards, towards the engraved animals that rim the courtyard’s inner walls.
These are not the familiar denizens of the barnyard. I don’t recognize a single species. Yet Hansen navigates the frieze of wildlife without a hitch.
“There’s all these awesome species up here, and actually, one of my favorites, the maned wolf, is up here, and no one knows what it is,” she says. “See, there it is, it’s right next to the guanaco.”
She points toward something vaguely resembling a fox, nestled adjacent to something that looks a little like a llama.
Hansen, an Integrative Biology concentrator, can’t remember when or how she fell in love with animals. Maybe it began with her childhood dog, “the coolest... on the planet, ever.” Or maybe it was just a function of growing up in Northern California, the home of conservationist John Muir, and a place where “we protect salmon more than we care about people getting water.”
Now, Hansen, who hopes to pursue a career in conservation, is fighting to save the animals she loves. As a sophomore, she co-founded the Harvard College Conservation Society, which works to promote sustainable development, wildlife protection, ecotourism, and environmental conservation. Next year, she plans to research climate change-induced animal migration in Trentino, Italy, before applying to Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, a Ph.D. program focused on solving conservation problems.
When Hansen first registered the fledgling organization, the conservation society had exactly 10 members: herself, her blockmates, her brother, her brother’s girlfriend, and a few of her then-teammates from the women’s varsity volleyball team. After four semesters of Hansen “slaving” over the club, the conservation society boasts more than 20 members. Hansen says founding and growing HCCS has been among her proudest accomplishments at Harvard.
Another was her decision to quit the volleyball team at the end of her sophomore fall. Hansen recalls crying as she stood in front of her teammates, explaining that she had to leave. The choice, she says, stemmed from conflicting desires: Hansen badly wanted to keep playing volleyball, but she wanted to “make an impact” with the club more. Though she is fiercely proud of her resolve in retrospect, she remembers the decision as a “really tough” one.
Another dark moment came on Nov. 8 of this year, when Donald Trump claimed the presidency and shocked the nation. As she watched the election results stream in, Hansen says her “environmentally-minded” friends worried about the impact Trump’s presidency might have on the environment.
Weeks later, her unease has sharpened to fear. “Obviously, Trump has been going back and forth, but he seems to be consistent with selecting the top climate-change denier [Myron Ebell] to the head of the Environmental Protection Agency,” she says. “This is really concerning, because now my field might not become a preventative thing, but a mitigating damage thing. We’re all really scared.”
Hansen’s gaze flicks momentarily to the maned wolf, classified as a “threatened” species since 2008. With effort, she returns to the present and gives a clipped laugh. “This isn’t supposed to be political, whoops.”
I ask what she does for fun, and Hansen laughs again—a real laugh, this time. “Let’s remember, let’s think back to free time,” she says. Hansen doesn’t have much. In addition to serving as president of the conservation society, she is co-president of Harvard’s pre-veterinary school society and recently began researching population genetics in a lab on campus. She also helps run the all-female acapella group the Harvard Fallen Angels.
In her fleeting spare time, Hansen says, she has been learning the ukulele and teaching her boyfriend how to play piano. Sometimes, the pair sings duets. Otherwise, Hansen loves to gather her friends and share a bottle of red wine—but only if she can pick the vintage. “I’m from Northern California, so I know what good wine tastes like,” she says. “That sounded really snobby, but it’s the truth.”
I am about to leave when Hansen remembers another hobby. “I think I dress really well,” she says, noting that she regrets not wearing one of her fedoras to the interview. I ask if she’s ever entered The Harvard Shop’s campus-wide “Best Dressed” contest.
“No,” she says. “I don’t need a title to know what I am.”