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Christ Church Women in Science: Kerri Donaldson Hanna

Written by Kerri Donaldson Hanna and Eleanor Sanger, posted on Saturday, February 10, 2018

Kerri Donaldson HannaDr Kerri Donaldson Hanna joined Christ Church in 2017, and she is also a UK Space Agency Aurora Research Fellow at the University of Oxford. Her research focuses on understanding the formation and evolution of planetary crusts of airless bodies like the Moon, Mercury and asteroids. You can find out more about her on her personal website and her Christ Church website profile.

My name is Kerri and I am a Junior Research Fellow at Christ Church College at the University of Oxford and I am also a UK Space Agency Aurora Research Fellow within the Department of Physics at Oxford.  I investigate the types of rocks and minerals that make up planetary bodies that do not have atmospheres, which includes the Moon, Mercury and asteroids.  Studying these bodies not only tells us really cool things about how our Solar System formed and evolved, but they also tell us important things about what has happened to Earth throughout its history.  I study the Moon, Mercury, and asteroids using Earth-based telescopes, spacecraft orbiting planetary bodies, and laboratory measurements of minerals and rocks from the Earth, meteorites that have fallen to the Earth, and samples brought back to the Earth by the Apollo astronauts.  A few of the best things about my job include: (1) Getting to see the first images of a planetary surface that has yet to be explored; (2) Studying meteorites, rocks, and soils from asteroids and the Moon in the lab; (3) Working with students of all ages from primary to graduate school on cool research projects; and (4) Traveling globally to attend meetings and collect rocks from interesting places.

When I think about where my love for math, science and space came from, I think about growing up on a small farm in the Midwest of the United States and having a dad that loved NASA.  During the summer months, my sister, brother and I spent every day on the farm with our grandpa Walter and as crazy as it might sound he gave us a lot of freedom to spend each day as we wanted.  So many days were spent playing, working in the garden or mowing the yard, and taking things apart using the plethora of tools at our disposal (and I am sure getting up to lots of no good).  I also remember sitting in the house with my grandpa and doing pages and pages of math problems that he would write out for me.  He never got tired of making up more and more difficult problems for me to solve.  I think it were those times with Grandpa Walter and on the farm that helped foster my love for math, science and working in the laboratory.  During most summer months, we also took family holidays to Florida where every year we would visit the Kennedy Space Center.  Exploring the rocket garden and museums made me dream of someday going into space and studying the Solar System myself.

When it came time to pick a university to do my undergraduate degree, I decided to go to a school that was focused on science and engineering because I liked the idea of being totally immersed in a subject.  I knew that I was passionate about space and astronomy and wanted to go to a small private school, so I picked Florida Institute of Technology where I could study space sciences and only be a 45-minute drive from Kennedy Space Center.  During my undergraduate studies, I was also lucky enough to experience a lot of really exciting things outside of the classroom that only fuelled my passions about studying and exploring space.  These experiences included watching rocket and space shuttle launches, designing and building a Moon Buggy with four other students to participate in a competition at Marshall Spaceflight Center, conducting experiments in the zero-gravity environment of the Vomit Comet, and spending a summer in Arizona doing a research project on telescopic observations of Mercury.  It was that summer in Arizona that helped me realize that what I really liked doing research-wise was to study the surfaces of planets using spacecraft and telescopes, in particular studying the heat emitted from their surfaces.  As a PhD student at Brown University, I was fortunate enough to purse this passion by participating on two different spacecraft missions (NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) and Moon Mineralogy Mapper) that were mapping the Moon’s surface.  In addition I got the opportunity to build a network of colleagues through the LRO Diviner team and was able to travel to the Department of Physics at Oxford to make laboratory measurements, which helped me obtain a postdoctoral research fellowship there once I completed my PhD. 

From my childhood to now, I have been quite lucky to be surrounded by family, friends, teachers/professors, mentors, and colleagues that have encouraged me to pursue my passions and career path and have never treated me differently because I am a girl.  That’s not to say that I haven’t encountered the occasional person creating a roadblock for me solely because I am a girl/woman or being surprised that I have done something so well because I am a girl/woman.  Because I have had such a great support network, I have been able to build confidence in my capabilities and myself, which makes it easier to ignore anyone that doubts me.  So here is my advice to you all: (1) Remember you are awesome and can do anything that you set your mind to; (2) Follow your passions because it is hard to go wrong if you are doing something you love; (3) Work and study hard; and (4) Never forget how awesome you are no matter what anyone else says.


In 2018 Kerri was awarded a Winton Capital prize by the Royal Astronomical Society, recognising the outstanding work of young researchers. You can find out more about the prize here