About Utah: Q-and-A with a Nobel laureate

Published: Saturday, Feb. 22 2014 10:10 p.m. MST

Nobel laureate Lars Peter Hansen.

University of Chicago

The question: How many graduates of Utah’s public schools have won a Nobel Prize?

The answer: One, Lars Peter Hansen, a graduate of Logan High School and Utah State University, who two months ago at the Nobel’s annual ceremony in Stockholm was awarded the 2013 Nobel Memorial Prize in economics. He shared the honor — and its $1.2 million stipend — with U.S. economists Eugene Fama and Robert Shiller.

Hansen’s historic breakthrough is all the more compelling because at Logan High he was a lackluster student at best, pulling more C’s than A’s — a performance attributable, at least in part, to adjusting from moving to Utah at the start of his junior year when his father left Michigan State University to accept a position as provost at Utah State University.

The 1968 move brought R. Gaurth Hansen, Lars’s professor father, full-circle. Gaurth was born in Smithfield, Cache County, 10 miles north of Logan, as was his wife and Lars’s mother, the former Anna Lou Rees. They married in the Logan LDS Temple in 1943 and raised three boys, Roger, Ted and Lars, while Gaurth embarked on a well-traveled career in academia, getting his bachelor’s degree at Utah State, his doctorate (in biochemistry) at Wisconsin, and teaching on the faculties at the University of Utah, the University of Illinois (where Lars was born) and Michigan State before coming back home.

The Utah move returned Lars Peter to deep family roots in the Cache Valley. Of the Nobel laureate’s 16 great-great-grandparents, 14 were converts to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who eventually wound up in Smithfield, immigrating mostly from Denmark and southern Sweden.

After high school, Lars Peter enrolled at Utah State.

“It was the only school I applied to,” he says. “I didn’t think I had many options given my high school background.”

As an Aggie, he found his academic stride, graduating in four years with a dual major in political science and mathematics. He went on to graduate school at the University of Minnesota, where he earned a doctorate in economics. After a short stint teaching at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh he joined the faculty at the University of Chicago in 1981. He’s been there ever since, serving in the department of economics as director of graduate studies and department chairman while carving a niche as one of America’s premiere economists in the specialized field of econometrics. His groundbreaking work “at the boundary of economics and statistics” has brought him numerous international awards and renown.

His father died in 2002, and his mother, Anna, lives in St. George. His brother Roger lives in Orem and is an environmental and civil engineer for the Bureau of Reclamation, while brother Ted lives in St. Louis, where he recently retired after a career as an immunologist at the medical school at Washington University.

Since receiving his Nobel Prize in Stockholm in December, Lars Peter has been feted by the University of Chicago, where he works, and the University of Minnesota, where he attended graduate school.

On March 7, Utah State University, where he started studying economics in his junior year, will follow suit, honoring the school’s first-ever Nobel Prize winner at its annual Founders Day celebration.

In a conversation with the Deseret News, Lars Peter, 61, talked about his days at Utah State University, his work in economics, and winning a Nobel Prize.

DN: Congratulations and thank you for talking with us. What has life been like for you since your award was announced last October?

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