by victoria gilmore

Is it possible to blend your science and music passions?  Dr. Karen McFarlane Holman says yes!  This academic punk rocker divides her time between researching metals for applications in sustainable fuels and medicines, teaching, and playing in two professional punk bands.

By day, Karen is a tenured professor at Williamette University in Oregon, where she specializes in inorganic chemistry.  In 2010, she won the prestigious Oregon Professor of the Year Award, which is administered by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.  She can also list three TEDx talks to her long list of accomplishments as well as numerous papers, lectures, and presentations.

By night, she plays in two punk bands –  City of Pieces and Hot Sheets – where she is a singer, composer, and guitarist.  Her music has been published by record companies worldwide and City of Pieces received an award for one of its latest videos.  She has performed on hundreds of stages since 1995 and has no plans to stop!

Her work with StudySoup led her to create a Twitch channel called Chemistry Rockstar where she live streams regularly.  Her goal is to engage students with fun and accessible chemistry content and to build a community where they feel comfortable to participate and ask questions. 

We were lucky enough to catch Karen between lectures and performances to learn more about her dual passions!

Roots & Background

1. Where are you from?

I grew up in LaGrande, a beautiful tiny town in the mountains of rural eastern Oregon.

2. what are your favorite hobbies/pastimes?

I really love creating, which takes many forms. I write songs, draw, do calligraphy, or create videos or podcast episodes. I especially enjoy these hobbies when I get to collaborate with other people on them, like writing songs with my rock bands! I also love being in nature—especially hiking in the mountains and swimming in the ocean.

3. what superpower do you wish you had?

I wish I had the ability to immediately make people see how amazing they are and how much they are loved and cherished. I think if everyone knew those things deep down, many of the misunderstandings and problems in society would be alleviated.

The Road to Chemistry

4. when did you fall in love with chemistry? and what do you love most about it?

I fell in love with science when I was very young. My first memory was from when I was about 5 years old, asking my dad to explain the full digestive tract of our dog Shag instead of a regular bedtime story. Chemistry came later, when I was in high school and had a great chemistry teacher, Mr. Jones. But it really solidified in college, after taking biology and physics classes where I kept wondering what the molecules and atoms were doing. That told me that I must be a chemist!

5. what values are important to you in your work?

Respect is a value I hold in high regard, where it’s part of the vibe of any kind of group setting. Respect will make every situation better, without fail. When a professor respects their students, the class environment will be more inclusive; when students respect each other, they will feel more empowered to speak up or ask questions; when coworkers respect each other, the workplace is much more positive and supportive; when family members respect each other, there is more harmony at home. Respect brings win-win-win, all around.

I’m also a big fan of fun! I think it’s important that we don’t take ourselves too seriously. This is easier when we keep the big picture in mind, which allows us to go through our day-to-day lives having more fun and with less stress. It also allows us to see challenges as interesting rather than stressful.  

6. What inspired you to create a Twitch channel?  Are you a gamer?

The great folks at StudySoup inspired me! I had sort of heard about Twitch, but had never watched it before StudySoup asked me if I wanted to livestream chemistry topics on there. It has been so much fun!

As for gaming, I’ve only done a little bit—in college I loved playing Zelda and Mario Bros., as well as a ton of Wii games later on with my kids. Once I got on Twitch last year I tried Stardew Valley which was very cool!

7. What do you say to people who are terrified of chemistry?

First, I tell them that it’s okay to feel that way. We all have topics that put us out of our comfort zones and make it a bit unnerving to dive in. I get that! But I also want them to know that I truly believe in them. They CAN do it. But just like none of us can spring to the top of a house in one jump, we can’t suddenly be good at chemistry. We need a ladder, and then go up methodically, step-by-step. With each step up, you gain more skills and confidence. Confidence is a huge part of success! And if you have a good strong ladder, eventually you’ll make it to the roof. I’m here to help create a strong ladder for my students learning chemistry.  

8. In addition to your Twitch and YouTube channels, do you have plans for other platforms?

Probably not. I’d like to get more of a following on those platforms before doing anything new. I’m on TikTok as well (@sciencerockstar), but honestly I don’t go on there much. TikTok feels a bit frenzied to me. Every time I log in I feel like someone on there is yelling at me! Maybe I just need to turn down my phone volume before going in, lol.

Chemistry Rockstar Wisdom

9. If you had the attention of the whole world for 5 minutes, what would you say?

I would like to remind everyone how precious their lives are. I think so many of us get wrapped up in our day-to-day problems, running from this thing to that. In our frenzy, we forget that every moment is an opportunity to make a decision (even just a little one) that will make our lives better, and will help those around us. It’s so easy to spend time doing whatever is right in front of us, rather than carefully curating what we really want in our lives.

I would also tell them to spend time every day feeling gratitude, which is the foundation of happiness. It’s impossible to feel grateful and unhappy at the same time!

10. What advice do you have for students in general and for students who want to pursue a career in chemistry?

For any student, I always say to make sure that you are doing something that is truly interesting to you. It’s not enough that you think that majoring in a certain field is a good plan—you need to feel it, and you need to get inspired by it. That is what will carry you through college and into your career, living a life of meaning and impact.

As for chemistry students, I would say that the world is your oyster! There are very few jobs that wouldn’t want a well-rounded chemist on their team. This includes non-chemistry careers, because a degree in chemistry prepares you to be a good problem solver and a good communicator. I have former chemistry students that have become not just chemists, but many other careers: airline pilot, artist, Olympic athlete, social media influencer, doctor, entrepreneur, corporate consultant—the list goes on and on.

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