Karen McFarlane Holman
Chemist by Day, Rocker by Night
Punk rockers aren't usually the type to be associated with science labs and intense research. Conversely, scientists typically aren't known to be part of the cool crowd. But these stereotypes are lost on Karen McFarlane Holman, a Willamette University associate professor of chemistry. Living by the credo that "all chemists are pyromaniacs," Holman sees blowing up things in a chemistry lab as one of the best ways to manifest her rock 'n' roll tendencies.
There is a line between the two, though, Holman admits. "My punk rock side comes out in the way I have a little bit of rebelliousness and an attraction to chaos," she says, "whereas chemistry is a pretty specific thing where I'm dealing with molecules."
Holman first became a punk-rock musician in California in the early 1990s and has snarled her way through numerous bands since then as a self-taught guitar player. But she is also a serious scientist, studying inorganic chemistry and researching the use of metals as chemotherapeutic drugs.
Even her office is a lesson in opposites, with her past bands' records displayed on one shelf, rubber snakes hanging from a floor lamp and molecular models resting nearby. She dons goggles in the lab, but outside she can be seen sporting a jacket adorned with music-related buttons, including one emblazoned with The Ramones' anthem, "Hey ho, let's go!"
Evolution of a Rocker
Holman's interest in science started early. As a child, she asked her dad to map out the digestive system of the family dog instead of reading a bedtime story. She always has loved the mystery of science, seeing something happen in nature and wondering how it works.
She decided to study chemistry at Willamette, graduating in 1990, and then went on to get her PhD in inorganic chemistry from the University of California, Santa Barbara. It was in Santa Barbara that she was first inspired to take her love for punk rock to the stage. After seeing all-female bands like L7 and The Lunachicks perform, she thought, "I can do that."
After finishing her doctorate, Holman moved to San Francisco, where she took a postdoctoral research position with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory at University of California, Berkeley. Relocating to the Bay Area -- known for its long, rich punk rock history -- also led Holman to continue as a guitarist in multiple bands. She describes these years as her musical heyday. Holman returned to Willamette in 2001 to teach, and she now is a part of Salem's rock scene. Her current band: The Funhouse Strippers.
Blinded by Science
When Holman enters the chemistry lab, her work takes on a much more serious tone -- although that doesn't mean she's having any less fun than she does onstage. While in graduate school and in her postdoctoral position, her research focused on two areas: iron compounds that are potential catalysts for synthesizing man-made fuels, and the manganese catalytic site involved in how plants produce oxygen.
Once she became a professor, Holman wanted to have her own unique research program. She decided to study the fundamental chemistry of ruthenium molecules. Research has shown that ruthenium, a hard white metal located just below iron on the periodic table, is a promising treatment for metastatic cancer, which is disease that has spread beyond its original site and recurred in other parts of the body.
Holman has been using light-related techniques -- X-ray absorption spectroscopy and infrared spectroelectrochemistry -- to study ruthenium's effects. She has taken some of her students to Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to do research at the Advanced Light Source (ALS). Researchers from around the world use the ALS facility, which contains one of the brightest sources of ultraviolet and soft X-ray beams.
Holman was attracted to this research because she wanted to use instruments that no one else was using to study ruthenium. But the more she learned about the element's effects, the more she fell in love with the project's possibilities. "Deep down, I am a fundamental chemist. I just love understanding the basic way chemical bonds are formed and broken," she says. "But the fact that my project has applications to society makes it even more exciting. The students really enjoy the medical applications, so that draws them in, too."
Not Just Nerds
David Eaton '06, one of Holman's former students, says he appreciates her fun attitude as much as he respects her academic talents. Eaton, a chemistry major, worked with Holman on his thesis and did combustion demonstrations with her through the Chemistry Club. He also accompanied her and another student to a motorcycle gang's clubhouse in Oakland for a punk show while they were in Berkeley using the ALS lab.
Eaton likes that Holman is easy to chat or joke with, but when it comes to serious chemistry questions, she has the answers. "She is kind of like a female version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," Eaton says. "She's this PhD chemist during the day, and at night she's blowing up stuff with Chem Club or rocking out in the basement of a club.
"She likes to show that chemists can be cool people," he adds. "They're not just nerds in a lab." That's a sentiment scientists everywhere can appreciate.