Teaching, research — and rock 'n' roll — lead to award for Willamette chemistry professor

Whether she’s demystifying molecules for an introductory chemistry class or creating fireballs with her students in the Chemistry Club, Willamette University Associate Professor Karen McFarlane Holman always tries to impart the same lesson: science is an important part of everyday life — and a lot of fun.

Her students laud her ability to explain complex concepts in a way that makes them accessible to anyone. They also love her laid-back, approachable nature and her diverse activities outside the classroom — including her role as a guitarist in a punk rock band.

Holman’s dedication and impact on her students recently garnered her a prestigious honor: 2010 Oregon Professor of the Year.

“Professor Holman’s curiosity and enthusiasm for chemistry are hard to resist,” says Natalie Muren ’06, a chemistry graduate who is now seeking her PhD at California Institute of Technology. “Her students engage in her lectures because they want to discover for themselves just what new concept has made her so excited.”

Holman is Willamette’s 10th professor to earn the award since 1990, and the third from the chemistry department. The award is administered by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.

From Student to Teacher

Holman was already familiar with the Willamette campus when she arrived to teach a decade ago — she earned her bachelor’s degree here in 1990.

In fact, she wrote student recommendation letters for the other two chemists who won Oregon Professor of the Year: Frances Chapple and Arthur Payton.

She remains humble about following in their footsteps, insisting that all her faculty colleagues are equally deserving. But the passion she exudes for teaching makes it easy to see why she was chosen.

“I enjoy working with students who may be learning chemistry for the first time and helping them find clarity in a subject that might at first seem enigmatic,” she says. “I love working collaboratively with both my students and colleagues. We make more innovative discoveries when we have multiple minds working together to examine issues from different perspectives.”

Side-by-Side in the Lab

Collaboration is at the heart of everything Holman does. Her specialization is inorganic chemistry, and she researches the effects of the metal ruthenium as a treatment for cancer.

She often takes students to Berkeley and Stanford to collect data using high-tech equipment that’s only available to a select group of researchers from around the world.

One of Holman’s research collaborators, Jeff Weber ’10, went on to earn a prestigious $250,000 Hertz Foundation Fellowship for innovative leaders in the applied sciences and engineering.

“I feel greatly indebted to Dr. Holman for all her help and support,” Weber says. “As I joined Stanford’s chemistry PhD program this fall, I felt as well-prepared for graduate school as I possibly could be.”

Passionate about Chemistry

In the classroom, Holman works hard to make sure all her students understand the concepts — and, hopefully, to enhance their interest in the subject.

“She wants others to love chemistry the way she does, and she helps you understand how chemistry applies to every aspect of your life,” says Janie Bube ’13, an environmental science major.

Holman also spreads her enthusiasm beyond Willamette, working with chemistry majors to host hands-on science programs for local middle- and high-school students.

“By exposing the kids to science in a fun way, we can show them how important it is in their lives while helping them see it as a potential educational or career option in the future,” Holman says.

Rock 'n' Roll Tendencies

And then there’s Holman’s punk rock side, which manifests itself both when she’s playing with fire in the chemistry lab and when she’s playing guitar in her band. She’s also spearheading an effort to create a community radio station in Salem.

“Professor Holman’s formula combines hard work and personal challenges with creativity, pure enthusiasm and a bit of punk rock,” Muren says. “By teaching and living in a way that combines a passion for chemistry with so many other diverse interests, she is a strong role model.”


Karen McFarlane Holman is the 2010 Oregon Professor of the Year.


Holman’s students laud her ability to explain complex chemistry concepts in an understandable way.


In her free time, Holman plays guitar in a punk rock band.

Karen McFarlane Holman

  • Title: Associate Professor of Chemistry
  • Degrees: BA from Willamette in 1990; PhD from University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1996
  • Teaching at Willamette: 10 years
  • Academic specialty: inorganic chemistry
  • Hobbies: Playing guitar in a punk rock band, establishing a community radio station, yoga, travel

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