EDITOR'S UPDATE: The Chronicle of Higher Education, which covered Mark and Karen Muyskens in the past, did a February 2008 update after Karen's death on the next steps for Mark and his family.
For almost two decades professors Mark and Karen Muyskens shared one position in the Calvin College chemistry department, eventually earning one tenure slot together, a first for the college.
They sought out that shared-job arrangement after graduate school because they wanted to partake equally in both their professional lives as teachers and researchers, and also in their personal lives, first as husband and wife and then later as a family as the Muyskens clan grew to five with the births of their three children.
By all accounts the arrangement worked out better than anyone could have imagined.
Calvin got two top-notch teachers and researchers, while the Muyskens got the balance between work and home they had hoped for, especially as they had kids.
In fact in an interview with Spark, the magazine of the Calvin alumni association, after they received tenure, Mark Muyskens said: "Looking back on it, this is the part I really love. I get the chance to do drawing and reading and fun things with the kids. I remember in graduate school one of my colleagues lamenting about not having more opportunity to spend time with his wife and young daughter. I was concerned about that happening to me."
Today Mark is more grateful than ever for those almost 20 years of partnership with Karen as spouse, parent and professional colleague as he mourns her too-soon passing on January 13, 2008 from a still-to-be-determined infection.
Karen Muyskens was just 46.
She had been hospitalized just five days prior to her death, but her condition worsened steadily during her stay -- although in an entry just hours before her death on her Care Pages Web site Mark was cautiously optimistic.
Colleagues of the couple, and students with whom they worked, say the loss is an incredible blow.
"We're a pretty close-knit department," said department chair Larry Louters. "There's a real sense of collegiality in the department and Mark and Karen were a really important part of that. I can still remember how excited we were to get them both. They had such a clear vision of what they wanted in terms of balancing their careers and their home life. And they stuck with it."
Louters said the Muyskens also struck a balance at Calvin between their teaching and research responsibilities.
In 2004 they were part of a $222,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to Calvin, Hope, Kalamazoo and the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire to buy a high-end tunable laser system for use in chemical research.
"We want to be active as scientists in studying interesting chemical processes," she said, "and we want to train college students to be scientists."
Calvin sophomore Joel Alsum got a first-hand look at that dedication last summer when he worked with the Muyskens as a summer research assistant on a project entitled "Laser photochemistry: creation of hydrogen fluoride from fluorine-containing organic molecules."
"They were both great," said Alsum of his research mentors with whom he worked 40 hours per week for 10 weeks.
"Karen was one of the nicest people I've ever met. I learned so much from her and from Mark. And one thing that really stood out was how open they were to my ideas. They totally integrated me into their research."
Department chair Louters also recalls his departed colleague as nice -- she always had a smile on her face he recalled -- but also incredibly bright. And he noted others at the college were aware of her gifts and abilities.
"I remember when she was tapped for the Professional Status Committee," he said, "which is one of the most powerful committees on campus. She was a wise choice for that committee."
Karen Muyskens also had a strong sense of what it meant to be a woman in the sciences, and was not afraid to remind people of that, sometimes in humorous ways.
She was part of a 16-month calendar introduced in the fall of 2006 that was entitled “So Far From Cheesecake: The History of Women at Calvin College,” and was billed as a semi-serious exhibition of 17 photos of Calvin women faculty and staff from across the disciplines.
At the time Calvin dean Janel Curry called it a celebration of the number of senior women faculty across campus.
Karen Muyskens was pictured in a lab that was billowing smoke. Her portrait was titled “Concocting Chaos,” a title, said Curry, that referenced women’s impact on the academy.
For Louters the best part of the calendar was that chaos was something Karen Muyskens rarely caused.
"She was a good researcher, a good teacher and a good colleague," he said. "She was a real mentor, especially to female students, and she enjoyed the philosophical side of the sciences. She provided the department and the college with so much. We will miss her."
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