Faculty Profile: Carolyn Anderson August 6, 2009
Even as a 10-year-old girl, Carolyn Anderson knew what she wanted to do with her life.
"When I was 10, my uncle got married to a woman, Heather, who was just starting her PhD in epidemiology,” said Anderson, a chemistry professor at Calvin College. “Heather sent me lots of pop-science, you know, ‘What is in the potato salad?’ Kind of epidemiological mysteries if you will … I thought that was the coolest stuff ever.”
Anderson took a full six years worth of science in high school. “What I found was that I was fine at biology, and I was fine at physics, but I didn’t find them particularly interesting,” said Anderson. “The way I was taught biology was a lot of memorization, and that doesn’t really work for me. And physics I had some trouble with: The ball gets to the bottom of the hill—and I was never sure why we were still talking about the ball.”
Thus, Anderson entered the University of Michigan as a chemistry major and never looked back. She began researching in the organic chemistry lab there in her sophomore year.
While attending U of M, Anderson joined a co-ed chemical sciences fraternity called Alpha Chi Sigma. In her senior year, Anderson took charge of the annual lectureship that the fraternity sponsors. Despite having a small budget, the fraternity managed to draw eminent speakers from the world of chemistry. Anderson invited 1995 Nobel laureate F. Sherwood (Sherry) Roland from the University of California-Irvine (UCI).
"By the time he left, he was convinced I should be doing graduate work at UCI,” said Anderson, “and so I ended up applying very, very early and only applied, in fact, to UCI, at his prompting.” Anderson calls her time at UCI, which is in Orange County, a great experience. It was there that she met her husband Chris. After Anderson finished up her PhD at UCI, she worked for two years at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif.
Her road to Calvin College was a winding one.
"I was confident that I wanted to be in a primarily undergraduate institution,” Anderson said. “What I didn’t know when I interviewed at that point was what the details around the outside were going to look like.” Anderson didn’t know if she wanted to be at a large or small, public or private, or secular or Christian institution. “Those details were all sort of fuzzy, and so I interviewed very broadly,” she said. “I made a lot of trips and had a lot of phone interviews.”
Working with undergrads
Anderson was confident she wanted to work with undergraduates because of what she calls there inherent balance of humility and arrogance: “I think undergrads are infinitely teachable,” she said. "Undergrads have no concept that asking for help could make them look less smart, and they demand that you give it to them.”
Anderson also said that she enjoys helping undergraduates to find their callings. That being said, she was unsure about Calvin partially because she had never been in a Christian institution.
"I had pretty much ruled out coming to Calvin at all. In fact I put up all sorts of barriers, even to my application, and I offered to withdraw it at one point,” said Anderson. “God is really funny sometimes in the ways that He is adamant that you will be in a certain place.” In fact, Anderson most likely wouldn’t be working at Calvin today if not for sociology professor emeritus Don Wilson, who is involved with refugee work through Church of the Servant. Anderson’s father is a lawyer who specializes in immigration law.
"When Don started doing that work he was asking around for a lawyer to do refugee work. And somehow my dad, in Detroit, was the name he was given,” Anderson said. Anderson’s father’s impression of Wilson was so positive that he became convinced that if Wilson was a representative of the sort of people at Calvin, that Anderson should work there. “It is cool how God opened those doors and made that possible,” said Anderson.
Despite being accustomed to larger secular universities before coming to Calvin, Anderson has been very impressed both by the camaraderie of her department and the diligence of her students.
"I have grown a lot in my faith and am figuring out how to express that and how to work in that ...,” said Anderson. “My students work hard, they are diligent, and they are getting a ton done. They are just really impressive, so it has been a lot of fun.”
In the lab, each of Anderson’s four student researchers are working to expand on her previous pyridone scholarship. The work ranges from studying related sets of substrates or compounds to how the methodology actually works. “At the end of the day,” said Anderson, "you can think of us as being construction workers on a very little scale.”
One student of Anderson, Sarah Tasker, is both Calvin’s first Beckman Scholar and a current Goldwater Scholar. Entering her senior year at Calvin, Tasker is one of four students working with Anderson in the laboratory this summer.
"I really love the opportunity to be pretty independent, and Professor Anderson definitely allows us—once we understand what we are doing—to be independent,” said Tasker with a laugh. “She doesn’t hover over our shoulders, which is wonderful.”
A good mentor
Tasker respects Anderson both in and out of the laboratory: “When she pops in the lab, we give her an update of what is going on in the lab. But it is also sort of like, ‘What did you do this weekend?’” said Tasker, adding that she enjoys going to Anderson’s house for dinner occasionally and also traveling with Anderson to meetings. “We talk about grad school, and sorts of other things. It is definitely a mentoring relationship,” she said. “I would love to be as clear and as organized as she is.”
Anderson's husband Chris, also a chemist, currently works for Pleotint, a company owned by President Gaylen Byker’s brother Harlan. “So we have this weird Calvin connection,” said Anderson. The couple owns two cats, Dragon and his sister Jasper. Jasper is is“very cat-like,” according to Anderson, while Dragon acts like a dog or a little boy.
Anderson and her husband enjoy cross-country skiing in the winter and being outside in general.
"We like to hang out,” said Anderson, “and do stuff.”
~by Matt Decker, communications and marketing