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Career Ladder

Career Ladder: Karen Goodwin

A passion for chemistry drove this one-time homemaker to become a tenured professor

by Alexandra A. Taylor
May 8, 2017 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 95, Issue 19


Credit: Courtesy of Karen Goodwin
A black-and-white yearbook photo of Karen Goodwin in front of a blackboard working on a genetics problem.
Credit: Courtesy of Karen Goodwin

An early love for teaching


Karen Goodwin grew up in a small town in Northern California. Her father taught middle school science, and her mother was a stay-at-home mom who worked part-time with children. “From both of my parents, I got the teaching bug, and from my dad, I got the science bug,” she says. She especially liked biology.

Becoming a mother


Goodwin attended Humboldt State University right out of high school thinking that she wanted to pursue marine biology, but she stopped after a year and a half to marry and start a family with her husband. She had three children and stayed home with them full-time. Still, she maintained her passion for science. “When I was a stay-at-home mom, what I really enjoyed was going into my kids’ classes and helping their teachers out with the science lessons.”

Making her own way


Goodwin eventually returned to school, intending to become a middle school science teacher like her father. She fell in love with organic chemistry while at American River College, a community college. “At that point, I knew exactly what I wanted to teach and where I wanted to teach it, and that was organic chemistry at the community college level.”

Credit: Courtesy of Karen Goodwin
A photo of Karen Goodwin in a cap and gown smiling and standing with sons and daughter.
Credit: Courtesy of Karen Goodwin

An unsettling change


Around that same time, she and her husband separated. “It was frightening because I didn’t have any marketable skills.” She decided to transfer to California State University, Sacramento, to earn a degree in chemistry that would allow her to be financially independent. Student loans and part-time jobs at the university helped keep her afloat while she was in school. Goodwin received her bachelor’s degree in 2006 and her master’s in 2009. “It made me really happy that my sons and daughter could see that no matter where you find yourself, you can overcome a fear.”

Credit: ISAAC Freeman/Cenralia College(Present Day)​
A present-day photo of Karen Goodwin standing outdoors on a sunny day wearing a red top and jeans.
Credit: ISAAC Freeman/Cenralia College(Present Day)​

A perfect fit


Goodwin worked at various colleges as an adjunct professor before landing a full-time, tenured position teaching organic chemistry at Centralia College, a community college in Washington. Her struggle for independence helps her guide her students today. “I really encourage them to think long-term and make sure they’re always prepared to stand on their own two feet.” She says she was fortunate to major in something she was passionate about, as opposed to something that would get her into the workforce sooner. “Even though I’m getting a bit of a later start on my career, I really know I’m going to enjoy it and be fascinated by chemistry for many, many years.”

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