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5 Questions for a Scientist: Chemistry Instructor Clarissa Sorensen-Unruh

The gap between the science classroom and a real-life career in the sciences can seem distant for some students. The 5 Questions for a Scientist interview series was created to bridge this gap! We aim to inspire students to pursue careers in the sciences by showcasing the incredible diversity of STEM careers by talking to scientists themselves. See all of the interviews here.


Get to know Clarissa

Occupation: Chemistry Instructor
Institution: Central New Mexico Community College
Field: Chemistry
Focus: Organic Chemistry and Chemical Education

Clarissa is a chemistry instructor at Central New Mexico Community College's School of Math, Science, and Engineering. As someone who does research into chemistry education, she also works with the Academic Science Education and Research Training (ASERT) program for postdoctoral fellows who want to teach and do research in biology, bioengineering, and/or biomedical sciences. Clarissa has a bachelor's degree from Trinity University and a master's degree from the University of New Mexico, where she currently is pursuing a Ph.D. in statistics. A fan of Doctor Who, Clarissa enjoys playing games and musical instruments and writing poetry and prefers green chilis to red. She loves to travel and is planning a trip to Puerto Rico with her wife and son. To learn more about Clarissa or ask her questions, you can connect with her on Twitter @RissaChem.

1. Explain what you do in your work in one sentence (or two!).
I empower the next generation of scientists to embrace the future through innovative teaching methodologies, mentoring relationships, and early incorporation into research.

2. When did you first become interested in your field?
I was interested in science at a very early age; I wanted to be a medical doctor. However, early in my junior year, bioorganic chemistry seemed like a better fit for my interests as I really enjoyed my summer and yearlong Research Experience for Undergraduates (funded by NSF) in organic chemistry in Dr. Nancy Mills’ research group at Trinity University. During my undergraduate research, I found I particularly enjoyed the intersection between organic chemistry and biochemistry.

3. What is your favorite part of being a scientist or of science in general?
My favorite part of science stems from the scientific method and its incorporation as a systematic framework into my everyday life. In every decision I make, I can propose a particular outcome (as well as its antithesis, or opposite) based on previous research or experience, then experiment, analyze, and evaluate the outcome as well as the process. The willingness to systematically experiment in everything I do provides an incredible freedom to fail, which results in new areas of innovation. The most important aspect of failure is reflective—recognizing that failure is essential and informative (and perhaps more informative than any success).

4. What is a typical day like for you as a scientist?
My days vary quite a bit. Some days I am mainly a chemistry professor with a large teaching obligation (five classes a semester), a hand in several chemical education research projects (mainly revolving around evaluation and assessment, particularly as both pertain to academic self-efficacy, which is an individual's conviction that he/she can succeed [or achieve a certain level of success] at any level of academics [class, major, degree]), and several aspects of service to fulfill. Some days I am a student studying statistics and envisioning applications of current and new statistical models in my chemical education research. In all that I regularly do, I am looking for potential new (and innovative) ways to build relationships and encourage students (and colleagues) to engage in scientific thought.

5. Do you have any advice for young people interested in science today?
Pursue your dreams with relentless passion. Find a group (or several groups) of like-minded peers to help you engage in science beyond the classroom. Engage in social media (mainly Facebook and Twitter), and follow notable scientists and science groups to learn the newest and most current research available. If feasible, try to find a science mentor who can help you discover what resources are available as well as hold you accountable to your current vision.

Image credits: Clarissa Sorensen-Unruh

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