Humans of Parkland: Catherine Britt Carlson
Catherine Britt Carlson, originally from New Jersey, is a full-time Chemistry professor at Parkland. She has been at Parkland since 2013 and now has several other positions that she holds.
“I am a part of the chemistry faculty here, and I really love it. I also have a mini administrator role in the department. The official name is the part-time faculty evaluation coordinator, but in practice I am kind of like an assistant to the department chair, as I take notes and do other things,” Carlson said.
“I am the advisor for the Parkland Science Club,” she said. “I still have a strong passion for research, and now I run an undergraduate research program called PRECS.”
Her journey to Parkland was full of wiggles, curves, and complete turn-arounds. It all started at Earlham College where she received her bachelor.
“I went straight from high school to college,” Carlson said. “I went to a small college called Earlham College in Indiana. I got my bachelors there in biochem.”
After receiving her bachelor in biochemistry, Carlson decided to try to become an optometrist, but she says that did not settle well with her.
“I thought I wanted to be an optometrist, and decided to go to an optometrist school just north of Philadelphia,” she said. “One semester in, I realized that optometr[y] school was not for me. One thing, looking back on [the experience], that was not a match for me was that they made you learn a lot of information for the board exams, but they would tell you to only memorize certain things.”
She said she now knows that she was supposed to be a scientist all along. She moved on from optometry school and began to dabble in different positions.
“I [ended up] doing some temp work which kind of led me to have a position in a clinical testing place,” she said. “We were testing drugs that had been approved for a bunch of other things. There were trials going on like taking something made for arthritis and seeing if it might have an effect on memory and dementia issues. This was always in a controlled environment and it was really interesting to see how that process worked.”
“I got a position at a pharmaceutical company as an analytical chemist,” Carlson said. “I was looking at different formulations, and the question was their technology [able] to get the drug back to a nano-particle size. I would take these formulations, and put them in a fake stomach… I would take samples and put it in a light scattering device to see what size particles it dissolved down to.”
To her, this was a very interesting position, but she knew that it would not last forever. Her now husband was in the same boat and that is when they decided to take a leap together.
“We did what any normal couple would do,” she said. “To get some perspective on what we’d want to do…we moved to China for a year. We taught English in China for a year, and it was really cool, because we both really like to travel, and this gave us the opportunity to live in another country basically.”
While in China, Carlson discovered her love of teaching. She soon began to miss science, as she had no formal training in English. This started her route towards science education.
“While we were in China, my husband applied to a graduate program, and he had decided to go to Madison for that program,” Carlson said. “So, I came back with him, and found a lab technician position. I worked in that lab for a while before talking to the education department about becoming a teacher. I’m sure the requirements have changed, but the requirements would end up making me quit my job and live off my husband’s graduate stipend…which is livable wage for one person.”
Knowing that living off one wage would be hard, Carlson decided to get her doctorate in the same research lab where she had been working.
“I decided to get my PhD,” Carlson said. “Things were going really well in my research lab. I talked to my adviser and he said it would work out fine as my project had a lot of promise… my adviser had taken a risk and had given me an independent study to do alongside routine tasks. That was basically what became the spring board for my PhD.”
Despite focusing on her research, and getting her doctorate, Carlson was still interested in teaching. Her adviser was supportive as long as her interest in teaching didn’t interfere with her research. She could pursue her interest in teaching which led to her becoming a teacher assistant for credit.
Once she finished her teaching assistant credit, she joined a program called Delta.
“Wisconsin has this great program which is called Delta,” Carlson said. “It was designed for science grad students, post-docs, and assistant professors who were interested in teaching. I learned about teaching philosophies, made a portfolio, and attended a bunch of seminars and classes. This was a certificate program that I could do along with my PhD.”
Carlson decided to get her post doc as it is a standard in the medicine aspect of science. Post docs usually take three to five years.
“It was a great opportunity, but it didn’t last long, because I began to resent it as something I just had to do. I just wanted to teach.”
When she concluded that resenting her post doc would not help her journey, she decided to look for teaching positions.
“I found a part-time position at the Middlesex County Community College in New Jersey teaching prep chemistry, which is like Parkland’s Chem 100,” she said. “Then, I also taught microbiology there which would translate to our Bio 123.”
Carlson realized that she really liked teaching, and applied at Brookdale Community College where she ended up getting a position that she stayed at for four years. When her husband finished his post doc, they began to look for places to teach together.
“We both want[ed] to teach, found several positions in the same geographical area, but one would get the offer and the other wouldn’t,” Carlson said. “It was a very difficult journey, but it ended up smoothing itself out. He actually got invited to apply to this position at the U of I, and at the time, Parkland didn’t have any openings. He delayed applying for a year to get some publications out, and a position opened at Parkland. I applied for that position… We crossed our fingers, and it worked out well.”
Parkland hired Carlson, and the University of Illinois hired her husband. They both got positions that they really wanted in the same geographical area.
“I got a position that I really wanted, and so did he,” Carlson said. “We were both in the Champaign-Urbana area, and we were both very excited to come back to the Midwest. We really love the Midwest, owning land, and living on this prairie with our two dogs.”
If there is one thing in life that Carlson has learned, it is to be okay with change.
“I think a lot of students believe I was born a chemistry professor and that I have always wanted to do that, but the truth is I really hated chemistry in high school,” Carlson said. “If you think about my whole journey, it was wiggles and curves, but I think the hardest parts were when I locked myself into a thought; I had to do this one thing, but I knew I had to change. I know a lot of people my age wish they were in their twenties, but in your twenties, and even thirties, there are a lot of changes and you have to learn to let yourself change as the need arises.”