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The Poetry of Karen Houseknecht's Science

Pioneering students of UNE’s inaugural pharmacy class were going where no students had gone before: pursuing a doctoral degree in pharmacy in northern New England. Brick by brick, UNE built the college’s future home and in the fall of 2009, the state of-the-art facility opened as the first in Maine devoted entirely to pharmacy academic studies and research.

Even more deliberately, the university chose faculty who would intelligently and enthusiastically blaze this new trail and inspire students to be the best in their profession. Karen Houseknecht craved this new venture as an entrepreneur who enjoys working with collaborative teams creating new programs and opportunities.

She had done just that as a member of a leading drug discovery team creating new medicines; as part of a corporate science sector she helped build a new business unit from scratch; and she created a novel collaboration between Yale University and Pfizer Global Research & Development for a visiting professors program. Along the way, Karen has also advocated for educational and career opportunities for women and girls.

As the first person in her family to go to college, Houseknecht  started by earning her bachelor’s degree at Virginia Tech, and from there received her master’s from University of Georgia. After she obtained her Ph.D. from Cornell University in 1994, she accepted a position as a research fellow at the Harvard Medical School in the Department of Endocrinology and Metabolism at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston.

Houseknecht is passionate about research that can positively impact the lives of people, and working with interdisciplinary teams to ensure that people are prescribed medications that make them better.

Needless to say, Houseknecht arrived at UNE accomplished in many ways. She had chosen the field of science as a ticket to explore the world, and her professional and academic pursuits brought her around the globe. But her interest in the humanities has brought her farther than she could have imagined.

A poetry writing retreat in southern Spain in 2012 led to an opportunity the next summer to help escort the first group of UNE pharmacy students from one of the youngest pharmacy schools in the U.S. to the University of Granada, one of the oldest and most prestigious in Europe.

To build on the rich experiences that the students gaining living with Spanish families and shadowing Spanish health care providers, Houseknecht looked for ways to enable them to integrate these experiences into their own lives as future U.S. health care providers. An example was to invite the students to join her one evening at the family home of early 20th century Spanish poet Federico García Lorca. As part of their studies, the eight fourth-year pharmacy students were immersed in a two-week course on Spanish language and culture, so she asked them to read aloud and interpret Spanish poems.

Other than taking the Pharm.D. students out of their comfort zone, the exercise helped them to appreciate the poems as they were written. She knows that many of her students in this global economy will have the opportunity to practice health care in a foreign land, as well as interact with patients from a myriad of cultures back home in the U.S. She doesn’t want their experiences to get lost in translation.

Much as the poet Lorca maintained the importance of living close to the natural world, praising his upbringing in the country, Houseknecht’s life began in rural Virginia and she chose Maine’s small town feel and access to nature as the right place to raise her son and daughter. Her home is located in the same neighborhood as UNE’s Portland campus, and the close proximity of home and office help her to balance the demands of her daily life.

UNE’s College of Pharmacy is located along Portland’s academic Main Street where neighborhood children can receive their education, from pre-school through college. If they’re fortunate to someday have a professor like Houseknecht, they will learn they can go anywhere from here.