Dr. Mark Jensen
Professor of Chemistry

Please tell us about your background and what led you to Concordia.

I grew up on a farm in Iowa and my hometown has 900 people. I was good at math and science, so everyone told me I should be an engineer. I wasn’t ready to jump right to a big university with 30,000 students, so I decided to start at a small liberal arts college. I fell in love with the environment, made great friends, and had faculty mentors who challenged me. I enjoyed my experience so much that I decided to stay and major in chemistry and math. I even made it my career goal to teach at a small liberal arts college. After receiving my Ph.D. in analytical chemistry, I wasn’t looking for just any job. I was looking for the right job. When I learned about an opening at Concordia, I looked into it and came across the Concordia mission statement. I read it and thought, “Even though I’ve never articulated it in that way, I think that might be my mission statement, too!” It was a great fit.

How long have you been at Concordia and what courses do you teach?

I’ve been at Concordia since 1997, so I’m in my 26th year. Right now, my main responsibilities are Analytical Chemistry I and II (Chem 330/341), along with Chem 117 (Principles of Chemistry) and an Inquiry Seminar (Full STEAM Ahead!). I’ve taught both Chem 127 and 128 many times, and every other spring I teach a 1-credit course called Vocation and the Health Professions.

Can you explain how LabVIEW is used in your classes?

I’ve always enjoyed computer programming, and LabVIEW is a great tool to connect programming to real science. I use it in two ways. Many of the experiments we run, particularly in Chem 431, use LabVIEW programs either I or my students have written to acquire and analyze data. Also, every student in Chem 431 learns the basics of LabVIEW programming. For some, this foundation has been a great springboard to graduate school or a career.

What do you love about teaching?

Two things come to mind. First, I love the challenge. Here’s this thing that I understand, now how can I get you to understand it too? The challenge of always being better at doing this never goes away.

Second, I love the relationships and the connections I can make with others. I became a teacher largely because of the influence of so many great teachers and mentors in my life. If I can have a similar impact on my students, then I feel like I’m taking what was shared with me and “paying it forward.”

What benefits does the Integrated Science Center provide to students?

It provides great spaces to learn science and do science. But just as importantly, it provides great spaces for people to connect with each other. Unlike so many science buildings, it’s a welcoming and inviting space that actually draws people in instead of scaring them away.

Can you talk about the research opportunities for STEM students?

In most STEM classes, we spend our time trying to get the “right” answer. I don’t think I ever took a course where the goal wasn’t simply to get the answer that was in the back of the book. Real science doesn’t work like this. In research, you have to first ask the right questions, and no one has worked out the answers for you ahead of time. So you also have to be prepared to fail and understand that we learn a lot through these failures. Then when you use these failures to succeed, you’re learning something no one has ever learned before and this raises more questions, and then the process begins again.

Are you currently working on any research?

Over the past several summers, I’ve been working with students to find new ways of detecting pollutants in the environment. We look at various ways of extracting these pollutants out of a sample and then concentrating them for detection with one of our instruments in the laboratory. It gives students a practical experience doing basic analytical chemistry, and allows them an opportunity to see if they enjoy research and want to pursue it further.

What inspired your interest in chemistry? Do you have any memorable science fair projects?

It’s a strange story, actually. I really didn’t like science when I was growing up. I think learning about nature just seemed overwhelming to me. My first love was always math. But then I started to learn more about chemistry in high school, and my interest really took off. I loved the mathematical side of it, but I also loved that it was so foundational. It has a perfect starting point. You begin with atoms and then put them together to make new things. That’s really all chemistry is.

What are your hobbies outside of work?

I really enjoy music, especially singing and playing the trumpet. I’ve been trying to learn the guitar for about 30 years, but I’m still a work in progress. My dream of being a rock star isn’t quite dead yet. :) I also enjoy sports, particularly football and baseball, and I try to exercise regularly.

Do you have any advice for students considering Concordia? What did you tell your daughter before she started her first year as a Cobber?

It’s not important that you come to college knowing your major and the career you want to pursue. You really shouldn’t know these things when you’re 18 years old. Keep an open mind and look for opportunities to learn more about yourself. I use the word vocation a lot. Sometimes a vocation is interpreted as a calling, and it’s certainly a journey. You find your vocation where three things meet: what you like to do, what you’re good at doing, and what the world needs to have done. If we’re doing our job at Concordia, we’re giving you the opportunities and experiences to guide you and give you confidence on your vocational journey.

Any tips for current students who plan to attend grad school?

Graduate school is a big commitment, and you’ll experience a lot of ups and downs. Make sure you have a goal that you’re working toward. Don’t go to grad school simply because you don’t know what to do next. Having a goal will keep you moving forward when it feels like you’re not moving at all.

Published December 2022