Planting seeds

Fourth-generation Gopher Mary Kemen is making sure students have access to hands-on learning opportunitie
January 08, 2018

Mary Kemen’s (BS Botany ’78, BS Biochemistry ’79, MD ’84) family has always valued the importance of a good education. Reaching back for four generations, that education has included a degree from the University of Minnesota. Now, Kemen’s donation to the College of Biological Sciences Conservatory and the Minnesota Ecology Walk at Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve will allow new generations of students to expand their own scientific educations by deepening their understanding of the natural world. Kemen’s gift was made as part of Driven: The University of Minnesota Campaign, and she serves on the college's steering committee for that effort.

An anesthesiologist who practices in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Kemen began her University career by earning degrees in botany and biochemistry. On a recent campus visit, she attended an event at the Conservatory building. “I had not been there for more than 40 years, and it just took me back,” she says. “I saw a plant project I had done as an undergraduate. As I rounded a corner, I realized I was walking in the very hallway where I’d begun working on it.” During her visit, she also had an opportunity to visit the Cedar Creek Reserve. “I can’t believe the quality and dimension of work they are doing there,” she says. “It’s really quite remarkable.”

After consulting with CBS leaders about areas of greatest need, Kemen designated her gift to support educational efforts at the two facilities. “There’s a wonderful symmetry to it all,” she says. “I worked at that greenhouse and did all my undergraduate experiments in it. I spent hours working for Professor Douglas Pratt in the cattail patches that are planted nearby.” For Kemen, those memories are uniquely happy ones. “I loved every moment of my college career at the University,” she says. “I really didn’t think about medical school until after I graduated. At the time, I just wanted to learn as much as possible and do my best.”

She and her husband, Brian Randall (MD ’84), were raised in families in which both parents were public school teachers. Kemen is an advocate for the power of compelling science education that begins as early as possible in a child’s life. “It’s so important to show them how fun science is and to encourage them to remain interested in science throughout their lives, no matter what careers they choose,” she says. “Our culture is woefully lacking in even basic science knowledge, but I’m convinced that when you change minds at a very young age, you change them more permanently. When you begin to make inroads into thought processes of young people, you have changed a whole generation moving forward.”

Expanding K -12 education efforts are especially important for a highly competitive school like the College of Biological Sciences, she says. “We need to move one ring further out from our own students to those young people who aren’t in the college, but who will be making an impact on society in other ways. It’s important to find ways to help them view issues of health, climate and the environment more wisely.”

After four generations of University graduates, Kemen says the family tradition is continuing in a new way. “Our son and daughter did not attend the University, but we have been supporting a family who immigrated from Gambia to Minnesota. One of the siblings graduated this May with a degree in Nursing from the University. I told her she’s officially the next generation of our legacy. My mother recently died at age 100 and did not live to see the graduation, but I know she would have been happy to see this fifth generation go out into the world.”  – Julie Kendrick