Professor Klein loves teaching – naturally

When Karen Klein was a little girl she knew she wanted to spend her life studying the natural environment. It was only natural that she became a professor of biology, ecology, and environmental biology to share her passion with students. 

Her identical twin sister, Kristen Haase knows about that passion.

“Karen and I were always ‘tom-boys’,” she says. We always loved exploring the hundreds of acres of fields, streams and woods that surrounded our farmhouse when we were growing up. We were always catching – and releasing turtles and crayfish and salamanders from the streams. We grew up with cats, dogs, hamsters, guinea pigs, chickens, and ponies. We weren’t really into material things or being prim and proper.”

Klein and students identify macroinvertebrates to measure water quality.

Klein has taught full-time at NCC since 2010, bringing her classes outdoors for hands-on research. 

“I love doing this. I’ve landed,” Klein says. “This is what I want to do for the rest of my life. I’m being very sincere when I say that teaching at NCC is the best job in the world. This is my happy place.” 

Her energy and enthusiasm are magnetic. Early to bed and early to rise, she wakes up every morning and goes for a run. She is small in stature and athletically built and her long wavy blond hair evokes flower child vibes. She ascribes to a positive attitude and resonates calm. 

“Karen is quiet and contemplative, Haase says. “It is quite evident that she has great inner strength, independence, and resolve.”

A mini Tibetan prayer flag hangs above her office desk echoing the Buddhist principles of a peaceful existence. 

The square patches of cloth, which represent peace, compassion, strength, wisdom and balance are often seen in the Himalayas. Each colored patch of cloth is symbolic of the elements. The blue symbolizes sky and space, the white is wind and air, red is fire, green is water, and yellow is earth. 

But the elements have not always been kind to her. 

In 2016 she suffered a miserable 30 hours, walking nearly 30 miles in freezing temperatures on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. 

She braved a blizzard, hiking in snow-packed shoes in an attempt to find help when her family’s car became stuck in a ditch during the Christmas holiday break. 

Search and rescue rangers found her at 3 a.m. on Christmas Eve in an abandoned cabin where she had passed out from exhaustion and dehydration. The toes on her left foot were frostbitten after losing a shoe in the snow. 

Three years later she sits with her foot propped up on a chair in her office. She broke her ankle before the start of the fall semester after tripping on a rock on a morning run. The foot has healed with some residual pain but it hasn’t dampened her positive attitude. 

Klein embraces the words of the sixth-century Chinese philosopher Confucius, who said, “Everyone lives two lives, the second one starts when you realize you only have one.” This is a truth she has lived to tell, her near-death experience has given her a renewed perspective on life. 

“Go out and live for the day and enjoy the moment, not in a careless or reckless way, but in joy,” she says. She asks herself every morning, “What can I do to make this the best day?” 

“I believe in expressing gratitude, but I don’t like the expression, ‘be happy with what you’ve got.’ I believe we need to strive and continue to move forward with our dreams.” 

A huge poster hangs beside her computer with a photo of a tree and Henry David Thoreau’s quote, “If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” The prayer flag hangs across it.

 Her dreams involve teaching the natural sciences. 

Klein often takes her students to the forest and fields on the main campus.

Growing up in the Lehigh Valley, Klein has seen a great deal of commercial and residential development, which worries her because of the threat to sensitive ecosystems and the displacement of a number of species from their habitat.

“It’s unfortunate that the public mindset is not more ecologically concerned,” she says. “In the first wave of environmental policy in the ‘70s no one opposed clean air, clean water – but now there is a dichotomy of economy versus environmental protection as if both cannot exist together.” 

A National Geographic Poster titled, “Saving Unique Habitats” hangs on her wall, showing where rare ecosystems exist across the Continental U.S. Several areas in Pennsylvania, primarily in the Appalachians, are shown in red, representing ecosystems so rare they exist nowhere else on earth. The map shows the Lehigh Valley in gray and black indicating the area is modified by human development.

Klein recognizes that most environmental issues are human-caused, prompting her to become the director of the recently accredited Arboretum on NCC’s 208-acre Bethlehem Township campus. Forty-seven species of trees and shrubs are tagged with name-plates for identification to teach others to appreciate the importance of biodiversity. 

The Field Ecology class raises Monarch Caterpillars and releases the butterflies that emerge.

Her effort to teach and inspire her students is evident to former student Aidan Kleckner, an environmental science major. “My favorite day was definitely the Monarch butterfly tag and release,” he recalls. “It was a small Field Ecology project but every year I make it a goal to convince people to plant milkweed for the Monarchs to thrive. I even have the certificate on my wall that Karen printed. It definitely made a lasting impact on my connection to Monarchs.” 

Klein draws inspiration from her students. “There is such a huge diversity of students as far as aspirations and ideas,” she says.

“I love getting to see them overcome some of their struggles. It’s cool to have such dynamic energy to draw from in the classroom.”