Growing up in Poland, Anna Andersen knew she wanted to pursue a career in science but had no idea her passion for biochemistry would one day lead her to work for POET, the world’s largest producer of biofuels, in a Midwestern community across the world.
Andersen received her bachelor’s degree in Engineering and her master’s degree in Biotechnology from Gdansk University of Technology in Gdansk, Poland.
Andersen’s husband Chris is American and grew up on a farm near Valley Springs, South Dakota. The couple met while Chris was stationed in Japan with the U.S. Air Force. They got married shortly before she graduated with her master’s degree. After they were married, the two lived in Japan for two years before Chris was stationed back in the United States. The couple lived in New Mexico for eight months before moving to Brandon to be near Chris’s family.
Thanks to Chris’s family’s ties to agriculture, Andersen was familiar with POET when the two moved to the area. She was excited to get a job with POET in 2018 as an Associate Research Scientist where she could use her knowledge and passion for chemistry and biology to help toward POET’s mission to change the world. “Being able to work for POET while also being close to my husband’s family is a great opportunity for us,” says Andersen.
While Andersen’s studies were mostly focused on the food industry, she easily sees the connection between food science and biofuels. “We’re working with corn, we’re working with plants. A lot of the things we use here are similar to what the food industry would use, so there are lots of things that translate.”
In her position, Andersen works primarily on cellulosic ethanol on the POET Research team. “In the end, cellulosic ethanol will be the most sustainable way to produce biofuels so it’s important to get the technology down so we can use it on a larger scale.” Her days are spent in the lab setting up and performing experiments and analyzing and presenting data. “Every day, every week is different. There may be a new way to look at something and we might change our plans completely. It’s pretty fast-paced and it keeps us excited.”
POET Research is leading the way with innovative bio-based tools, products and applications produced from domestic agricultural commodities that will keep our farmers, economy and environment thriving for years to come. “I really like that I get to work on a large variety of projects. There are different types of processes that go into producing biofuels, from pretreatment to enzymatic hydrolysis to fermentation. The fact that I get to work on all of the processes in one way or another is pretty exciting.” She says that this variety has helped her learn many different procedures and allowed her to expand her knowledge base substantially. “There’s not one thing I’ve been doing here since the beginning and that’s the only thing I know. I’ve gotten to do a lot of different things.”
To become a U.S. Citizen Andersen had to first get an immigration visa. She started this step while living in Japan when her husband got orders from the military to move to New Mexico. The process took almost a year. Afterward, she had to renew her visa. To apply for citizenship, she had to be a green cardholder for at least three years. She applied last year and it took seven months. “It’s not an easy process,” says Andersen. However, having a green card/immigration visa allowed her to do everything a citizen can do except vote in elections and have certain security clearances.
The next step to acquiring citizenship included submitting numerous documents to prove her identity. She then had to take a civics test and go through an interview, which included testing her writing and speaking abilities. After that came a lot of waiting. Andersen said, “It’s not easy but if you’re honest, you work hard and you have nothing to hide they won’t deny you.”
In December 2019 Andersen learned she was invited to a citizenship ceremony that would take place Jan. 10, 2020, at the Washington Pavilion in Sioux Falls. The ceremony included 192 people from 53 different countries; she was the only person from Poland. Each person gave their oath of allegiance to the United States in the naturalization ceremony, proclaiming their citizenship before the assembled audience. The ceremony also included a speech from U.S. Magistrate Judge Veronica Duffy, remarks from Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken and a keynote speech from Clara Hart, a local immigration rights activists and former refugee.
Andersen said when her name was called she went onstage, introduced herself and announced where she was from, received her certificate, shook hands and went to register to vote. “I immediately registered myself to vote,” Andersen said it was important to her to finally be able to vote in all elections now that she is a U.S. Citizen. She felt it was a way she could be active in the community she now belongs to.
She also threw an “All-American Party” to celebrate which included barbecue, sloppy Joes, baked beans, hot dogs, brownies, cheesecake and Doritos.
Andersen says her colleagues at POET were very supportive during the entire process and many of them provided letters of support to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Office of Homeland Security. Her colleagues also surprised her with flowers, balloons and apple pie when she returned to the office after the citizenship ceremony. “I’ve had a lot of support from my teammates. They’ve been cheering me on and offering to help the whole time. They’ve always made me feel welcome. I’ve never had the feeling that I’m any different from them.”
Her family in Poland was also excited for her. “They’re excited that I get to pursue my career and do things that I love, and that I found somebody I can spend my life with, my husband.”
In her spare time, Andersen enjoys crafting, board games, video games and spending time with her three rescue dogs. Her most recent furry family member was what Andersen refers to as a ‘foster fail’ meaning they decided to adopt him into their family instead of fostering him temporarily. After volunteering at the Humane Society for several years, Andersen and her husband decided to start fostering dogs. She fostered seven dogs before her most recent adoption. When asked if it was difficult to be a foster dog parent she said, “It’s almost exciting to see them go to a family that can give them all the love they need. Because you know in the foster environment they get the safety and the warmth of the house but they don’t get the same level of attachment they get from their forever family. In the end, they go to a house that they’re going to spend the next 10, 12, 15 years in so that’s the ultimate goal to see them in a house that will be theirs, not just a temporary one.”
Andersen says now that she has found her own forever home here in America, it’s important to her to give back to her community and she can do that by helping animals in need. “I don’t know if all Americans realize how awesome it is. It’s a huge nation. Some of the states are the size of countries in Europe, but you’re all Americans. It’s a huge community and you all have a sense of belonging.”
When asked if there are any key differences between life in Poland and life in America she replied, “I think people here are a little nicer to strangers. One odd thing I noticed when I started living among Americans is that you can have somebody walk down the street, and you don’t know them but they’ll say, ‘Hi how are you?’” The kindness she’s been shown by her family in the U.S., her co-workers at POET and even people on the street have all helped her feel more at home.
Now that she is a U.S. citizen, Andersen feels that the sky is the limit. “The only thing I cannot do is be president. I can be a senator but I cannot be president.” When asked if she has political aspirations for the future she laughed and said: “I think I like what I do.”