The Vocation of Science

Part of a series of posts written by a team of faculty and students at Calvin University who are developing a curriculum to support team-based research. Their hope is that this blog series will spark a dialog about measures of success that are not typically prioritized in scholarly work and ways this project could be expanded to other colleges and universities, both within and beyond the Christian tradition. This post was written by Rachael Baker, Julie Yonker, and Amy Wilstermann.

In the previous two blog posts, we discussed the framework and some key examples of the curriculum we are developing in (Christian) practices for success in Team Science. In this post, we will discuss how a NetVUE faculty development grant led to a vision for understanding the vocation of science differently and how making that vision explicit is important for engaging students in their own vocational exploration.

Faculty are expected to engage in vocational exploration with students. Sometimes vocational engagement is explicitly addressed through a class discussion, sometimes through an internship or research experience, and sometimes more informally through an advising or mentoring relationship. To teach, mentor and advise students, faculty members need to be theologically literate in the tradition of the institution and grasp how those theological commitments bear on disciplinary issues and questions of vocation. The vocation of the professor is intertwined with navigating callings in themselves and mentoring callings in their students. This multi-faceted approach to faculty vocation requires accurate self-understanding and awareness of the perspective of students. 

In 2016, Calvin University received a NetVUE faculty development grant on Equipping Faculty to Engage the Theology of Vocation with Undergraduates with the goal of developing faculty workshops, readings, and other materials to enhance faculty members’ depth of theological understanding thereby improving their ability to engage student concerns about vocation and faith. Our outcomes centered on researching, reading, and responding. Our first goal was to survey students, faculty, and staff to better understand vocation concerns from a student’s perspective.

The most common questions we identified related to vocation were:

  1. How do I know God’s will?
  2. If something goes wrong, have I failed God or missed my call?
  3. Who am I?
  4. What life choices are legitimately Christian?

These questions drove discussion, interpretation, and our next outcome of reading. We developed an annotated bibliography of readings, videos, and podcasts, addressing both general and discipline-specific perspectives on vocation. The team analyzed and discussed the material and how we could best apply these theological and vocational learnings with our students. One of the outcomes of this project was a vocation diagram and a vocation video to frame and guide discussions of vocation with students in future settings. 

Vocation diagram developed at Calvin University

As a new faculty member at Calvin, I (Rachael) participated in this vocation workshop. This was a rich opportunity for me to explore and deepen my understanding of vocation and how it related to the work I was doing at Calvin. The most important takeaway from that seminar was an adjustment of my understanding of the reach and implications of vocation. This takeaway became my framework for thinking about how do science authentically in my context and the seed for the Team Science and Christian Practices curriculum we have been writing about here.

My vocation encompasses every aspect of my life and the details of its implications are worked out in my unique context or situation, which includes my occupation as a chemistry professor (See Here I Am. Now What on Earth Should I Be Doing? by Quentin Schultze, Baker Books, 2005, p. 9). The framework we developed during the workshop allowed me to better explore how chemistry can be a tool to live out my vocation as a covenant member of the Body of Christ and how my vocation shapes the way I engage chemistry. For my own understanding, I broke this larger question into smaller questions I had for my own work as a scientist and the things I want to value and emphasize.

(1) How does my chemical knowledge better equip me to live out my vocation? Studying the world God created provides many opportunities for awe and wonder. This engagement with and delight in the creation (and its Creator) is part of my broader calling as a Christian. One of the reasons I love teaching biochemistry is because it is a joy to share this same discovery with students and watch them become captivated with awe and wonder. 

(2) What do I do with the information I gain through science? My vocation frames the way I think about my place and responsibilities in this world and to the communities around me. The study of chemistry equips me to engage in these communities in unique ways. As a professor, I have the additional responsibility of challenging and equipping my students to think about their own actions as well (See Holmes’ The Idea of a Christian College, Eerdmans, 1974, p. 16).

(3) Can I imagine a way that scientific work could be done differently as a result of Christian beliefs? A holistic understanding of vocation makes questions like this essential for the work we engage in. The way I think about and do science has been shaped by the worldviews, values, and practices of those who trained me as a scientist (See David Kaiser, Pedagogy and Practice of Science, 2005). My question is not whether there is something inherently unchristian about doing science, but rather whether there is anything unique that Christianity can bring to the practice of science. This question fostered the discussions that led to the development of the Team Science curriculum.

Once I was able to articulate my own vocational narrative and the questions it raised for me, I was better equipped to lead students through the same exploration. In our curriculum, we are expanding the toolset that students have to use as they think about questions like how they will faithfully live out their calling in the context that they have chosen. But students also need models for how to ask questions well. When we model explicitly how our vocational framework shapes the questions we ask about our career and work, we open the door for students to do the same, both in their current setting and in future settings as well. We have witnessed the benefits of the Christian Practices in ourselves, our students, and our research productivity.

In our next blog, we will discuss the faculty training workshops and the assessment of these practices with faculty and students.

To read the other posts in this series, see “Building a Thriving Research Team” and “Practicing Humility in the Sciences.”

TS & CP (Team Science & Christian Practices): Our team vision is to create a community at Calvin where the low-profile aspects of science (such as student training, mentoring, and collaboration) are valued alongside the high-profile aspects (publications and grants). We believe that being at a Christian university provides us with the unique opportunity to explore how our faith could improve our ability to train students and participate in team-based research projects.

Julie Yonker (pictured far left) is a professor of psychology and public health. Her research focuses on positive contributors to health and well-being as well as religiosity and virtue development in emerging adulthood. The TS & CP team also includes Hannah Hooley, Rachael Baker, and Amy Wilstermann (pictured left to right). Hannah Hooley is a student, majoring in psychology and social work. She plans on pursuing her MSW and working with substance use prevention initiatives in youth. Her research assistance on this project has been invaluable. Hannah also works in the Service-Learning Center of Calvin University. Rachael Baker is an assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry. Her research focuses on mitochondrial rare diseases and what they teach us about the genetic basis of hearing as well as ways to serve and support the rare disease community as scientists. Amy Wilstermann is a professor of biology. Her research focuses on the molecular basis of mitochondrial rare diseases. She and Rachael are co-founders of the Rare Disease Network, a collaborative initiative focused on bringing members of the rare disease community together to learn from and support one another.

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