Letter to a Young Scientist

Science is not for the faint of heart.
Appears in Spring 2011 Issue: Letters to the Young
March 1 st 2011

Dear Helen,

I can imagine that as a young Christian thinking about a career in science, you may have some questions about what to expect, both personally and professionally. Doing science is both a challenge and a joy, and doing it "Christianly" adds to both.

My own journey in science really started as a first-year graduate student, when I discovered the thrill of exploring the scientific unknown. I was hooked and I knew that this was what God was calling me to do. I use the word "call" because of my own internal sense of call and because of the providential way I arrived at that place and time (but that's a different story). Now, so many years later, I can say that I have fully enjoyed— and continue to enjoy—my vocation and cannot imagine doing anything else.

Occasionally (mostly when I was much younger!) people suggest that I should do something else because science, through its search to understand the workings of the universe, diminishes the inherent mystery of the creation, and, therefore, of God the creator. But I think that the more we study and understand our universe, the more we see the hand of God. Science is a bit like doing a jigsaw puzzle with only a fuzzy picture as a guide. As we add pieces to the already-existing frame, the picture becomes clearer and leads us to new parts of the grand design. We see the beauty and constancy of the interlocking laws that rule our universe and express them in mathematical elegance. We see the nature and being of God not only in the universe, but in the discovery process itself. God is a god of order, wisdom, and creativity. (Incidentally, never doubt that doing science is a creative activity!) So on a personal level, this may be the most compelling reason for you to follow your inclination to do science.

I do think you need to feel a deep, undeniable persuasion if you want to pursue science as vocation. Science is intellectually demanding and requires intense commitment. It is not for the faint of heart. Scientists routinely challenge each other's conclusions and theories; this is how we make progress, sometimes with an unfortunate lack of civility. If you are not fully convinced that you want to do science, then the demands and contention may well drive you away. If you find satisfaction in the intellectual challenge and creativity of logical problem solving, then it becomes much easier to accept the demands and challenges.

The rewards of doing science are, in large part, internal. They come secondarily from the scientific community; only rarely do they come from the broader community. Most scientists labour for their entire careers with recognition only from a small group of peers engaged in similar research. A small number receive accolades from scientific societies for particularly seminal contributions or a lifetime of contribution. And only the very, very few receive recognition from society at large. Most of us don't see a problem here, probably because science self-selects the internally driven, and we are happy to be left to our research.

The intellectual challenge and the small peer community can lead to two consequences that you need to think about. The first is intellectual snobbery. As a scientist, I may be quite sure that I am one of few people in the entire world who understand the intricate details of the problem on which I am working. It is easy then to slip into intellectual arrogance and a sense of superiority. While anyone with specialized knowledge may do the same, scientists are more likely to fall victim to this because of the rather woeful state of science knowledge in our society. From there, it is a small step to believing that I have special knowledge about many things because I am an expert in one. As you move forward in your science career, stomp on this ugly thought at every opportunity!

You may also experience a certain degree of isolation, and perhaps even loneliness. While I have not found this to be a problem in my life, I have seen it. I think there is a solution—I'll discuss that in a bit.

If you were to survey scientists on what they currently see as their most difficult life problem, I am sure a majority would cite a lack of balance in their daily life. The professional demands, particularly in academia, can become overwhelming. Our time is split between teaching (including supervising graduate students) and research, which would be fine, except for the constant drive to obtain that research funding that is essential to our success. Obtaining funding is a distinctly competitive proposition—even more so during this period of diminishing resources for both research and higher education in general.

Thus, in order to succeed, we tend to push ourselves to work ever-longer hours. This leads inevitably to vocation squeezing out family, friends, and church community, as well as the broader social community and service. I see this tendency in my life and the lives of my colleagues, and we have to do battle with it on a daily basis. Loving what we do only exacerbates the problem!

So, as you continue to pursue science, you must insist on balance in your life, which also helps with the aforementioned isolation. Participating in activities beyond science expands our social network, provides opportunity to share our talents, and engages us in shared community that mitigates our own sense of superiority. It also gives us opportunity to volunteer in areas in which we are not so adept and to marvel at the talents of those who are!

My last point is one with which I have struggled for many years. Much has been written, especially recently, about the serious divide between science and religion. While I don't think a serious divide actually exists, many in our society do. As a scientist and an evangelical (I use that word rather broadly here) Christian, I belong to both groups, but sometimes find myself in the awkward position of feeling harassed by both.

Perhaps surprisingly, I feel this more keenly from religious people than the science community. All too frequently, evangelical Christians dismiss science and scientific enquiry as a godless enterprise and, in a sense, dismiss me along with it. This can leave me feeling very much outside the Christian community, a feeling that escalates when my science becomes politically controversial (as it has) and religious groups take sides. I am grateful that I come from and remain in the Reformed tradition, which is intellectually and traditionally supportive of what I do. I appreciate the opportunities that I have had to speak at Christian institutions and to Christian groups. Most importantly, I thank God that the community within which I currently worship embraces me, not only for who I am but for the ministry to which I am called. I strongly encourage you, wherever you pursue your vocation, to find a similarly supportive Christian community.

Keeping roots in the Christian community is important for another reason. With surprising frequency, our scientific problems are morphing into ethical problems as well. Increasingly, human activity impacts our environment and societal choices affect health and well-being. Local and national choices have regional and global implications. Biological research into genetics and cell activity provides opportunities for action and manipulation that are fast outstripping our ability as a society to understand, let alone approve, the directions in which we are heading. The evangelical Christian community needs to be engaged in framing these ethical problems and finding solutions, or at least in carving out acceptable compromises.

But to do so, the community requires scientists who know and understand both the science and the religious values so that they speak effectively to the issues. The absence of those voices will inevitably lead to distrust and polarization both within the Christian community and between that community and the rest of society.

As I look back over this letter, I am afraid that it may have a bit more of a negative tone than I intended. I have found immense satisfaction and joy in my life as a scientist. My training and knowledge have helped me advance our understanding of Earth's climate and to see God and benefit society though that knowledge. I have a national and international network of colleagues, many of whom are also close friends. I cannot do justice in writing to the camaraderie that exists within a research group and the personal satisfaction that comes with solving tough problems. Over the years, mentoring students and young research scientists (my academic children!) has proved to be a rich and ongoing pleasure in my life, and I delight in their scientific growth and success.

I know that you are feeling that deep persuasion to be a scientist; I strongly encourage you to follow that pull. Our society needs talented scientists to work on the difficult problems that we face—particularly scientists who are both intellectually gifted and religiously grounded. I hope that you will be one of my colleagues in this task!

Thomas Ackerman

Topics: Vocation

Tom Ackerman is Professor of Atmospheric Sciences and Director of the Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean at the University of Washington in Seattle. His research interests are in climate and climate change, particularly the impact of clouds and atmospheric particles on climate and how they affect climate. He has studied and published on these issues for more than 35 years while working as a NASA research scientist, Chief Scientist of a large climate research program sponsored by the US Department of Energy, and a professor at two universities. He has received awards for his research from a number of organizations including the American Physical Society, the World Meteorological Organization, and NASA.