Kathryn Applegate
 on February 02, 2016

Urbana 15: Science, Grad School, and Missions

For many, "mission" evokes images of working in the African bush, but the secular academy is a mission field too.


Last month nearly 16,000 students flocked to St. Louis to take part in the five-day Urbana Student Missions Conference. Many made decisions to follow Jesus wherever he would have them go in the world—even to the lab, or to academia more generally.

When you hear “missions,” what’s the first thing that comes to mind? For many, it’s the prospect of door-to-door evangelism in the African bush, or running medical clinics in the slums of India. Those are amazing ways to serve God for those who are called to them. But the secular academy is by and large a spiritually dark, barren place, and God is calling many Christian scholars to be the fragrance of Christ there.

Several old and new friends of BioLogos spoke at Urbana 15.  Washington University computational biologist S. Joshua Swamidass gave a seminar to answer the questions, “What does God’s global mission have to do with graduate school? Why would a mission-minded Christian choose to spend years in schooling?” Our friends at Emerging Scholars Network (ESN) “live-blogged” Josh’s talk, and the resulting summary is a great summary of the highlights, if you don’t have time to listen to the full talk.

Josh addresses the common concern that grad school is an excuse for indecision. I chuckled at this, remembering that one of my friends in grad school had a big sign in her apartment that read, “Grad school is the snooze button of life.” Unfortunately for many, it functions that way: interminable projects stretch year after year, with no clear end in sight. No job lined up? That’s ok! Grad students are cheap and highly skilled, so it’s often advantageous to keep them around.  

I never thought of grad school as a snooze button, exactly, but I did worry that it wasn’t perhaps as noble as going into medicine. It wasn’t clear that my work was going to make the world a better place. You simply have to be faithful to what God has made you for, Josh reminds us: “Yes, we should give up our lives to God, but it is also true He made us for something.” Did he give you an intellect and passion for science or math? Maybe that’s what you should do.

Josh, like so many other great scientists in the BioLogos network, is called to work in a culture where the Gospel is rarely declared, and his scientific training means he has the respect of atheist colleagues. His education and work enable the Gospel to go forth to a largely unreached people group. That’s missions.

Urbana also held a panel discussion on similar themes: “How can Christians be faithful in secular universities, what challenges do they face, and how can we develop our sense of calling and purpose within academia?” Tom Grosh, associate director of ESN, served as moderator, and David Vosburg, Harvey Mudd chemist and BioLogos grant recipient as a panelist.  Here the conversation is wonderfully practical: the panelists talk about the importance of prayer, practicing Sabbath, integrating faith and work (rather than separating our Christian and scholarly identities), being part of a supporting community, and making time to serve others, among other things.

Urbana played host to yet another science-themed seminar. UC-Davis chemist and InterVarsity area director Brian Enderle spoke on the intersection of science and God, using examples from philosophy and quantum physics. In one part of the talk he reminds us to distinguish between metaphysical (who, why) and empirical (what, how) questions. The two are not in competition with one another, but complementary. In other parts of the talk Enderle prompts wonder at the strange nature of atoms, time, and light.

What a world God has made, and what a thrilling time to be a scientist! Imagine the fruit of this conference 10-20 years from now, when a new generation of scientist-believers will be at the helm of major research laboratories across the country and world. They will struggle mightily to publish papers and get grant funding, just like their secular counterparts, but because they will have been discipled by the likes of Swamidass, Grosh, Vosburg, and Enderle, they’ll be working with a clear sense of God’s calling and for his glory.

About the author

Kathryn Applegate

Kathryn Applegate

Kathryn Applegate is a former Program Director at BioLogos. While working on her PhD in computational cell biology at  Scripps Research (La Jolla, CA), she became passionate about building bridges between the church and the scientific community. In 2010, she joined the BioLogos staff where she has the privilege of writing, speaking, and working with a wide variety of scholars and educators to develop new science and faith resources. Kathryn co-edited with Jim Stump How I Changed My Mind About Evolution (InterVarsity Press, 2016). Among many other projects during her time at BioLogos, Kathryn most recently led the development of Integrate, a new science and faith curriculum for home educators and teachers at Christian schools. Kathryn and her family enjoy exploring the beaches and state parks of Michigan and are helping to plant a new PCA church in Grand Rapids.

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