The Christian worldview paints a distinctly beautiful picture of purpose in each human's life. It holds adamantly to the notion that no one exists by accident or without God-given gifts, talents, or passions. Sometimes these gifts, talents, and passions are evident early in one's life--a six-year-old girl firmly committing to becoming a veterinarian, an eight-year-old boy knowing that he wants to design buildings when he grows up. For others, their interests are varied and they enjoy exploring a wide variety of topics. For many, discovering gifts and passions is a lifelong journey. But no matter what the journey looks like, having a foundation of God-given purpose and an understanding that each of us carries a calling (not just a career) serves to undergird every step of the way.
Parents raising young children are uniquely positioned to guide a child in the path that God lays out for their life. Whether a child expresses interest in being a lawyer, firefighter, zoo keeper, or homemaker, (or all of them at the same time!), parents are instrumental in helping students both discover and explore things they love--clues that can lead to God's calling on their life.
The following is an excerpt from a conversation with Dr. Laura Lopez, an associate professor of astronomy at The Ohio State University. Her story is a fascinating real-life look at what can happen when a child expresses a specific interest, is supported by a loving parent, and receives encouragement from role models along a difficult path. Her story speaks to the importance of allowing everyone to pursue their passion, and offers a glimpse of what can result for all of society when that happens.
When I was in fifth grade—about eleven years old—I went on a class camping trip that included a night of stargazing. I was really captivated by looking at the stars and the sky and thinking about how it all worked. After that trip, I began going to the public library and checking out books on astronomy and astrophysics, reading about different topics. I got really excited about the extreme things in space like black holes. By the time I got to middle school, I had decided that I wanted to be an astronomer and study these extreme things in space.
My mom is a piano teacher and my dad owned a gas station, so neither of them had a science background. My passionate interest in astronomy at a young age was totally different for them. My mom was very supportive and encouraged me to pursue whatever activities interested me. She let me engage in extra-curricular activities to explore and learn about what kinds of things can be done within a science career.
I did encounter some opposition. My dad was not as supportive in the beginning—he didn’t attend college himself, so convincing him that I should attend college was a bit of an uphill battle. Some people didn’t understand why I wanted to be scientist, offering me different career ideas that they thought more suitable. I responded to these suggestions by explaining that I am passionate about science and that this is what I want to do. At times it felt like a challenge to try to convince people that my career interest was a legitimate pathway for me. As I progressed academically, people began to see more that I was serious about my pursuit and they began to embrace it more.
At the same time, my experience as a female physics student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology felt isolating. There were something like 100 physics majors in my class at MIT, and 20 of those were women. Once I was in the higher level courses, the number of female classmates dwindled to an even smaller percentage. Finishing my undergraduate studies, it was common for me to be one of only two women in a classroom. Not only can this be an isolating experience, it can cause one to question, “Is this where I belong? Is this something that I want to do?” In addition to that, I took something like 24 math and physics courses in my undergraduate studies, and I never had a female professor or a female teacher’s aide. This lack of role models can cause female students to feel like they do not belong and that they will not have a successful career because there is no example of someone who has had a successful career teaching their classes.
On top of feeling isolated, I also heard messages from classmates and professors that were discouraging. Statements like, “You do not have anything to contribute. You will never have a career in this field.” I internalized a lot of this criticism and began to doubt myself. But a research project during my junior year helped to turn this negative narrative around. I worked with a scientist that was very encouraging and spoke positive words about my potential in the field. His words made me feel so empowered and made me feel much more capable. My PhD supervisor was also very encouraging and used his words to speak hope into my work and studies. I credit these two positive voices in my life with the success that I've experienced in my career and the fact that I am still in the sciences today. They demonstrate the powerful impact that our words can have on others.
As an associate professor of astronomy at The Ohio State University, I am fortunate to be on a faculty that has five women of the 20 total members. This is a high percentage of female professors compared to other science department faculties. I find that many university students gravitate towards professors and advisors that they identify with. As a Mexican-American female professor, nearly 75% of the students that seek me out as advisor are female, and over half are people of color. Role models and mentorship are key elements of moving the sciences toward better reflecting the demographics of the greater society.
I think, in general, people should be able to pursue their dreams and study whatever topic they are interested in without being limited in what they can do. Ultimately, I think it’s important for science and academia to reflect society. Moving toward greater parity with society ought to bring about change in the culture and climate of the sciences for minorities, resulting in better space for science to be conducted. More discussions and more contributions from a variety of perspectives and minds will allow the sciences to go farther and in directions it wouldn’t go otherwise.