Q&A with Scientist Rick Lindroth: Part 1

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In our recent survey, we discovered that climate change is one of your top six topics of interest. (The other five are at the end of the article.) We decided to broaden the topic and interview a fascinating Christian leader in science through a two-part Q & A.

Rick Lindroth is a Vilas Distinguished Achievement professor of ecology and recent Associate Dean for Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where his research focuses on evolutionary ecology and global change ecology in forest ecosystems. He’s also one our Science for the Church advisors. There’s more to his professional bio here, but let’s add that Rick and his wife have two daughters and three grandchildren. For recreation, they enjoy road cycling, fly fishing, and reading, though not necessarily in that order.

Q: Let’s start at the beginning. How did you become interested in science, and what’s the connection for you with your faith in Christ?

I was first interested in life, and over many years that interest matured and transformed into an interest in the science of life. I had the good fortune to grow up in a rural area in northern Illinois. From my earliest years, most of my free time was spent roaming the fields, forests and ponds that surrounded my house—land that later became home to the Fermi National Accelerator Lab. I knew from the time that I was seven years old that I wanted to be a biologist when I grew up.

The ages of 7-12 are critically important for establishing both personal independence and connection to nature. At the time, I thought I was getting into nature. Now, from the perspective of many decades, I realize that, equally, nature was getting into me. Nature has always been my primary portal to wonder, to awe, to the sublime and to the divine. And even better, it’s fun.

To pursue a career in life science requires a critical transition, usually effected in graduate school. That is, at some point, one’s love for living things must become complemented by a love for science. That is, a passion for figuring out how life works.

At the same time as I was in formal training to become a scientist, my life of faith blossomed. This unexpected and transformational change came first through participation with a campus ministry as an undergrad, and then through involvement in a campus church as a grad student. One of the church pastors became a spiritual mentor to me, and strongly encouraged my development as both a scientist and a Christ-follower. That church’s appreciation of science, and scientists, had a profound impact early in my scientific career.

You say you are a life scientist, but life science covers a broad array of disciplines. What kind of science do you do?

I am an ecologist. Now, having said that, I always feel a need to provide some explanation. When most nonbiologists hear “ecologist” they think “environmentalist”—or something less positive! That is a pervasive misunderstanding. Ecology is a science; it’s a sub-discipline of biology, just like genetics and microbiology. Ecology is not issue advocacy and it’s not environmentalism. Ecology is basically the science of how organisms (plants, animals, microbes, etc.,) interact with their environment (air, water, soil, climate, and other organisms). It’s the science of how the natural world works. Botanists study plants, entomologists study insects, and climatologists study climate. Ecologists study how all those things, and more, interact together. Imagine how much more interesting zoos would be if the animals were allowed to interact freely. That is what ecology is about.

One of the best aspects of being a professional ecologist is living in a world of wonder. Daily, I see and marvel at organisms and processes to which most people are oblivious. Wendell Berry captured this well when he wrote that the turning of water into wine was actually “a very small miracle. We forget the greater and still continuing miracle by which water (with soil and sunlight) is turned into grapes.”



How would you describe your calling to be a scientist?

Rarely in my life have I experienced what others might describe as a clear calling from God, and my vocation is no exception. Early in my career I found myself frequently looking over my shoulder, wondering if I had somehow missed my “call.” Now, however, I view that question differently. I ask, “Given how God has uniquely designed, transformed, and positioned me, is this opportunity a good fit to my talents and passions?” Being a scientist at a major research university has been an extraordinarily good fit. I still pinch myself that I have been blessed with a dream job, in a dream location.

Could you describe for us how science and faith interact in your life?

That would take a book to answer! Let me give just a few ideas.

Most of the readers of this newsletter will not be surprised to hear me say that I am a better scientist for being a Christian. And that is certainly true. My Christian values have shaped me in such a way that I am a better mentor, collaborator, and leader in my science profession. But what may surprise readers is that I am also a better Christian for being a scientist. My scientific perspectives lend humility, curiosity, and appreciation for mystery, all of which enrich my faith experience. (And, I hope, enrich the lives of people in my community of faith.)

Philosophers tell us that throughout history, the three major domains by which we understand truth about our world are science, art, and religion (the spiritual). These are not distinctly different domains. They overlap. And what lies at the nexus of all three is that distinctly human characteristic of wonder. The wonder that I, and others, experience in studying the world provides a natural bridge to explore the spiritual world—and vice versa. Each is better for the other, and wonder is at the center of it all.

What would you say is your experience of being a scientist in the church?

My experience might be unusual, but I have encountered more hostility as a scientist in a world of Christians, than I have as a Christian in a world of scientists. For example, I have had the legitimacy of my Christian faith challenged for speaking about the scientific facts of anthropogenic climate change.

My experience is that most Christians, and most Christian churches, are quite oblivious to, and uninterested in, scientists and science. The attitude of most Christians I encounter toward science is at best utilitarian (“Tell me, how long is this pandemic going to last?”). It is the rare person who would even consider that science might enrich individual and corporate experiences of faith.

In terms of my personal church involvement, however, I have had the very good fortune of being a member of a church whose senior leadership not only appreciates, but advocates, science.

Thanks to Rick for this interview! More next week…

And since we mentioned it…

Here are your other five topics of highest interest (in descending order): Evolution and Origins, History and Philosophy of Science, Character and Virtue, Quantum Physics, and Genetics.

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