Gregg Davidson: PhD, Geology Professor and Water Scientist
Hydrogeologist / Geochemist, Department Chair, University of Mississippi
- MS and PhD in hydrology from University of Arizona
- Professor and Chair of Geology & Geological Engineering at University of Mississippi
- Author of When Faith and Science Collide; associate editor and contributing author of Grand Canyon, Monument to an Ancient Earth
A Circuitous, Providential Journey:
My mother’s family owns a cattle ranch in the rolling grass-covered Sandhills of Nebraska, dating back to the Great Land Rush. It is considered small at 3,500 acres, since you need about 10 acres for each cow in that region. We visited the ranch most summers. One of my favorite childhood memories was taking a garden hose to one end of the long sandy road that cut through the property, letting water begin to snake its way down the path. The growing stream divided and recombined, filling pockets and slowly soaking into the ground. My cousins and I built dams and bridges, and carved new channels to direct the water where we wanted it to go. I didn’t realize at the time how much pull water had on the direction of my life.
Entering high school and thinking about college, I bounced between thoughts of being a scientist or a theologian. A strange tension for modern times, but I later learned that many of the greatest scientists of history were equally as captivated by theology. Having two preachers for grandfathers and a biology professor for a father also played a likely role in thinking of those options. By my senior year, I decided I would major in a science and then go to seminary, fulfilling a measure of both dreams. On acceptance letters to Wheaton College, I declared biology as my major. Upon arriving on campus and filling out a new set of forms, I declared geology. I am not a spontaneous person. There was a reason for the change. I have never had a moment of regret, in spite of the fact that to this day, I have no recollection of what that reason was!
My junior year of college, I took a class in hydrogeology. It was the movement and chemistry of water in the subsurface. It captivated my attention, with a strong sense that God was calling me to continue my education in water. After graduation and a one-year hiatus teaching science at a private boarding school in New Hampshire, I entered into a graduate program in hydrology at the University of Arizona. I was blessed with having a Christian advisor who set a strong example of balancing work and personal life. He reminded me that patterns set while working on an advanced degree were likely to continue through life. It was a lesson I have carried with me as a professor, myself.
After finishing my master’s degree and entering into the PhD program, my advisor did not have a project for me to step into. At about the same time, I met a member of the board of directors for the Pandita Ramabai Mukti Mission, an orphanage in India, who said they were having trouble with the groundwater becoming salty. I was intrigued. I spoke to my advisor about seeing if I would work up a dissertation project on this problem. He agreed, but had no money to put toward it. I arranged a connection with a professor at the University of Poona, not far from the orphanage, to collaborate with me. I then cobbled together enough frequent-flier miles to get a round trip ticket to India (it was easier back then), bought three shipping trunks, and borrowed department equipment to embark on the journey.
I arrived in Mumbai (Bombay at the time) in the middle of the night, only to find my trunks confiscated by the airport authority. I had no idea why, but later learned they were waiting for a bribe I did not know to give. I headed to a hut with men standing around an open fire. Only one spoke English. He assigned me a taxi that coughed and died ten times before starting and embarking on a five-hour road trip that I was not sure I would live through. There were no traffic laws – merely poorly observed traffic suggestions. Arriving at the university before dawn, I tossed my duffle bag behind a cluster of shrubs and tried to sleep. I awoke to people doing morning walks and asked my way to the department office. I had a warm reception by the professor, was situated in a boarding room on campus, and plans were made to return to Mumbai to retrieve the trunks.
For the next four weeks, we drove from well to well around the country side. They were enormous hand-dug wells, thirty feet across with steps leading down through the weathered basalt to the water table. No permissions were needed, but many were curious what we were doing with a portable table, bottles, and testing equipment. On learning our purpose, one land owner was so excited, he arrived back as the sun was setting with a freshly killed and prepared chicken!
Then everything started to unravel. Equipment broke. The lab back on campus that was promised to be open after hours was locked – repeatedly. Analyses performed at each well took longer than planned. A full day spent driving to a site where a particular mineral was supposedly forming turned out to be only speculation – nothing noteworthy was happening there. Hot peppers put in virtually every dish I ate seemed to be eating a hole in my stomach. The spiritual darkness of the land began to feel like it was a visceral fog enshrouding me. At the peak of my frustration and feelings of isolation, I met with a group of students, including an African named Isaac. He had a key fob with JESUSprinted on it. “Isaac,” I said, holding him back as the other students left. “We need to talk.”
Isaac took me to his brother’s apartment for a dinner with a group of African students, mostly from Kenya. They were all fellow believers. We ate from a communal dish, sang familiar Christian songs, and told stories about our cultures. When asked about dowries in America, I kidded that I had a photo of Isaac’s girlfriend. With a quizzical look from Isaac, I pulled out a National Geographic magazine showing a woman from a tribe on the border of Kenya with a large plate inserted into her lower lip. They were amazed. They had no idea such a tribe existed. And her husband gave fifty cows for her!
My final two weeks in India included many evenings with Isaac and his friends. I remember well one Indian student who came with Isaac to see this strange American scientist who believed in God. After talking for a time, the young man challenged me with a sense of finality, saying “I do not believe in anything I cannot prove.” “That’s fascinating,” I replied, “How did you prove that God does not exist?” His hardened face softened. I did not think my reply to be that profound, but it caught him off guard. “I am not very consistent on that,” he confessed. I don’t know if he ever came to Christ, but we talked about the Bible and Jesus for the next hour.
Arriving back home, the water samples were analyzed and the data reviewed. The answer to the salinity problem was a simple matter of partial evaporation of irrigation water higher in the watershed. The orphanage was lower in the watershed, receiving water that had been repeatedly exposed to the air and partially evaporated. I sent the report to the orphanage along with suggestions to address the problem, but my hopes for a PhD project fizzled. The concentrations of some key elements I needed were too low. It cost me a year.
The following Fall, my advisor received a large grant to work on another water project, this time related to assessing the risk of radioactive waste contamination to groundwater beneath the proposed Yucca Mountain repository. The one-year delay placed me in a prime position to step into that project. Where I had been operating on a shoe-string budget, the new project covered my tuition, a stipend, and all the research costs through the remainder of my program. As a bonus, the project included working in the same radiocarbon lab that dated the Dead Sea Scrolls and the famed Shroud of Turin.
After completing my degree, I worked a short time for an environmental consulting firm before accepting a position as an assistant professor of geology at the University of Mississippi. Having grown up in the northeast, I never imagined I would ever live in Mississippi, but God knew my path better than I. Teaching and research proved to be more than just passing knowledge onto students. My hydrogeology class eventually incorporated a weekend in the field getting wet and muddy, learning a revolutionary manual water-well drilling method, designed by a Baptist missionary, that allows third-world families to install their own wells. Research projects over the years contributed our ability to be good stewards of natural resources. Projects ranged from using geochemistry to identify potential weak zones along river levees, to assessing the risk of groundwater contamination from a low-level radioactive waste landfill.
As a tenured associate professor some years later, the culture war in America seemed to be ramping up with misinformation being widely spread about the relationship between science and faith. Being a Christian and a geologist, people often asked how I reconciled the two. I increasingly felt called to begin to speak and write on the subject, and soon found that God had brought me full circle. The desires that seemed to be in competition when I was young were not competing against each other at all. My sometimes circuitous path had given me a wealth of experience and knowledge to be able to address difficult questions at the intersection of science and theology, even writing an article on the incredibly unique way God fashioned my favorite thing in nature – water![i]God’s providence was manifest even in the placeof my employment. When first considering this outreach, I met with the chancellor and the provost with my tentative plans. I did not want to be secretive about my intentions. At that time, the positions were occupied by Christians – a circumstance that may not have been replicated in a secular university anywhere else in the country. I received not only permission, but encouragement.
I marvel at the tapestry that God weaves in our lives. A few years after my experience in India, I lost track of Isaac. I suspect we both moved about the same time and any forwarding addresses were lost. A few weeks after receiving the invitation from the editor to contribute to this book, I received an email with one of those nebulous subject lines designed to make you curious and click on a virus-laden link. All it said was, “Tracing our roots.” I moved the mouse to delete, but paused. I opened it and scanned the message. A long African name that was surely followed by “I have inherited a gazillion dollars and need your help to spend it.” I stopped short – the first name was Isaac– from Kenya– asking if I was the person he met many years ago at the University of Poona. We have reconnected! He did not inherit a gazillion dollars, but he has something vastly better. In his own circuitous journey, he has also seen the hand of God at work – guiding, prodding, and sustaining.
[i]Davidson, G. (2015) Water is weird - And its strange behaviors make life possible, Behemoth, Issue 14, 5 p. http://www.christianitytoday.com/behemoth/2015/issue-14/water-is-weird.html