David Vosberg, PhD, Professor of Chemistry
- Graduated from Williams College, where I met my wife Kate
- Ph.D. from The Scripps Research Institute in Organic Chemistry
- Post-doctoral fellow in Chemical Biology at Harvard Medical School
- Professor of Chemistry at Harvey Mudd CollegeAuthor of Jesus, Beginnings, and Science: A Guide for Group Conversation
- Author of Jesus, Beginnings, and Science: A Guide for Group Conversation
Yet the Making of Things Is in My Heart
“What does Christ have to do with chemistry?” my college pastor asked me, probing to see whether my inclination to continue studying science had any connection to my commitment to Jesus. In a rare moment of self-control, I refrained from retorting that the letters of the word chemistry can be rearranged to give “Christ y me,” a clear sign in English/Spanish that God was calling me into the molecular sciences. In truth, I did not have a good answer to this question. My interest in science and my Christian faith had developed fairly independently, or at least without a conscious connection for me.
I had grown to love chemistry and architectural design in high school, fascinated by the periodic table and the many combinations of elements that make beautiful, colorful compounds. In college I found that I could combine those passions in studying the architecture of molecules. At my first encounter with organic chemistry, I was captivated by the logic and the opportunities for discovery and creativity. I was blown away by the concept that the number of conceivable organic molecules, of even modest size, vastly outnumbers even the estimated number of atoms in the universe!
I grew up in a Christian family, and I claimed my faith as my own late in high school after reading the entire Bible and experiencing God’s love generously poured out to me through a community of fellow believers. I was fortunate to continue growing spiritually in college—at an elite, secular school—through InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. I continued to intentionally seek out Christian community after college as a graduate student. God was patient and gracious with me, finally speaking clearly to me at the 2000 Urbana Student Missions Conference.
I was a married, fourth-year graduate student considering post-doc applications. At the conference that winter, I joined several other graduate students, post-docs, and faculty (many in the sciences) each morning for Bible study and fellowship. I found inspiration and encouragement from their stories of following God in academia. It was in this context, and through reading John Alexander’s booklet Faculty Salt: A Guide for Christian Faculty and Graduate Students, that Ideveloped a strong sense of God calling me to be a Christian chemistry professor at a secular college. For the first time, I realized that this was a legitimate call to missions.
Ever since my undergraduate days, I had wanted to become a chemistry professor. Mostly I wanted it for my own selfish reasons, not exactly out of a desire to bring grace and justice to people and institutions in the academic world. At Urbana, I thought back to how one or two openly believing science professors at my very secular college had shown me that it was possible to have a robust faith in such a place. Then, looking back over the previous three and a half years, I realized how deeply I was missing that kind of positive influence from faculty in my experience in graduate school and as a post-doc.
Why is it so hard to be openly Christian and a science professor? Why is it even harder to be a missional Christian and a science professor? Are the halls of science in the university beyond hope? Or do I believe that God wants to reach the campus, that Jesus wants its people—not just students, but faculty and administrators, too—to experience true flourishing and renewal? At that Urbana conference, God gave me a vision to bring the shalom, grace, and hope that I have experienced to other faculty and to students on secular campuses.
Since that experience in 2000, I have intentionally sought out faculty, post-docs, grad students and undergrads that are considering graduate school in the sciences. I share stories with them of how I’ve seen God work in the university and encourage them to consider a science vocation as a potential call to missions. There are always Christian students eager to talk with missional scientists for advice, inspiration, and a greater sense of hope that they can find Christian community when they launch their own careers.
Returning to my pastor’s question, “What does Christ have to do with chemistry?”
I can now answer my college pastor’s question without a snarky reply. What does Christ have to do with chemistry? Jesus has everything to do with chemistry, since “all things were created through him and for him,” and “in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:16,17). My intellectual and emotional response is to love God and to embrace science as a joyful form of worship, discovery, and awe, delightfully learning about God’s thoughts and designs at a molecular level.
As a molecule maker, I am deeply drawn to J.R.R. Tolkien’s concept of sub-creation: human creation that reflects God’s image as creator.Sub-creation is illustrated in Tolkien’s creation story of Middle-earth:
Yet the making of things is in my heart from my own making by thee; and the child of little understanding that makes a play of the deeds of his father may do so without any thought of mockery, but because he is the son of his father.
My ability to create flows from my heavenly Father’s own creativity. Tolkien’s celebration of this gift of creativity reflects the joy and inspiration I experience as a synthetic chemist. Molecules are beautiful. Making new ones, “the making of things,” is a privilege and a cause for joy and worship. I delight in them, and I believe God does, too. He is the first and greatest chemist, and he has entrusted me with one small corner of his laboratory.
One way I express joy and worship is in song. Inspired by Psalm 148, I wrote the chemistry-themed psalm below. Don’t worry if you don’t know what all of the words mean. I’m sure you could write a similar poem of praise out of your own experiences and area of expertise. I call this one “A psalm of David.”
Praise the LORD.
Praise the LORD from the classroom,
Praise him in the laboratory, too.
Praise him, all his molecules,
Praise him, all his proteins and nucleic acids.
Praise him, all alkaloids and steroids,
Praise him, all you sweet carbohydrates.
Praise him, you manifold terpenoids
and you polyketides and peptides.
Let them praise the name of the LORD,
for he commanded and they were created.
He formed them from the elements;
he decreed how they should bond.
Praise the LORD from the NMR,
all you chemists in industry and academia,
whether you be famous or not,
carbon and oxygen, sulfur and nitrogen,
electrons that do all his bonding,
you fluorine and chlorine,
light hydrogen and heavy iodine,
all alkanes and alkenes,
every alkyne and aromatic ring,
all amines and aldehydes,
ketones and carboxylic acids,
esters, amides, and anhydrides,
alcohols and ethers.
Let them praise the name of the LORD,
for his name alone is exalted;
his splendor is revealed in our every molecule.
He has raised up for his people the Christ,
the praise of all his saints,
of the church, the people close to his heart.
Praise the LORD.
Tolkien, J. R. R. “On Fairy-stories,” In Tree and Leaf, London: George Allen and Unwin, 1964.
Tolkien, J. R. R. The Silmarillion, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977, p. 43.