Ian Gottschalk: PhD Candidate, Applied Geophysics, Stanford University
- Undergraduate fellow (DAAD) to research groundwater issues in Germany
- Working on my PhD at Stanford University
- Author of articles on techniques for water quality analyses
A desire to solve problems in our communities has long guided my trajectory. Academically, the natural world has always fascinated me. A career in earth science is allowing me to marry these passions by using knowledge of the earth to address critical issues affecting people in need.
Despite growing up with an active involvement in the Church, as a teenager I felt that my faith lacked a crucial component. From the outside, I wasn’t doing anything specifically wrong. Life on the school front was fine. I enjoyed academics—especially math and physics. I had good friends. I went to church and took my religious commitment seriously. Still, I felt that I lacked a critical element in my life:a real-world application of my faith. While the Church taught me to offer myself for Kingdom work, I didn’t get the sense that I was sacrificing much.The Christian call to “present yourselves as living sacrifices” (Rom 12:1b) gnawed at me.
Still in high school, I discovered my calling in service. Finally, in service and volunteer work, I felt that I was fulfilling my call to sacrifice comfort for a much greater good. Profound experiences met me when I volunteered my time and energy for the benefit of others. The lessons I learned from the places and people I worked with were invaluable and unique. I remember, when working with Habitat for Humanity, marveling at the relatively small amount of work which had transformed a dilapidated house into a space where a couple in need could raise their children without the concern of where they ate and slept. I knew I was participating in work that counted toward a higher purpose, and it was infectious.
After high school, I decided to defer my enrollment to college to instead dedicate a year of my life to the Kingdom work that had been affecting me so profoundly. I joined a program called Mission Year to begin a year service in inner-city Houston, TX. The work was difficult: often sunup to sundown, both in our neighborhood and at a local non-profit. Albeit sometimes grueling, my experience with Mission Year brought me a continued sense of joy and satisfaction, and strengthened my resolve in my purpose. Service had become part of my identity, and something that I wanted to centrally integrate into my life. Meanwhile, my academic passion lived on. Many evenings, I would teach myself calculus analysis from a textbook that my father had given me so that “my brain didn’t melt” during my hiatus from school.
After a year spent working to help solve community challenges, I planned to go to college for my degree and return to helping communities the way I had been. I did not have a major picked out when I began college. I felt conflicted in that I enjoyed science, but I wasn’t certain a career in science would be using my skills for a worthy purpose. I pictured myself working in some sterile laboratory, far away from the tangible needs of real people. Although I always had enjoyed and exceled in the natural sciences, I started looking at social science programs. Surely, I believed, a degree in a field like sociology, which studies communities, would best equip me to address community problems. During my search for a major, I took an introductory Geology course on a recommendation. This intro course turned out to shape my life’s trajectory far more than I had imagined.
Here’s what I learned. Geology focuses on the natural processes that have shaped the earth into what it is today. Geology also teaches a framework for humans to live in and with the environment. Week after week of Intro Geology, it became increasingly clear that nature and humankind are inextricably linked. Because of humankind’s extraordinary capabilities to alter the earth, the health of the environment depends on our stewardship. Meanwhile, humans are dependent upon earth’s continued health and availability of natural resources (e.g. soil, water, minerals, ecosystems) for survival.
Not only are we dependent upon natural resources, but by better understanding the earth, we can safeguard communities from natural dangers as well. As I learned in that intro course, the applications of geology to human health and safety are nearly endless. On landslides: understanding hillslope mechanics can help determine safer areas to live. On earthquakes: studying fault networks and properties of local earthquakes can guide responsible building codes and development. The list goes on.
Addressing these natural challenges comes at an extra cost to underdeveloped communities, making environmental cohabitation a significant justice issue. Resource deficits interrupt the environmental research and development needed to promote community health and safety in these environmentally difficult scenarios. Nations with ample scientific resources, sufficient community planning, and good engineering can reduce risk to region-specific disasters, while advancing health and hygiene for the population. Communities without these resources all too often bear the brunt of natural disasters and ongoing environmental challenges alike. Life expectancy and community health mirror the inequality in environmental preparedness.
Perennial problems in community health and environmental sustainability come to a head in the subject of groundwater. Groundwater is the water which saturates the subsurface and is normally extracted with wells for agriculture and human consumption. The impacts of groundwater on human life struck a special chord with me: one million people die annually of water, sanitation, and hygiene-related illness every year. Diarrhea is the third leading cause of death in children globally. Arguably, water-related illness is one of the most preventable causes of death worldwide. Not only could studying groundwater fit squarely with my academic interest in the natural world, but by solving groundwater-related issues, I could address a real human need, just as I had wanted out of the social sciences. What more convincing did I need? I signed up for the Geology major.
After finishing my bachelor’s degree at Wheaton College, I continued to push my scientific knowledge, so that I would be best equipped to solve challenging environmental problems. At Stanford University, I joined a research group which is pushing the state of the science in its use of physics methods (like radar and electromagnetism) to understand groundwater. I was excited to join a group whose motivation lined up with mine: solving environmental problems affecting communities in need. My PhD research focuses on understanding the mechanisms of seawater intrusion, whereby saline ocean water infiltrates the fresher inland groundwater, polluting drinking supplies and rendering wells useless. In my research, not only do I learn about the natural processes that govern our world, but by partnering with a coastal community impacted by seawater intrusion, I can take part in ameliorating the dire groundwater situation in a California community.
As a scientist motivated by faith and service, my scientific knowledge and my faith continue to inform each other. The desire to serve encouraged me to delve into a science program in the first place, so that I could address environmental needs. My faith sets the context for my pursuit of knowledge, and for the purpose of service. Likewise, the knowledge I develop about the natural world energizes my faith. The experience and knowledge I gain in the earth sciences teaches me how to better live out my calling to address the real needs of communities. Still in the infancy of my career, I pray that I can continue to learn how to serve, and that service will continue to inject life into my learning.
We each have different gifts, according to the grace given us (Rom 12:6a). I found that I have a gift for science, and a calling for service. In faith, we can unite our gifts and our callings for a higher purpose in Kingdom work.