Lutherans in Minnesota

Students at Lutheran colleges make significant scientific contributions

While science and religion are often seen as at odds with each other, students
at private Christian universities are given the unique opportunity to embrace
both disciplines. Providing students with the chance to receive both a
theological and scientific education is leading to impressive results at two
local Lutheran colleges.

Recently students at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and at St.
Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, received national attention for their
respective scientific findings that came out of undergraduate research
studies. A chemistry major at Augsburg engaged in a summer research
project that led to a major biodiesel breakthrough. And findings from the
three-year “Gene-Stream” project at St. Olaf gave a group of its students and
alums the chance to publish their findings in the cover story of a national
scientific publication.

According to Dr. Alan Padgett, professor of systematic theology at Luther
Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, the Lutheran religion sees both religion and
science as important disciplines.

“Science is a good discipline of the mind, but [scientists] need to know
theology. There is a need to have [both] science and theology. [But], not stuck
together as if they are the same thing. The Lutheran tradition recognizes the
differences and allows each to be itself,” Padgett says.

The Lutheran Church has a long tradition of supporting and believing in
scientific research. In fact, the Lutheran tradition had an important impact on
early scientific findings. And today students studying for this vocation at
Augsburg and St. Olaf are carrying on the Lutheran tradition with important
scientific findings of their own.

Recently, Augsburg College was the center of national media attention for
what is considered to be a major scientific breakthrough in biodiesel
research. A senior chemistry student, Brian Kohn, began an “Education for
Service” summer research project studying new processes to create biodiesel.
Kohn hoped his research would find a way to make biodiesel from waste
cooking oil in a method more efficient than the one currently used.

Kohn’s initial research findings led his professor to advise him to contact
chemist Dr. Clayton McNeff, an Augsburg alumnus and vice president of
SarTec, a metro-area company committed to providing cutting edge natural
products tailored for specific agricultural uses. McNeff, his chief scientist Dr.
Ben Yan, and Augsburg’s Professor Arlin Gyberg, took Kohn’s idea and
created a chemical reaction that has never before been described in scientific
literature.

The result was the creation of the Mcgyan Process, a new method of
manufacturing biodiesel fuel. The process, which now has eight patents
pending, is said to be a possible solution to “free the United States from its
dependence on petroleum diesel fuel.”

The Mcgyan process, named after the three scientists, can use a wider range
of renewable oils than previous processes used to create biodiesel fuel.
Notably, the process can use the oil from a substance abundantly found in
Minnesota lakes — algae. The use of algae oil has important, positive,
environmental implications. It simultaneously reduces the demand on arable
land for fuel purposes and scrubs the atmosphere of a greenhouse gas.
SarTec has conducted research into using algae oils to supply the Mcgyan
Process. The corporation is now working on the use of algae to reduce
emissions from coal-fired power plants while creating a biodiesel feedstock.
Professor Gyberg says “the project illustrates the Lutheran tradition of having
liberal arts colleges where teaching takes priority rather than research.”

“In a teaching-centered college ‘publish or perish’ is not a driving force and
one can pursue studies that might have a high probability of failure. The
experience of contributing and learning from challenging research take
priority over publishable results … Often, as in this study, even with the high
risk for not succeeding, the study works out with wonderful results,” Gyberg
says.

Students at St. Olaf College received national recognition for an
undergraduate research program. Their program, dubbed the “Gene-Stream,”
is a three-year research project supported by a $540,000 grant.

The “Gene-Stream” research began as an experiment in bridging laboratory
research and classroom activities across diverse scientific disciplines, such as
chemistry, biology and the emerging science of biotechnology. The work is
carried across various courses and pursued even deeper during the funded
summer research program. Through their research, students gain insight into
how multiple disciplines approach the problem of determining a gene’s
function within a living cell.

The results of this research were recently featured on the cover of the
scientific publication the Journal of Eukaryotic Microbiology. Students Mathew
Majerus (’08), Megan Rooney (’08), and Mary Welch (’08) were co-authors of
the article titled Cloning Fenestrin from the Tetrahymena Nuclear Exchange
Junction, a Proteomics Approach. Other authors included Ross Fulton (’05),
Johanna Savage (’05), Paul C. Anderson (’07), and Amy Wentland (’07), as well
as the principal investigators Douglas Beussman (’92), professor of chemistry,
and Eric Cole, professor of biology.

“Being an undergraduate co-author of a cover story is rather extraordinary,”
says Cole. “It’s also a nice demonstration of what we hoped our students
would achieve through participation in the ‘Gene Stream’.”

Says Cole, “I personally hope that along the way, our students become
fascinated with nature, its sheer beauty and its unbelievable complexity, and
that they come away with confidence in their own abilities to participate in
the process of exploration and discovery. I think that what is remarkable
about our undergraduate research program the “Gene-Stream” isn’t just the
science … but the experience we are designing for our students.”

Dr. Philip Hefner, professor of systematic theology, senior fellow, Zygon
Center for Religion and Science, Chicago, explains the roles of religion and
science in the world.

“Religion explains the origins of the world, its meaning, how God relates to it,
and our place in it. While theology shares much with other human disciplines,
it is distinctively focused on the relationship these disciplines have with God.
“The role of science is to observe the world, learn its components and how
they work.” Therefore, Hefner explains, “ the Gospel and theology in their
effort to relate to the world of God will inescapably have to relate the
scientifically-described world to God.”

Of course, most religious views emerged in pre-scientific times. Hefner says
“science has radically changed our views of the world [meaning] we have to
re-cast a great deal of our theology and faith-understanding. … Sometimes
[this is seen as] an apostasy. In fact, religion, including Christianity, has been
a continuous process of understanding new ways, reinterpreting tradition and
re-casting our technology.”

Religion and science become at odds with each other when they interfere with
each other’s tasks. “Theology can not do chemistry or physics or biology, but
when it does express a ‘preference’ for a certain scientific theory, it will
conflict with science. Similarly, when science attempts to speak about
‘ultimate’ things, such as whether God exists, it will conflict with religion,”
says Hefner.

Religion plays an important role in providing boundaries when moral
decisions are needed. According to Hefner, “science leads technologies and
actions that are ambiguous [and] moral decisions are needed. Religion offers
much moral wisdom. Some of it is relevant and useful, but [some] is tied to a
bygone era and therefore not useful. Conflict and/or cooperation can arise
here, as well.”

In the Lutheran churches, there has been less conflict between the disciplines
than in other denominations/religions. Padgett says that reasons behind the
harmony between science and religion in the Lutheran church include belief
in “freedom of mind” and that Lutherans are generally willing to “live in the
tension between faith and reason.”

“Many religions see science as in conflict with religion. Lutherans see both as
a calling,” he says.

One of the most notable examples of the impact of the Lutheran church on
science is Johannes Kepler, a student of Galileo. As a Lutheran, Kepler was
able to conduct research outside the control of the Roman Catholic Church.

This freedom allowed Kepler to make great contributions to the studies of
astronomy, astrology and mathematics. Kepler is also noted for incorporating
religious arguments and reasoning into his work.

“Kepler is one of the greatest contributors to science. The early Lutheran
tradition provided context for science to be done outside the control of the
church,” Padgett says.

“[To Lutherans] science is a legitimate spiritual calling because it is a
vocation. [In the early church], this freed up scientists to use reason the best
they can.”

Padgett explains that the Lutheran contribution to science was early on and
now Lutherans have allowed science to go its own way.

“In today’s society, science has become purely secular. The theological depth
[of science] has been lost,” he says.

But what has not been lost is that Lutheran undergraduate institutions
embrace both the study of theology and the study of science.

Says Padgett, “My hope is that [these students] will be excellent scientists
who are also believers. God has called them to be excellent scientists. I would
hope they are also called to not lose the theological background they gained
[at their undergraduate institutions].”