Nathaniel Wentzel

Graduation Year: 2001
Major(s): Physics
Current position: Graduate student, research assistant, Lehigh University

Please describe your life journey since you graduated from Wheaton College.

I began graduate school at Georgia Tech a few months after graduating form Wheaton. After a year I left from Georgia Tech with an MS to attend my second choice of graduate school, Lehigh University. That was probably the best decision that I ever made, because my reasons for picking Georgia Tech ignored some very important points in selecting a graduate school, such as whether any of the research would interest me. God graciously left the door open at Lehigh and provided me with both interesting research and an adviser who I enjoy. Along with that, taking most of the first year graduate curriculum twice certainly did not hurt my education!

Currently, I do theoretical and computational research studying statistical physics, specifically phase transitions of proteins in solution. I also sing in a symphonic chorus and serve at my church, to relax and remain sane. My future plan is to do postdoctoral research for a few years and, hopefully, to go on to teach at a liberal arts college.

In what way has your Wheaton education in physics or engineering prepared you for your current (or past) job?

Wheaton provided me with an excellent foundation in physics, for a liberal arts college. Going into graduate school, that foundation helped me to build more advanced knowledge in physics.

More importantly, though, studying physics at Wheaton provided me with an opportunity to learn things that many science students miss in their education. I was introduced to economics and sociology, two disciplines where physics has the potential to make interesting contributions. Both formally and informally, I was trained to pay attention to science as part of the academic and industrial world. Most scientists I meet have no understanding of even basic philosophy and sociology of science, subjects that I learned at Wheaton without even taking classes in those areas. Many scientists I meet also spend a great amount of energy putting up walls between sciences and other academic disciplines, something I have no desire to do. Because of Wheaton, I have seen the richness of thought that can come when people from diverse disciplines inspire each other and work together.

Please describe the relationship of your Christian faith with your scientific training or career path.

Being a Christian in physics has not been difficult for me. Non-Christians who I meet in physics are generally respectful of my faith. As long as I listen to them they usually open their ears to hear me share with them why I believe in Christ and what God has done for me. As cliché as it sounds, science is an excellent mission field; it is often an enjoyable one.

I do struggle at times with relating science and my own Christian faith, and I know, from my Wheaton professors and from every other Christian I meet in science, that I am not alone. My Wheaton professors were excellent role models in shaping my faith as a scientist, allowing me to see that it is okay for me to ask questions and to change my mind because of the answers. Since Wheaton, I have sometimes felt lonely as a Christian in the academic world, but I have always been able go to my Wheaton classmates and professors or to other Christians in science to find encouragement.

Do you have any words for young students considering a physics or engineering major?

When I was finishing high school I was torn between planning to go into full time ministry and being a scientist. I asked my pastor what he thought, and he told me “You’ve wanted to be a scientist for years. That should mean something to you.” Those words came back to me several times when I thought I should change my major, and I am glad that I heeded them. A few years later, still unsettled about my choice, I asked a distinguished scientist and Christian how he knew that God wanted him to be a scientist. He looked at me a little funny, like it was an odd question, and said “For the same reason as anyone else, probably. I thought that I would enjoy it and I figured that I could do it. If I had been wrong, God would have set me straight.” That put me at ease about my choice. When I was at Georgia Tech, desperately trying and failing to find reasons to stay there, my sister told me “You really do have trouble just doing what God wants, don’t you?” She was right. In front of me stood a clear change that I needed to make in my plans but I was treating it like I would treat a trick question. Through all of this, I learned that choosing the right thing to do was really much easier than I often make it.

If you are interested in Physics or Engineering then chances are you will be a good fit. If you are not a good fit, or if you fit better somewhere else, then you will probably know soon enough to change course. If you are interested but unsure about what is best for you then be open to changing to something better that could come along, but never let being unsure stop you from trying.

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