On Thursday morning last week, a small group of students met in the Library Athenaeum to hear a presentation by Cindy Blaha, Professor of Astronomy at Carleton, give a talk entitled “Life, the Universe… and something else?” The talk, hosted by EthIC (Ethical Inquiry at Carleton), was part of a series of lectures by faculty entitled “What Matters to Me and Why.”
Carolyn Fure-Slocum, Carleton’s chaplain, co-sponsored the event and explained why she was interested in such a seemingly broad topic. To her, the fact that each of the talks in the series so far had been different was the most interesting part. “It’s fascinating to hear how people get from point A to point B in their lives, and more importantly, why,” she told the audience before yielding the floor to Dr. Blaha.
Blaha presented the audience with a list of the basic things that she cared about in life. The first was love for her family and community. “It really matters to me that they know how much I love them,” she said. Her second priority was to live a life of faith and make the world a better place. “Here at Carleton,” she told the audience, “I feel like I can’t really talk about faith.” She promised to elaborate on that point later, and went on to discuss how she applied her Catholic faith to her life. “I think of it as ‘looking for Heaven on Earth’,” she said. “I try to see the face of God in everyone I meet.”
As a child, Blaha went to a Catholic school and felt that she benefited greatly from the experience. “Nuns get an undeserved bad rap,” she told us. “The nuns at grade school instilled in us to treat people with respect,” among other lessons. At the end of the presentation, she asked the audience how faith can coexist with science in the classroom – especially in astrophysics, a subject which revolves around how the universe was created. “How can I make people of all faiths feel at home with the wonders of the universe? Can religion and science coexist,” she asked us. As of yet, she isn’t quite sure.
The third important force in Blaha’s life is her profession and her students. “My family really liked to learn,” she told the audience. “When a question came up, we would drag out this big, heavy encyclopedia,” and search for the answer. Blaha instills her students with the same enthusiasm for learning today. “My students will find a question that I’ve never looked at before,” she said. Teaching has a ripple effect, according to her. “My students teach other students who in turn come back and teach other students.” Her work doesn’t stop at the edge of Carleton’s campus; she and her students participate in several programs that teach astronomy and space science to students in Northfield and beyond.
Blaha admitted that it isn’t always easy to balance work and her personal life, given her passion for both. After she met and married her husband in graduate school, several professors saw her growing family life as “insufficient dedication,” but Blaha didn’t let it faze her. “This is what I need to be happy,” she said. Today, she said, the best way to balance family life and work is to mix the two as much as possible. Both of her children have attended Carleton, one of whom is graduating this year, and Blaha has tried to impart them with a love of both learning and faith.
She also struggled, during her early years in academia, with the fact that she was frequently the only woman in her classes. Drawing upon these experiences, she is now a member of several groups dedicated to furthering women’s involvement in the sciences. She talked about her time on the National Science Foundation Horizontal Mentoring Alliance, a group of senior female professors from liberal arts colleges, and mentioned the Clare Booth Luce scholarship, which is awarded each year to a Carleton student pursuing a research project in physics, astronomy, or computer science.
The discussion ended with a series of questions which, in a reversal of the usual custom, Blaha addressed to the audience. She asked how we could better reconcile faith and science in the classroom, and how to teach science without insulting people of different faiths. She ended with a simple closing remark: “Life is short. Enjoy it.”