Seeking God in the stars

11.15.18

By Abigail Aycock, Guest Writer

“When it came time to pick a major, I thought that astrophysics made sense,” Wheaton Collegephysics visiting instructor Rhiannon Blaauw told the Record.

Originally from Grimsby, Ontario, Blaauw was fascinated with the natural world from an early age. Even so, she says never would have guessed that her childhood curiosity wouldeventually lead her to a position at NASA, nor that she would one day have anasteroid named after her.

Recalling her childhood, she said, “My family went camping all the time. We would go camping for almost the entire month of July, which involved us going to pretty remote places around Canada and even the U.S. I just ended up falling in love with the night sky. Even in grade school, I absorbed anything related to astronomy. Physics was my favorite science in high school, and I figured the Lord would lead.”

Graduating from Canada’sUniversity of Western Ontario with a bachelor’s degree in astrophysics in 2008, she went on to receive a master’s degree in astronomy from the University of Western Ontario’ in 2010.

Currently, she is working on a master’s degree from Biola University. Her two master’s degrees reflect her Christian background and interest in merging vocation and faith.

Blaauw learned from an early age that being a Christian in a secular environment requires whole-hearted engagement with non-believers and believers over the shared wonders of God’s world. She cited her attendance at a secular university and her work at NASA as allowing her to integrate her scientific interests with evangelistic endeavors. In fact, interacting with other students and professors who ascribe to a completely different worldview in the context of academic science has helped her to be more passionate about her area of study.

She told the Record that “interacting with non-believers in that way made me ask myself a lot of questions, so that spurred my interest in science.” Her passion for science, in addition to connections through her research and master’s thesis, led her to begin work in 2010 with NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office (MEO) at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. There, Blaauw had the opportunity to work professionally in the area of interest she’d loved since childhood.

She told the Record that she worked with a group of around eight individuals, with her speciality being“anything in space that can affect spacecraft and … meteoroids.” As part of her area of expertise, she built environmental models that allowed space craft designers and operators to create a resilient spacecraft or protect sensitive equipment.

When asked what her day-to-day responsibilities were in the MEO, Blaauw said that her work involved “taking data through various types of equipment — through cameras, radars and infrasound — and then looking at that data and allowing it to help us build a model of the environment.”

Blaauw found her work with NASA different from her previous projects. “In grad school,” she said wryly, “you tend to have projects that take months or years. Whereas when I got to NASA, my projects had [quicker] turnaround so lots of them were either weeks or months long.”

Blaauw rose to the challenge of the fast-paced NASA deadlines, and due to her development of a new methodology used to calculate optical meteor fluxes from obstacle systems, she was nominated for the Marshall Innovation Award in 2017.

According to NASA’s website, the Marshall Innovation Award is designed to “promote and honor innovation and creativity in the MSFC workforce [and] provide recognition to employees who have best exemplified creative and innovative work accomplishments and behaviors during the year.”

As a result of her nomination, Blaauw had an asteriod named after her. The asteroid, name dis 10279 Rhiannonblaauw is “orbiting peacefully between Mars and Jupiter,” according to Blaauw, who humbly told the Record that this momentous honor was just “one of the highlights of my career [at NASA].”

How did Blaauwpersevere in a new, stressful environment with such success? She creditssupportfromauthorities in her lifeas aforce that propelledherforward. “A significant part [of my success]  was that my boss really believed in me and my abilities, so that allowed me to flourish and accomplish projects that, on the outset, seemed very intimidating,” Blaauwsaid. Even when there were times she was intimidated, Blaaw persevered. Her problem-solving philosophy is to break down a problem to the simplest elements, to rely on previous knowledge and to refuse to be afraid to ask for help.

These three keys helped her grow and succeed in NASA’s fast-paced environment. After working with NASA for seven years, Blaauw found her way to Wheaton as a visiting physics instructor. Blaauw told the Record, “I thought that [it] would be a really neat experience, to give teaching a try.” She was ready for a change of pace, whichWheaton’s emphasis on Christian learning supplies. While still maintaining a contract allowing her to do some work with NASA, her primary focus at Wheaton lies in enabling her students to worship through the study of the natural world and preparing them to observe nature through a God-focused lens.

Blaauw raved about her Wheaton experience, specifically in reference to her new opportunities to think through vocational intersection.

“I love thinking through the intersection between science and religion and teaching about the different questions about life,” she told the Record. “In this context, it’s not only allowed, it’s encouraged. To be able to bring up these conversations of faith and reason and the philosophical side of science in the classroom has been a lot of fun for me.”

Blaauw said that her passion for faith and learning is encouraged by her students. “People really genuinely want to expand the kingdom of God with their lives and with wherever they go after Wheaton. And that’s really really fun for me to be around, it’s really inspiring.”

Blaauw described how Wheaton students’ passion for the kingdom of God has influenced her educational philosophy. She shared with the Record her desire to not onlyeducate the mind intellectually but to foster discernment about worldviews throughviewing the sciences with a lens of faith.

Blaauw emphasizes the importance of engaging intentionally with the scientific community. “My integration of science and faith has a lot of evangelism roots, trying to understand worldviews, trying to understand why people believe what they do and trying to understand a more naturalistic worldview,” Blaauw said. This naturalistic worldview is prevalent in scientific fields, and Blaauw has come to realize that her previous experiences in secular environments have allowed her to articulate her own worldview: “[Christianity makes] the most sense of all the worldviews.”

When asked about her primary passions and how she uses them for the Wheaton community, she said it is her calling to equip scientists to succeed not only academically, but spiritually. Blaauw pinpointed her specific mission as helping “those that have a scientific mindset to see the validity of Christianity and the richness of the truth there.” She told the Record that the practice of questioning encouraged by science lends itself well to engaging with non-believers who are curious about the Christian faith. She said she “finds people are generally pretty open to talking about [Christianity]. You can sense pretty quickly if they don’t want to go there with you, but there are a lot of people who still have big questions about life.”

Her advice for Wheaton students, who deeply care about integrating evangelism within their area of passion, is to lay a strong spiritual foundation for themselves before attempting to converse with others. “Prepare yourself to interact with other worldviews, to really think critically about the worldview that you will interact with [the]  most post-Wheaton and to really think through why Christianity is abetter worldview than that [worldview.]”

“If you think through it yourself first, it makes it a lot easier to engage with people about those topics.”Blaauw’s unique approach to evangelism, science and learning brings a fresh appeal, as she teaches others about the creation and Creator of the night sky that she loves so dearly.

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