We’re delighted today to share an interview with Jennifer Hawk, the 2018 Christian Scholars Foundation Grant recipient. Read on to learn more about Jennifer’s academic interests, CSF grant project, and thoughts on integrating faith and academic life. A key membership benefit of ESN, this junior faculty grant is offered to an ESN member every year by the Christian Scholars Foundation (CSF). You can also explore the Converse College article on Dr. Hawk’s CSF grant, browse an interview with 2019 recipient Derek Thompson, or learn more about the Christian Scholars Foundation Grant here. Applications for the 2020 grant are already in for review (deadline was March 15), and we encourage interested early career faculty to apply in 2021.
Bio for Jennifer Hawk
Dr. Hawk joined the Converse family in August 2016 as an Assistant Professor of Chemistry. She teaches General Chemistry, Physical Chemistry, and Instrumental Analysis. She also enjoys teaching general education classes that focus on the chemistry of food and cooking and the current issues in society that relate to those topics. Prior to joining Converse, she was an Assistant Professor of Chemistry at St. Thomas Aquinas College in Sparkill, NY. In graduate school at Duke University, she was awarded the Pelham Wilder Teaching Award on two different occasions for her outstanding teaching. Dr. Hawk grew up in Ohio and most of her family still lives there. She enjoys going back there for visits in the summer time and at the holidays.
Interview with Jennifer Hawk
1. ESN: Would you tell us a little bit about your work, and how your CSF grant project supports it?
Jennifer: In undergrad, I double majored in Physics and Chemistry. I really like thinking about areas and problems where these two disciplines intersect. When I went to graduate school, I joined a polymer lab in a chemistry department, so my PhD is in Chemistry. However, my project in grad school revolved around developing new polymeric materials (think gels like contact lenses or Jell-O). I would change the chemical make-up of the molecules that were used to make those materials. Then I would test how strong the new materials were and study how and when they would break.
Now that I’m a chemistry professor at a liberal arts college, I get to teach an upper level class called Physical Chemistry that basically covers the physics of molecules and chemical changes. This is one of my favorite classes because it combines the disciplines that I love. My current research with undergraduate students, built off ideas from the systems I studied in graduate school. Those systems would incorporate special bonds that use metals, to hold together the gel materials. Now, I intentionally use polymers to trap metal and form similar gels. Once the gels form, we can remove them from the water and in doing so—we remove the metal from the water as well. We are studying what factors influence how much and what type of metals we can remove from water.
My Christian Scholars Foundation grant project is to take that work further, in collaboration with undergraduate researchers. Heavy metal contaminants can cause many problems from hard water to physical illness in animals and humans. I am currently studying the removal of copper because it is one of the most common heavy metal contaminants. Creating new and innovative ways to remove metals from water is important in industrial and residential applications.
The CSF grant allows us to fund important equipment, supplies, and conference travel related to our project.
In addition to the scientific work, receiving funding from CSF will allow me the opportunity to write the next chapter in the story of how my faith and work are integrated. I look forward to sharing this story with students and other faculty members at Duke University and Converse College. Even just working through the application process created conversations with my colleagues. I look forward to having many more!
2. ESN: The grant committee mentioned how much they appreciated your personal story as well as your research. If you feel comfortable sharing it, would you talk about the story of your research and experience?
My faith journey has been one characterized by a steady and consistent growth. While my faith lacks extreme ups and downs, it has a vibrancy through steadiness and reliability that stretches over time. I was raised in a Christian home and my parents always made sure I was in church when the doors were open. I grew up going to Sunday School, memorizing scripture, and attending church camp. My parents tell me that when I was around 5 years old I prayed the “Sinner’s Prayer” after listening to a children’s Christian cassette tape. While this makes for a good story, I have no real memory of this event. The truth is, I don’t really remember a time when I wasn’t a Christian. I grew up in a denomination that emphasized altar calls and clear confessions of faith. As a result, when I was 9, and attending church camp, I was told “if you don’t know for SURE that you would go to heaven tomorrow if you died tonight, then come forward and accept Jesus.” In my little 9 year old mind, I didn’t KNOW FOR SURE, so I went down and again prayed the sinner’s prayer.
As a teenager, I was very involved in my church’s youth group and led several missions trips and service projects. Before each of the major missions trips we were always tasked with writing out our “testimony” and I always seemed to have trouble articulating this. How could I point to the transformative power and redemption of Christ, if my life didn’t look any different? What was I saved from exactly if my life hadn’t changed any? Is there a testimony in a life lived on purpose for Christ from the very beginning? Was my testimony “cool enough” to be used to further the kingdom of God? I wrestled with these questions off an on throughout my youth and young adult years.
It wasn’t until I was in graduate school that I was exposed to a great analogy for the way I “came to” faith and grew up in my faith. The pastor at the church I attended in graduate school used the analogy of sitting in a chair. The chair represents our faith in Christ, and sitting in the chair represents our trusting in Christ’s salvation. While some people spend some of their lives standing around the chair trying to determine if the chair is real and if the chair will hold them, others decide to trust in the Salvation of Christ and actually sit in the chair. Some people can clearly remember the day and time that they decided to sit in the chair. Other people don’t remember sitting in the chair, but they obviously know they are sitting in the chair right now and have been for a long time. While this analogy certainly has its limitations, it was life giving for me, because it allowed me a framework for interpreting my own faith journey, and it validated the fact that not everyone knows when and how they came to faith in Christ. I know that I’m resting in Christ’s Salvation.
3. Would you tell us about how God worked in your life through grad school, and your experience with InterVarsity?
My faith journey would not be complete without telling the story of InterVarsity and how God has used it to shape not only my faith, but my career as well. As a freshman in undergrad, I quickly joined the local IV chapter at Hillsdale College. Our IV staff worker, Denny Brogan, did an excellent job of plugging in freshmen with upperclassmen and integrating them into Bible studies and leadership right off the bat. Throughout my time in college, I was very involved in IV Bible studies, large group gatherings, and extra missions and cultural training retreats. I got involved in various leadership roles and helped lead an annual inner city missions trip to Detroit.
Through all of these experiences, my heart for the gospel grew. During my senior year, I was trying to determine what was next for me. I had several options available to me. I had applied to several grad schools, and could go to grad school, but I was honestly just scared about that. I didn’t want to go to grad school, because that seemed hard. One Thursday night, at an IV large group meeting, we had an IV staff worker from the Grad and Faculty Ministries branch at University of Michigan speak. This was one of those “God Moments” where I felt like I was the only person in the room and he was speaking right to me. At one point he was talking about how there was a large need for Christian faculty members to live and work on college campuses around the country and that these colleges were integral in forming the intellectual and spiritual lives of their students. If we don’t have solid Christian representatives in these environments, then we are really missing out on a ripe harvest.
While it may seem simplistic, this was the first time I had really reconciled the idea of the academy as a mission field in need of specifically called missionaries. I knew in my head, that everyone should be a missionary where they live and work, but this talk gave me a very clear calling to the campus life and the living as “salt and light” in the sometimes dark world of the academy. At that moment in the large group meeting, I still didn’t WANT to go to grad school—that would be hard. As if he heard my mental objections, the speaker said something along the lines of “There are some of you here tonight, that can go to grad school, and you think it will be hard. You need to get over that and follow God’s call in your life. Go to grad school, become a Christian faculty member, and work at a college where you can be light in a dark world.” I had my Jonah moment and literally, got up and walked out of that large group meeting. I didn’t want to hear that, and I didn’t want to go to grad school!
Obviously, from my current CV you can see that I prayed and worked through those feelings. I did end up going to grad school, and I did end up as a faculty member. Now I find ways to share my faith to both my students and my fellow staff and faculty members.
While I was in graduate school, I joined the Grad chapter of IV at Duke University and was a consistent part of that ministry for 7 years. I took on various leadership roles and organized a departmental prayer group for other Chemistry grad students. This group started with just one other student, but eventually grew to be around 10 students. Since graduating from grad school, I have kept in touch with my staff worker, Steve Hinkle, and have participated in a local Faculty retreat. I have also gone back to speak at my grad chapter meeting. While my current campus doesn’t have an IV chapter, or local GFM chapter, I have reached out and become involved in Cru on our campus.
4. ESN: This is a big question, but I know our readers will be interested in at least the short version of your answer to it. How does your faith influence your scholarship and teaching, and vice versa?
As I opened my initial summary document, “I am a Christian. I am human. I am a chemist. I am a mentor.” These 4 attributes are distinct but interconnected in my life and role as a Christian faculty member. As a Christian, I seek to live a life that is focused on the Great Commission and make disciples wherever I go. My local church, Summit Church (https://www.summitupstate.org/) encourages us to take the Gospel with us wherever our circles of influence take us. Right now, my circle of influence is Converse College and the faculty, staff, and students who work and study there. I take the charge to be “Salt and Light” seriously and seek to live a life that is consistent with my faith in my workplace.
Integrating my faith and my duties as a faculty member has not always been easy. However, this integration has been a topic I have thought about and discussed with others for many years. Being a member of the IV Graduate Christian Fellowship (GCF) at Duke University during graduate school helped me to think about these ideas. As a Chemistry graduate student, I was often working to develop new materials and sometimes the scientific process was frustrating. One day in the depths of my frustration, I realized that nothing is “new” to God; as the author of everything, he already knew the materials I was going create. It is only by his gift of a creative and scientific mind, that I can even begin to attempt creating new materials. As a faculty member, developing my own research, I try to remember this. As I develop new materials, and new uses for existing materials, I try to remember that I’m created in the image of God, and part of that image is our ability to create. When I think about this in the scope of history and all the created things, it is humbling to think about how what I’m doing with my students at Converse College contributes to the larger body of creation.
As professors, we have many roles. We are part teacher, part mentor, part counselor, part executive, part scientist, part friend. Balancing all of these roles can be difficult. As a Christian professor, I also see how my roles have spiritual significance. The academy can be a dark place spiritually where students question their faith or encounter hostility towards their faith. I think it’s important to show students that having a vibrant faith that is an important part of your life is doable in the academic world. You can study science and believe in God at the same time. You can read writers who disagree with you and not be threatened. Your faith can be challenged and come out looking different but stronger. Your faith can grow and change with you as you grow and change in your time in college.
When students come to me and have conversations, I always let them start the conversation, but when it comes up, I’m always willing to share the ways that my faith has sustained me in the hard times in my life. In regards to my research projects, I always try to remember as I’m creating new materials or new uses for materials, that this creativity comes from God and that my ability to create is a gift.
5. ESN: Is there anything else you’d like to share with emerging Christian scholars?
Working with undergrads is great! And even though most days I run around like a crazy person, I love it when I get to have great conversations with students.