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Persistence and Pondering

February 16, 2021 15 min read
By Sr. Nicole Kunze, OSB Prioress, Annunciation Monastery
Msgr. James P. Shea President, University of Mary
Chemistry Laboratory

Sister Nicole Kunze, OSB, PhD, Prioress of Annunciation Monastery and former Chemistry Department Chair at the University of Mary, spoke with Monsignor James P. Shea, President of the University of Mary, on a video call on January 22, 2021, to discuss her experience as a chemist, teacher, Benedictine, and prioress.

Monsignor James P. Shea (MShea): Sister, let’s take it back to the beginning: what first got you interested in studying chemistry?

Sister Nicole Kunze (SNicole): I have to give credit to my high school science teachers in Valley City, North Dakota. I was blessed with some great men who were my science teachers beginning in seventh grade and who sparked an interest in science in me. I do remember not particularly caring for high school chemistry – at the time, I didn’t care to do hands-on lab work. But from early on I knew I wanted to be a high school teacher. Science Olympiad started up when I was in high school, and I really enjoyed that. We were able to go to several national tournaments, and it gave me the opportunity to stretch myself and study scientific topics more in-depth.

Once I got to the University of Mary for my undergraduate studies, my interest and love of chemistry comes down to one person: Dr. Marla Behm. She was my organic chemistry professor during my sophomore year. When you talk to students about their experience of organic chemistry at any other college or university, they’ll tell you it’s the course that weeds students out of programs – “only the strong survive.” But that wasn’t the way Marla approached the topic. She challenged students, and there was nothing easy about her course, but she did her best to bring everybody along. She actually sparked an interest in chemistry in me so much that I considered transferring out of the University of Mary! We didn’t have a chemistry major then. But Marla convinced me that chemistry could be studied more in-depth in graduate school and that the University of Mary would prepare me well for that. As always, she was correct.

MShea: She was an astonishing person in the history of the University of Mary. Students from other universities would come to study organic chemistry in the summers in the sweltering labs of the Harold J. Miller Center just to have Marla as their professor!

SNicole: And they even had her write their letters of recommendation for medical school! They got to know her better in those summer weeks than they ever came to know their professors back at their larger institutions.

MShea: What a tribute! You were a professor like that for us, too, Sister, in Marla’s mold and in her footsteps. So let’s talk about whether her assurances to you about graduate school were really true. You went on to study chemistry in graduate school, pursuing a PhD at the University of Northern Colorado. Could you say a bit about that, as well as your special interests within the field of chemistry, both as an inquirer and as a teacher?

SNicole: When I was looking to go to graduate school, I knew my overall career goal was to come back and teach at the University of Mary, so I did not want what they call a “benchtop chemistry degree.” I knew I was not going to be doing in-depth chemistry research in my career, but instead would be teaching, so I looked for a program that specialized in chemistry education. At the time, Northern Colorado and Purdue were the only two places that offered a PhD in Chemistry Education, and Northern Colorado was the smaller of the two, so I chose to go there.

Since my studies were in chemistry education and my research interests were more in the field of education than in chemistry per se, my dissertation focused on how students understand the sub-microscopic level. When atoms and ions and molecules combine, we can’t see it – it’s too small. But how do students visualize that? So I did a qualitative study looking at how students understand acid and base reactions. When I moved into my teaching career, I didn’t necessarily research that further, but I certainly tried to take what I had learned in my dissertation and apply it in the classroom. As technology advances and more visualizations are created, there is always a question of how to help the 18-year-old who is just going from concrete thinking to abstract thinking visualize things they will never truly see.

For my master’s degree in chemistry, I worked with biosensors in trying to create an organic compound. It didn’t work as I had hoped, but that’s how the scientific process goes! I have always enjoyed organic chemistry because of the complexity of molecules that come from carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. Those are the primary elements in organic compounds, and you can arrange them in an astonishing range of ways to get so many different compounds.

To study the natural sciences well, you have to be curious, always having questions you want to look at and ponder, and you need to be observant and detailed. You also have to be persistent. It can be easy to give up, especially when you’re not getting the results you want.

MShea: Within the classical vision of a university – and certainly in the world of Catholic universities – we’re always looking to train the mind in a holistic way. I think of Sister Anne Burns, our second president at Mary, who said that we would set out to be a place for preparation in the professions with a strong liberal arts base. There’s a particular mindset – or maybe, better, a discipline of the mind – necessary to study science. The study of science actually fosters it, as well. Could you speak to the intellectual training that the study of science fosters? How would you speak about the attitudes or skills a person needs to study the natural sciences successfully?

SNicole: What comes to mind right away is the scientific method: you come up with a question, and that question leads to a hypothesis, and then through reading and researching, and then pondering and synthesizing all that you’ve found, you arrive at an answer. After that, you look back at your question to see whether you’ve proven your hypothesis or now have to modify your hypothesis. And that creates something like a continuous loop of research, modifying what you’re thinking and coming up with new questions. All of that develops problem-solving and critical-thinking skills in the search for truth.

To study the natural sciences well, you have to be curious, always having questions you want to look at and ponder, and you need to be observant and detailed. You also have to be persistent. It can be easy to give up, especially when you’re not getting the results you want. I don’t know how many Saturdays in a row I spent 8 to 12 hours in the lab for my master’s research, often leaving with nothing to show for it.

As a researcher, you almost have to learn how to deal with failure. You have to accept that things aren’t going to work out when you get a percent yield of less than one percent, and you can kind of get to the end of your rope wondering what comes next. I always struggled with that, and that’s why I knew a career as a researcher wasn’t meant to be! But I’m certainly willing to help others who enjoy that sort of research to build a foundation in the sciences so they can move on from there.

MShea: Your response triggered in me a sense of the integration of things: both the scientific method (requiring one to return to a question again and again) and the occurrence of failure in the world of research can give a person a sense of intellectual humility. Sometimes honing critical thinking can have the opposite effect, leading a person to a sort of detached stance that lends itself to arrogance. So the way you described things – first in terms of the scientific method, and then about the occurrence of failure – was itself an integrated response in that it shows how the character of a scientist can be formed in both humility and strength of mind. What a wonderful, integrated response.

What are some of the hopes you’ve had for your students as a science teacher? Having looked out at a classroom of 18- and 19-year-olds, starting out in earnest, how would you characterize the goals of a teacher in the area of the natural sciences?

SNicole: In terms of what I want students to learn from the topic of science itself, it would be for them to gain an appreciation for the wonder of creation and the complexity of life. For most of my teaching career at the University of Mary, I was teaching more of what you would call a “survey course,” or a course for non-majors. My course was a stepping-stone to their health sciences major. So my goal was to help them to understand how complex all the chemical reactions in our body are and to ponder that from time to time. When we expanded and gained a chemistry major, it broadened my own thinking. Teaching a given course to majors is quite different from teaching that course to non-majors.

In terms of what I want students to learn from the topic of science itself, it would be for them to gain an appreciation for the wonder of creation and the complexity of life.

Since I spent so much of my career teaching students who were in preparation for our many health sciences majors, one of my hopes has always been simply to help my students to achieve their goals. Some of them come to us as 18-year-olds thinking medical school is their goal, but one semester of biology or chemistry makes them think otherwise. But that’s what we want a university to be: a place where students broaden their minds and find where their true interests and gifts are, even if it’s not in the program they first started. To see students walk across the stage at commencement, or to see them get that letter of acceptance into medical school, or learning that they’ve passed their nursing boards, is always so rewarding. Since I taught mostly freshmen, I often wouldn’t see my students until they walked across the stage at graduation years later – but it was always a source of pride to have been a small part of that journey.

MShea: In addition to being a chemist and a teacher, you’re also a Benedictine sister. How has your faith impacted your study and your teaching?

SNicole: In the Rule, St. Benedict writes about the value of respect for persons and letting all be received as Christ. So in any classroom, that means meeting students where they’re at and helping them get where they’re going. I also think of the value of stewardship that is so present in the Rule: treating everything as a vessel of the altar. Through my years teaching in high school and at the University, I’ve learned not to waste resources and to operate in a lean and prudent manner. Each academic department is part of a larger whole, part of the University, and we all have to work together on budget and capital requests and such so that the common good can be achieved. A lot of give and take – and a lot of genuine charity of mind and heart – goes into that effort!

But the question of faith and reason – my faith and my studies and teaching in chemistry – isn’t something I think about a whole lot. To me there isn’t any conflict between faith and science. They go hand-in-hand. It’s sort of like me trying to answer whether I’m a PhD in Chemistry first or a Sister first: I’m both at the same time. There isn’t a conflict.

MShea: That brings us back to the question of integration. It seems so natural to many people, I think, to have a professed religious or priest teaching theology or even philosophy. But to see such a person teaching in the hard sciences is a tremendous witness to the world about the range of truth and the harmony between faith and reason. It’s an impoverishment in a certain sense not to have that witness. To have a Sister teaching chemistry and facilitating lab research was a great witness to the world about what it looks like to search for truth and to search for God.

Science can be intimidating. Would you have any recommendations for someone who claims they’re not a “science person” – is there something they could read, or a way of thinking about the hard sciences, that could get them over that hump?

SNicole: The realization that science is a part of everything helps in that regard. People say things like, “We shouldn’t put chemicals into our bodies.” Well, you’re putting chemicals in your body all the time! When you’re drinking water, that’s a substance composed of chemical elements: H2O! Science is a part of everything. So thinking about how science is part of every aspect of daily life is helpful. I think of all the cooking you do, Monsignor – that’s science! There are even classes on the science of cooking. So if you like to cook or bake, you’re swimming in science. I think about chemistry when I’m cleaning here at the Monastery. Cleaning is all about chemical reactions. Solubility rules help to figure out how to get rid of a stain – they explain why it’s better to use acetone or alcohol on one stain but soap on another. Gardening has a lot of science involved in it. Exercise has a lot of science behind it. So I think finding an outside interest and looking into the science behind it can be a great help.

As a high school chemistry teacher, the first comment I got from parents at parent-teacher conferences were often, “I didn’t like science.” I’m sure in your life of teaching you’ve heard people say the same about philosophy or theology, too. But the response is the same, I think: we should be able to find some aspect of it that we can relate to our lives and the larger search for truth. Someone may never be a chemistry or philosophy PhD anytime soon, but they can still expand on what they know at different stages of life.

[T]he question of faith and reason – my faith and my studies and teaching in chemistry – isn’t something I think about a whole lot. To me there isn’t any conflict between faith and science. They go hand-in-hand.

MShea: When you think back, what have been your most memorable experiences or accomplishments as a teacher, as a mentor to students?

SNicole: I’m grateful to have started my career as a high school teacher at St. Mary’s Central High School here in Bismarck. I learned so much from the teachers there. It was certainly a gift. But the brilliance of some of the students has always been memorable. One year I was able to take a group of students to the state Science Bowl, and they took second place. Those young men and women were brilliant. Some of them are now working at places like Microsoft, Google, and GE. Those memories are neat.

One of my favorite memories from teaching at the University of Mary was when we took our students from the Math and Science Club to a fourth-grade classroom at one of the local Catholic schools each year. We would do hands-on experiments with those students, and it was so rewarding to see how the university students learned just how to explain the science behind the projects to fourth graders. But I have this picture of one of the fourth graders that I often showed to my college students. He had this look of astonished wonder on his face as we were doing an experiment – I don’t even remember which experiment it was. And I declared to my students, “If you gave me a look like that once each semester, I would be happy.”

Another great accomplishment was seeing that first class of chemistry majors graduate from the University of Mary. You were already our president then, Monsignor, and you had given us the push and the initiative to start the major in chemistry. One of those first students is a process engineer in New York; another works for the state of North Dakota; another of them works as a lab instructor here at Mary. So to see them walk across that stage, and now to see what they’ve done with that degree was and is such a gift.

MShea: The work to get that program up and running was tremendous, and so many people are grateful for it. If a new student were to ask you what you thought was the most important thing to keep in mind as they began their course of study, what might you recommend to them?

SNicole: Don’t be afraid to ask for help! As a faculty member, it’s discouraging to have office hours if nobody comes. The hope in holding office hours is to make yourself approachable and to have students come by, either for help or just for the conversations. But even if you’re not seeking help from your professor, then get help from your peers. There is a lot to be said about peer-to-peer assistance.

And don’t be afraid to work hard. Any question worth considering will bring an intellectual struggle. What are you really learning if there isn’t a struggle? I think of my own time studying organic chemistry with Dr. Marla Behm. I just could not master drawing the Haworth structure of a carbohydrate, so I spent my spring break re-doing the worksheet she had assigned over and over until it made sense to me. Be willing to put in the hard work and engage fully in the struggle.

MShea: That’s a very Benedictine answer, too, because asking for help requires one to be humble! Sister, I’m grateful for this conversation. You and I don’t get to have conversations about the real fundamentals of education often, but this is where the rubber hits the road for our faculty and students. Could you offer some thoughts to round out our time together?

SNicole: I appreciate the conversation, too. This conversation has prompted me to reflect a bit. I’m now five years out of the classroom, and the earliest I could be back in the classroom is five years from now. So, of course, it has me wondering how the classroom will have changed in those 10 years away. But, for now, there are a few other things I need to worry about more than where the world of chemistry education will be then!

MShea: We’re grateful for you, Sister Nicole, and we’re grateful for all that the Sisters do for the University of Mary. We’re grateful for the prayers, obviously, but also for the legacy of Sister-educators who have helped students and graduates of the University of Mary live meaningful lives of servant leadership filled with faith and a sense of wonder. You are certainly among those great teachers – one of very many – and for that we are ever grateful. Thank you, Sister.

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