Chemistry and Culture Making

Rebekka Gondosch | Reporter 

An Interview with Dr. Edward Berkelaar 

Interviewing the Chair of the Departments of Chemistry, Environmental Studies, and Geography might have seemed an intimidating task for a student with a background almost exclusively in the Arts. However, upon meeting Dr. Edward Berkelaar, professor of Chemistry and Environmental Studies at Redeemer, I was immediately at ease amidst his joyful energy and the parade of plants and books ornamenting his office. When asked what inspired him to pursue an academic route Berkelaar shared, “I was always science-y and I always loved plants.”

He explained that his academic journey was more a result of chance than precise planning. Encouraged by Faculty, Berkelaar completed a B.Sc. in Biology and Chemistry in Nova Scotia —where he grew up — and soon discovered a passion for research. “In the summer between my third and fourth year, I had […] the chance to work on a research project which was on the interface between biology and chemistry, and I just delighted in it. Unknown problems, new ideas, working independently. It was right up my alley.”

This enjoyment followed Berkelaar as he pursued an M.Sc in Plant Physiology and a PhD in Ecotoxicology, where he was able to further blend his background in both chemistry and biology. Berkelaar seemed destined for a life of academia; after a three year working experience for a non-profit organization with his wife in Florida, he admits “[he] missed being in University, in that environment of academia.” This led him to teach at Redeemer University in 2003.

Our conversation continued to a question regarding the relationship between Science and Religion. In response to what drew him to teach the sciences in a religious context and what his discoveries have been as result, Berkelaar responded, “For me, always, studying the sciences has probably been one of the ways that I feel communicated to by God; in the sense that He speaks through His creation, and science is an investigation of the creation, and you just get insights and windows of beauty and complexity that inspire.” He continued to comment that teaching in this manner felt, “more consistent and holistic” to him. 

Berkelaar’s latest project, in collaboration with Dr. Brouwer, focuses on “Monitoring the water quality of the Spencer Creek and Chedoke Creek watersheds.” Berkelaar’s explanation of the project inspired me to look critically at what is happening in our local landscape. He described the creeks that are now buried beneath the city, including one “buried underneath the entire Hamilton mountain until it gets to the escarpment,” eventually manifesting as the Chedoke waterfall. The water samples they gathered this past summer were a means of “measuring bacterial contamination”, which are “indicators of aquatic health.” Berkelaar and Brouwer plan on presenting their findings to the Hamilton Conservation Authority in February and to the public in the future.

When asked how he might consider inspiring those resistant to studies in chemistry, environmental studies, and geography to investigate these areas of study, Berkelaar admitted that, “there is a math and science phobia which is unfortunate.” But rather than teaching concepts and math formulaically or traditionally, he strives for a different approach.

“One thing we’ve been working on hard here is to show to students how chemistry itself is […] actually a form of culture making,” Berkelaar stated. He referenced the work of Andy Crouch (who recently visited Redeemer) and elaborated on chemistry’s role in producing many of the modern means we encounter daily, including those which impact the environment.

“Science and technology has led to human flourishing to some extent but it has also led to some really significant health issues and environmental issues that need addressing as well,” and questioned, “how do you balance […] the properties of science and technology in service of others?” Berkelaar’s considerations continually return to a care for student learning and inquiry. “When you weave those stories through even basic chemistry, it’s a bit eye-opening for students to realize that this matters beyond the math.”

Beyond matters of math, Berkelaar shared that he finds peace while weeding in a garden during the summer months. “I can be at peace with extremely routine tasks,” he explained. As for a question regarding how he might spend an ideal day off of school, he admitted, “I would spend probably three or four very early hours doing work.” After that, he delightedly expressed “I’d be with family,” and imagined spending the day with his four kids skating, playing in the snow, and making good use of their backyard ice rink.

 

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