As a graduate of Caltech with a PhD in Chemistry, Elizabeth Krider understands science. She also understands that spiritual experiences are real. Elizabeth uses her knowledge of science and her faith in God to ask questions about how the world works, and she is now passing along that skill of scientific deductive reasoning to her children so that they, too, can understand the world around them.
What was the role of science in your childhood?
I grew up in Southern California and was really into sports as a child. I spent a lot of time outside, making things. Looking back, I can see that the theme of making things and building things translated into the love of doing science. My parents weren’t scientists, but education was really emphasized. I didn’t have any examples in my immediate family of someone who had gone into science or had gotten a PhD, but it was clear we would go to college. It was my sister, who is 10 years older than I am, who sat me down and said, “I really enjoyed science in high school but I didn’t pursue it in college. If you like science classes, you should take a closer look at them in college.” It was her encouragement that planted the seed.
I was pretty achievement-oriented in high school and college and I did well. When I was a junior in high school I encountered my first big academic bump, which was honors chemistry. My volleyball coach was my chemistry teacher and it was at that time when I really struggled to do well on tests in that class that I had to dig deep and develop myself as a test-taker and as a student. I remember studying so hard for the semester final and I was shocked to find out I was the only one who had gotten an uncurved A on the test. That was a turning point for me because, even though I’d done well in other classes, that one I’d really had to dig for. It was a turning point for my confidence academically that I could achieve whatever I set out to do. To have that triumph associated with my volleyball coach and chemistry made me feel positive about chemistry, which of course influenced my decision to study chemistry in college and graduate school. I think one reason so many people hate chemistry is because they didn’t have a good teacher, and a personal triumph like mine never happened for them in that class.
No one wants to sign up for punishment by taking a class that’s not their favorite, but from that chemistry class I learned that if you’re within striking distance of achieving something and you have the potential to turn a disappointment into a success, it’s worth the effort.
Tell me about the educational support you received as an undergraduate.
The years I was an undergraduate at BYU, 1990-1994, was a very supportive time for me. The science departments were just starting to encourage people to get undergraduate research experience. I applied for internships – one at the University of Utah after sophomore year and one at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) after my junior year – because I thought that would be a way to apply the science I was learning in the classroom to research projects.
What prompted the decision to go to grad school?
While at BYU, I saw a poster from the University of Utah’s Department of Pharmacology talking about research opportunities studying the medical foundations of mental illness. I had an aunt who was mentally ill and I made the connection between this research opportunity and her illness. I felt I could get hands-on experience in the neurochemical disease I was familiar with from my aunt. So I had a personal motivation to pursue that specific research opportunity, and it made it much more fulfilling to me. I had an outside personal connection to my studies and I coupled that with the language of chemistry and biology that I spoke in the lab.
Research is hands-on, very labor intensive, and when I felt I was able to combine personal motivation from my family life with knowledge from the classroom, I decided that’s what I was going to pursue.
I graduated from BYU, married my husband and I started a job at Caltech as a research technician and actually applied to the PhD program after I was already working there. My husband started a graduate program at UCLA, so we were both students again.
What were your intentions when you entered the PhD program at Caltech?
My goal was to get a PhD but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to teach or do research when I was done. I knew I wanted to contribute to science while I was there.
What was your path after you got your degree?
I chose to continue working at Caltech in the capacity of a lobbyist. I represented Caltech to an external audience: government officials, science funders, etc. Research money for universities comes mostly from federal tax-payer sources like the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Health. Congress decides how much money should be given to schools. Caltech is one of the top science research schools in the country, and I was part of the team representing Caltech to Congress. I was effective in my job because I had been part of the research enterprise, so I could represent it to the larger world. I didn’t do chemistry necessarily, but I could speak the language to policy makers and officials and I was a tangible example of what kind of person that enterprise produces.
One of the projects I represented was the Mars Rover from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is managed for NASA by Caltech. People and ideas are what lead to innovation, and this project was a great example of ideas and people coming together to do really incredible work. It was rewarding to help people understand the scientific discovery process and how exciting it is when you have a group of people all focused on putting a rover on Mars. All the talent and the thinking that goes into that is remarkable and then the feeling of having done something completely unprecedented…. It’s incredible.
Did you have children at this time?
Well, one reason I took this job out of school is that we wanted to have children, so I had to get out of the lab so my children would have ten fingers and ten toes! The kind of work I did in the lab during school wasn’t conducive to healthy pregnancies. As a lobbyist for Caltech, I could still apply all my experience to science policy making. I held that position for five years, from 2000 to 2005, and I had my first two children during that time.
How did you balance your motherhood and science pursuits at that time?
After my first child was born, I reduced my hours to part time, which was another benefit of my lobbying job. After my second child was born I decided to go to a consulting capacity. There were other things I enjoyed doing rather than having all of my discretionary time devoted to one job.
Now in my consulting, most of my work is serving on the board of two local non-profits. One is science-related and one is mental health-related. I’m on the board of Homes for Life Foundation, which provides housing to the chronically mentally ill who are homeless, two qualities that are highly correlated. The Foundation buys homes and refurbishes them and applicants apply for spots in the homes. They’re nice places. And so my policy and community relations work helps them as the Foundation is trying to grow. It’s about 25 years old now. I help them navigate the neighborhood community and the legislative hurdles.
The second nonprofit is a chemistry research institute. I participate in the selection process for the students who apply to work there, the direction of the research projects and general strategy. That’s been a great outlet for me in terms of maintaining my connection to science. I recently co-authored a paper with the founder and president there and that helps keep my list of publications growing.
Did you ever think your science knowledge would be used for good in these ways? Was that a deliberate goal of yours?
I think so. When I was considering what to do after graduate school, the options kind of fell into two categories: fluff jobs and then making the world a better place. Science, health care, education … those are the kinds of things I believe make the world better.
How does your science knowledge contribute to your mothering?
I have two sons and a daughter now. Having been trained in the scientific method and the scientific discovery process, I try to look at things as they really are. I try to teach my kids to ask themselves, “How do things really work?”
Breaking things down to all their different parts and showing how they work together is such an important skill to teach children, whether you have expertise in it or not. One of the most powerful things I can share with my children is the approach of uncovering the answer to a question or solving a problem. What you’re teaching them is a process, you’re teaching them an approach to discovering truth. In an academic environment, you try to unravel difficult scientific problems with only a certain amount of information to go on, and you have to ask yourself: Okay, if I design the experiment this way, what will I observe? And then, What will that observation tell me? Our kids can apply that same process to learning about the world around them.
Can you give me specific examples of things you do in your home to help foster this kind of thought process?
A couple of weeks ago, I was talking with my kids about photosynthetic bacteria and their ability to do photosynthesis and how it’s being applied to new ways to create energy. For an 8 year old and a 5 year old, we talked about how a plant’s leaf is an antenna and how it gathers light and powers the life cycle of the plant, and how certain bacteria can do the same thing. You’ve got to keep it at a basic level, but just as when you teach your children stories from the Book of Mormon and the Bible, you don’t give them all the details at once. What you’re teaching them is the process of discovering truth and the way things work. You teach them the scriptures at different levels and then add more layers to their knowledge as they get older. It’s the same with teaching children about the way the natural world works.
Recently, I involved my kids in choosing plants for our yard when we landscaped our backyard. We decided we wanted plants and bushes that would attract hummingbirds to our yard. The problem is that some of those plants also attract bees, so we needed to figure out which plants would attract hummingbirds but not bees. So I looked up the sugar content in the nectar made by the plants on our list and the shape of the plant’s flower since bees can’t reach the nectar down in the flower like a hummingbird can. It turns out that hummingbirds can survive on nectar that is about 20% sugar, which is too dilute to attract a lot of bees. (Bees generally prefer nectar that’s more concentrated, like over 35%). So we planted bright flowers that produced mildly sugary nectar and that had tube-shaped blooms. It worked, and we have lots of hummingbirds flying through our yard, and not very many bees.
Another example comes from when I was talking with my 8 year-old son about habits and how important it is to develop good ones. He gets focused on what he’s doing and tunes out the rest of the world. He told me, “I know, I know, Mom, it’s a really bad habit. I’m trying to listen, but it’s kind of like smoking. It’s a really hard habit to break.” I had to smile when he said this about the parallel to smoking since he and I had talked about why it’s hard for people to stop smoking based on neurochemistry. When a young person smokes for the first time, the receptors in that person’s body that respond to nicotine go into overdrive and within about one day, more and more receptors are produced. (Receptors are like Pacman shapes in the brain that match with nicotine and cause a cascade of chemical events in the brain). Then the body has this army of nicotine receptors all ready for the next dose of nicotine. So, yes, a young person can get hooked from the first cigarette since that single cigarette triggers this big response, and that’s why it is so difficult to quit. And talking about the science behind addiction helped our son understand from a different perspective about the importance of keeping the Word of Wisdom. It’s through examples like this that we as parents have the chance to teach the process of understanding how God works and how the world works.
It sounds like you’re comfortable with the intersection of faith and science. How do those two coexist in you?
That’s a question so many people struggle with, whether they’re in science or not. I return to the question, “Do I believe in spiritual experiences?” There are people in science who don’t believe in spiritual experiences so the Bible, Book of Mormon, or anything religious for which they don’t have a tangible evidence, is not going to resonate with them at all. But as for me, I believe in spiritual experiences. And so I believe I can get answers to questions. I get those answers through inspiration. Those spiritual experiences are the data that I obtain to support my belief.
On a broad level, there’s a lot of interaction between faith and science because the two are asking the same questions: What is the nature of things? We don’t have all knowledge revealed so it can be frustrating, when, for example, you’re teaching your kids about the Flood and you’re asking yourself how there could physically be enough water to create the effects we’re told it had? That kind of thing is tricky to explain. But I believe in the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, the most extraordinary event I can conceive of, so from a scientific standpoint, the Flood really isn’t a big deal.
I’m comfortable with not having answers to some questions because what I like to do is ask the questions.
Did you ever have a crisis of faith when you thought, This isn’t compatible with faith? Or does science confirm your faith because you see the hand of God in things?
More the latter than the former. As with anyone who’s active in their faith, faith is a constant process of asking questions and seeking for answers. Everyone’s going to have little things come up now and then that make you question your beliefs, but there’s never been one specific time that my faith has been wholly shaken. When you’re presented with information or data, we instinctively think, “How does this reconcile with what I know to be true or what has been revealed?” That’s an ongoing process. It’s the nature of faith. But in general getting closer to how things work has made me appreciate the creation and the elegance of God’s hand. As I scientist, I’m trying to pull back the layers and understand how life works, and it’s so very elegant.
With a more day-to-day perspective, I’m just trying to be a patient mom most days. So debating about pre-Adamic man might shake the foundations of some people, but I know that what I’m trying to do here and now is raise good children and raise a family.
I think service for me has really been the driver of my testimony. That’s something I was known for in grad school. My colleagues wondered how I could be active in a demanding program at school and then have a husband and have time to serve.
Is it through service that you get these spiritual experiences that help fuel your testimony?
Absolutely. Those who spend so much time in a quantitative environment start to see the world in a quantitative framework. Spiritual experiences exist in an entirely different paradigm. If I just looked through my quantitative eyes, my faith and my love of God would start to fade because I wouldn’t be renewing them, investing in them. But through serving others, God teaches us.
One example: When I was in graduate school (and still had time!), I met a woman named Margaret at the super market who was born with mental challenges and lived in a group home. She didn’t have enough money to pay for her groceries and she was getting very frustrated and I helped her out. Then I kept seeing Margaret in the community and the missionaries introduced her to the Church and she started coming to my ward coincidentally. I would take her out once a month to Carl’s Jr. or to get pizza and we’d have the same conversation every time. We talked about how she liked police officers and she thought it was the greatest thing whenever we saw them on our way to the restaurant. But over time, after I started working and we had our first child, I couldn’t keep taking Margaret out to lunch. I realized that sure, it was fun for her to go out and get pizza and talk about police officers, and I helped make her life a bit brighter. But more importantly, I realized that it wasn’t so much about what I could do for her, it was about how she was changing me. My relationship with Margaret was a test: What kind of person was I going to be? What does God want me to do, to help this person? That is the kind of test that can’t be done in a laboratory.
At A Glance
Elizabeth Stratford Krider
Location: Pasadena, CA
Marital status: married to David Krider since July, 1994
Children: Stephen (8), Julia (6), Jonathan (2)
Occupation: mother, science policy consultant occasionally
Schools Attended: Brigham Young University (BS, Biochemistry), California Institute of Technology (PhD, Chemistry)
Languages Spoken at Home: English
Favorite Hymn: “Faith In Every Footstep”
Interview by Neylan McBaine. Photos by David Krider and Mark Boalt.