Scholarship, Strings, and Stars

April 21, 2011 — Luke Leisman fell in love with astronomy while playing pond hockey under starry skies.

“One thing that keeps alive your sense of awe is astronomy,” says Leisman, a senior at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich.

When it came time for the Ada, Mich., native to choose a college, the night sky was on his mind.

Leisman wanted to study astronomy, and he thought the facilities at Calvin were comparable to those at a public university. And he’d have an opportunity to do research side-by-side with professors, which he wouldn’t be able to do as an undergraduate at a big state school.

So Leisman began his journey at Calvin.

Getting Adjusted

Leisman grew up knowing about Calvin (both his parents are alumni), knowing about Christian education (he went to Grand Rapids Christian High School), and knowing about West Michigan (he had lived there his whole life). Yet his first semester at Calvin proved a big transition.

“There was a lot of adjusting, being out on my own,” says Leisman.

One of the adjustments was the college workload: his first history assignment, which he anticipated taking him about 30 minutes, took nearly three hours.

Another adjustment was trying to develop friendships and routines—things that didn’t happen overnight. “You have lots of acquaintances, not a lot of friends,” Leisman notes.

So he put himself in position to meet a lot of people his first year. He didn’t test the waters; he jumped right in.

He introduced himself to the physics and astronomy faculty.

“I knew I had interest, so I put a foot in the door,” Leisman explains.

That small opening evolved into a great opportunity. In his first year, Leisman started working as a lab assistant in Deborah Haarsma’s astronomy class.

Shortly thereafter, Haarsma asked him if he wanted to begin doing research alongside her. It would be without pay and without credit, just for fun. Leisman agreed.

“We tell all incoming students, ‘We have these projects. Do you want to get involved?’” says Haarsma. “Luke’s a student who really took advantage of that opportunity.”

That summer, Leisman began researching brightest cluster galaxies, funded by a summer research fellowship. “I like to do a lot and here’s a place that I can,” he says.

Adding Focal Points

But Leisman wasn’t satisfied with just learning as much as he could about the night sky. Astronomy wasn’t his only passion. And it wasn’t his only focus at Calvin.

Leisman also loves to write. He wrote for his high school student newspaper and came to Calvin hoping to be a physics and English double major.

“I like being well-rounded, and a liberal arts education appealed to me,” he explains. “I knew I had an opportunity to read Milton and study some physics.”

So Leisman began taking English classes and writing for the sports section of Calvin’s student newspaper, Chimes. He soon realized that a double major would be tough to complete in four years, but that didn’t stop him from taking courses he thought he’d enjoy, like Gary Schmidt’s creative writing class and David Urban’s class on Milton.

And his English professors recognized not only his passion, but also his talent for writing. “Professor Schmidt is still convinced that I should be a novelist instead of a physicist,” says Leisman.

He wouldn’t surrender his passion for playing music, either. Leisman had been playing the violin nearly his entire life, and Calvin gave him an outlet for that as well.

“It’s a nice break from physics,” he says. “It gives me a chance to express myself a little bit.”

He joined the college orchestra, which presented its own opportunities and long-standing friendships. “It ended up being one of my closest-knit communities.”

Asking Tough Questions

Leisman’s second year at Calvin looked similar to his first year. The workload didn’t get any easier, but striking a balance among all his interests became more manageable.

Still, in some respects, it was his most challenging year at Calvin because of some difficult questions.

“There are always new ideas you come across and you have to deal with,” notes Leisman. “This is a community that wants to think about those things.”

He spent many nights lying awake in bed with tough questions going through his mind, things like, “If God made night and day before he made the sun, how do you deal with that?” and “How do you deal with good and evil?”

Leisman says that it was during this time, especially, that he was making his faith his own. And he leaned on fellow students and professors to help him navigate the difficult questions.

“One of the places I’ve spent the most time is in professors’ offices,” says Leisman.

He talked with some of his physics professors about everything “from girls to grad school to physics.

“There are really some amazing people here.”

While he was wrestling with important questions, Leisman continued working toward his physics major. He spent the month of January during his sophomore year on an interim, “Astronomy in the Southwest.”

During that three-week course, he was able to visit and take data at some of the major telescopes in New Mexico and Arizona, including at the U.S. Naval Observatory, Kitt Peak, and the White Sands Missile Range, where the first atomic bomb was detonated.

Later that spring, Leisman found out he had earned a Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship­, a prestigious national scholarship awarded to students who intend to pursue careers in mathematics, the natural sciences, or engineering and who demonstrate the potential to make significant contributions to their chosen field.

Entering New Territory

The transition from sophomore to junior year felt much like the transition from high school to college, Leisman says. For everything that he expected, there was an equal amount he didn’t anticipate. “I was taking 300-level courses and now living off-campus, so doing my own dishes, paying my own bills . . . a whole new set of responsibilities.”

To add to the adjustment, Leisman would spend three weeks in January with the college orchestra traveling in China. They saw the famous sites—the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the Olympic Stadium, Tiananmen Square—and played lots of venues: concert halls, recital halls, and churches.

But what made the most impact was staying with a host family for two nights in a small town. Leisman’s host parents didn’t speak any English, and he didn’t speak much Chinese.

“It was incredible to see the amount of community we were able to have and the ways they reached out to me, especially in my unfamiliar situation,” he says. “My host brother even gave me his bed, and we actually watched a Pistons game, too, which was great.”

Kicking It Up a Notch

In the spring of his junior year, Leisman was second author of an article published by Deborah Haarsma in Astrophysical Journal, one of the top publications in the field. And that summer he continued his research on galaxy clusters, focusing specifically on characteristics used in identifying brightest cluster galaxies.

“I put more and more opportunities in Luke’s way,” Haarsma says. “I suggested he choose his own research direction that summer, and he really rose to the challenge, digging into the topic and writing the first draft of our next research paper.”

That same summer, he presented his research to faculty from top physics and astronomy programs in the Midwest at the Great Lakes Cosmology Workshop in Chicago. He was the only undergraduate to give an oral presentation.

“A lot of [conference attendees] remembered that presentation when he was applying to graduate programs,” notes Haarsma.

Graduate school was certainly on Leisman’s mind heading into his senior year. He spent many hours applying to dozens of top astronomy graduate programs.

He also found himself reflecting and journaling a lot about his beliefs. He says he stepped back and looked at his worldview through different lenses and engaged in many conversations that didn’t necessarily give him all the answers but helped him understand what he believed.

“I’ve put a lot of thought into who I am and what I am,” says Leisman. “I’ve encountered a storm of ideas at Calvin, which, rather than knocking me down, have strengthened my foundations as I go forward in life.”

Figuring It All Out

With graduation just a few weeks away, Leisman is reflecting on the breadth of experiences at Calvin that shaped him in so many different ways.

“I know a lot more now than I did [when I started at Calvin], but tracing how I know that would be hard to do. I can’t do that one-to-one mapping,” he says.

He notes that the relationships he formed were as important as any lecture he heard.

“I’ll miss most the community. For me, I’ve had a very healthy community, a great cloud of witnesses,” he says.

Leisman values the little things.

He remembers Professor Molnar’s annual Christmas party and his two dogs that sing along to Christmas carols. He recalls the times Professor Van Baak made liquid nitrogen ice cream for his students and the time he played football with Professor Harper. He talks fondly about pushing a handful of tables together in the Uppercrust dining area and eating French toast with his friends from orchestra.

He also values the big things.

“My academic growth and interpersonal growth were paralleled by my spiritual growth. It wasn’t always pretty . . . or forward. But my years at Calvin provided an ideal workplace for building a relationship with a personal Savior and amazing God.”

He says that at Calvin he has learned much more than how to solve partial differential equations or how to write using the active voice or even how to play the violin more fluently. He’s woven all of those together.

“It gives me a balanced approach to problem solving, more ways of coming at something. Much of science is about communicating about your work. If you can’t write it, present it, you won’t get anywhere. I now have a broader base to stand on.”

More to the Story

  • Last summer, 90 Calvin students worked on research with 41 professors from nine departments: biology, chemistry, computer science, engineering, physics, astronomy, geology/geography, mathematics/statistics, psychology, and nursing.
  • Since 2008, Calvin has successfully nominated six students for the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship.
  • In 2009-10, there were 421 Calvin students studying in other countries. Calvin ranks second nationally among baccalaureate institutions for the total number of students who participate in a short-term study abroad, according to the annual Open Doors Report from the Institute for International Education.
  • In the past four years, the Calvin orchestra has given 33 performances on campus and toured the Midwest, the East Coast, and China.
  • Recently Calvin was recognized by U.S. News & World Report as one of the top 25 schools committed to undergraduate teaching.
  • This past year, more than 1,500 people from the Calvin community participated in a campus-wide Bible study on Philippians.

—Matt Kucinski

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