My Journey as a Scholar of Faith
Physics and Astronomy
Scott Sommerfeldt, "Finding (and Losing?) Myself as a Scholar of Faith." This speech was given as part of the "My Journey as a Scholar of Faith" lecture series, presented by the Faculty Center and the Education in Zion Gallery. Below is the transcript for the address. Click here to download Dr. Sommerfeldt's slides.
As I begin my remarks today, I would like to first acknowledge my wife, Lisa, who is here with us today. (Next Slide) She has been a remarkable support and strength to me in all aspects of my life, and I certainly wouldn’t be where I am now without her supporting me along the way. In fact, that may be quite literally true – if it wasn’t for Lisa, I may not be here today. One of the problems that I probably have is that I have a tendency to overcommit myself on a somewhat regular basis. As a result, Lisa will often question me as to what I am thinking when I tell her about things I have committed to, and she reminds me that I don’t have to accept every request that comes my way. So, when Alan contacted me and asked if I would be willing to give this lecture today, I went home and shared this information with Lisa, thinking that this could again trigger her reminding me that I didn’t need to accept all invitations, and thus it might be a good way to gracefully get out of accepting the invitation. After I had shared Alan’s invitation with Lisa she looked at me and said, “I think you ought to do it.” So much for my way out of accepting Alan’s invitation.
As I contemplated what I might share with you today, I guess my first thought was “What do I have of worth to share with you?” I don’t know that I really regard myself as a scholar of faith – I hope that I am developing faith, although I’m not sure exactly where I am on that path, but I also don’t know that I necessarily stack up as a scholar. (Next Slide) So, it may be that this lecture could be titled “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, and if I confirm in your mind that I really shouldn’t have given this lecture, I apologize for wasting your time.
So what about my journey, and what have I learned that may be of use? In pondering these questions, I decided that perhaps I would share some of the events of my life that have shaped me and brought me to where I am today, and which may provide some things for you to consider in your own individual journeys. I don’t know that I always recognized it at the time, but in looking back, I have been able to see individuals that have profoundly influenced my life (a message that I will return to), and I have also been able to see the hand of the Lord at important points in my life.
When I was in high school, I began to think about what I would like to do in life. My first choice may have been to play in the NBA, but I recognized that I was too short, too slow, and too unathletic for that to be a realistic option. So, putting that option on the shelf, I realized that I had three subjects that I loved in high school and could be interested in possibly pursuing. Those were music, math, and science. As I approached graduation, I decided I would probably pursue music. I had been taking clarinet lessons for a number of years then, and I thought I would enjoy being involved with music further when I went to college. I applied at two schools – Montana State, because I grew up in southern Alberta and I was aware of several students from my high school who went there to pursue music, and BYU, because I had three older brothers who had come down to BYU. At that point, I don’t recall having any particular preference for one over the other – they were simply two schools that I could go to in order to pursue music. It was at this point that a very influential person came into my life. I was admitted by both universities. I didn’t really hear anything from Montana State, other than letting me know I had been admitted. But, I remember coming home one day and finding a letter in the mail from Dr. David Randall here at BYU. (Next Slide) David was a clarinet professor here. He told me how excited he was at the prospect of having me come to BYU and he gave me further information about BYU and some of the great opportunities that I would have. That letter made me feel that I was wanted here, and that there was someone who cared about me. That letter influenced me completely to decide to come here, and David became my clarinet instructor and mentor for five years of my life. He was a model for me of being not only great in his discipline, but also being a great person and having good balance in his life. David may not even remember writing that letter, but it was one of those little things that gently pulled me in a certain direction.
So, off I came to BYU. That decision to come was perhaps a first step that led me in the direction of my ultimate career and my efforts to develop as a scholar. With that move, came perhaps the next major step that contributed to my development towards being a scholar of faith. Again it was an individual that influenced my life, and again, I suspect he doesn’t know the impact that he had. That person was my brother. (Next Slide) He had just returned from his mission, and we ended up rooming together in an apartment on Stadium Circle, just in behind the football stadium. The first night we arrived in Provo, after trying to get all moved in during the day, we were getting ready for bed. I was ready a couple of minutes before Craig and was just laying on my bed waiting for him. When he finished getting ready, he came in, laid down on his bed, and opened his scriptures to begin studying. I remember thinking, “So what am I supposed to do now?” After contemplating that question for a quick moment, I figured that the only thing that made much sense was for me to open my scriptures and start to read them. Although I had read the scriptures some earlier in my life, this really began establishing a pattern of regular scripture study in my life. That year was the first that I really felt like the scriptures were coming alive and my testimony of them grew considerably. My brother also got me in the immediate habit that year of attending devotionals – another aspect of a BYU education that can have a strong influence on us as individuals.
Due to my age, I was able to complete two years of schooling here at BYU before leaving to serve a mission. During that time, I progressed considerably in my music major and was thoroughly enjoying my involvement in the program. As I went on my mission it gave me some time over the months to think a bit about my life and where I wanted to go. I had thought that I might like to pursue a professional playing career – I had played in the Wind Ensemble and in the Philharmonic Orchestra and I really enjoyed doing that. But on my mission I thought, “Perhaps I am good enough to make it professionally, and perhaps not. But, I am not sure that career matches what I would like to have in terms of family life.” And, no offense to band directors, but I just couldn’t see myself as a high school band director trying to keep control of a hundred kids with noisemakers in their hands. As a result, I started thinking about what else would I do if I didn’t pursue a music career. Now enters another person who had a profound impact on my life and probably didn’t know it. In high school I had taken clarinet lessons from a well-known instructor in my area. In one of my lessons, he had asked me, “Have you ever thought about studying acoustics? You seem like someone that could really enjoy that.” Looking back on it, he was probably trying to save the music profession from having me try to pursue a career in music. I hadn’t thought about it much when he made his comment, but it came back to me on my mission, and the more I thought about it, the more intriguing the idea became to me.
So, I came back from my mission with the intent to pursue acoustics for my career. In talking with the Physics department, where acoustics was housed, I ended up deciding to complete my degree in music while taking as much math and physics as I could fit in, and then to move over to the Physics program to get a M.S. degree in Physics, with an emphasis in acoustics. For my Master’s program, Dr. Bill Strong was my graduate advisor (Next Slide), and yet another person came into my life who greatly influenced me. As I got started in graduate school, it became clear to me that I had no clue what I was doing, and Bill must have wondered what he was thinking when he agreed to accept me as his student. Bill was a very patient and devoted mentor. He gave me much of his time and he gently led me forward in helping me to understand the problem we were working on, and how to pursue making progress on it. Bill was another critical person in my life that helped me to make the transition from the arts-based world over to the science-based world.
Following my M.S. degree, I knew I wanted to go on to get a Ph.D. but wasn’t sure where to go. In looking at schools, I eventually decided to go to Penn State – perhaps some divine intervention on that one. (Next Slide) I was pretty naïve at the time, and didn’t know much about various schools that were an option. In my study, it became clear that Penn State seemed to have a pretty good program in acoustics, but it wasn’t until I actually got there and began to become more familiar with the various programs around the country that I realized that Penn State was probably close to being universally recognized as the preeminent school in acoustics – at least at that time. So, almost by luck (or as I said perhaps guidance) I found myself at arguably the best school in the country – not knowing a soul there. I had gone to Penn State envisioning that I was going to become the world’s next greatest concert hall designer. Within a few days of getting there, the department chair, Jiri Tichy, asked to meet with me. (Next Slide) He said that I was free to pursue studying architectural acoustics if that is what interested me and what I wanted to do, or if I wanted some money I could consider something else. I was a poor struggling grad student at the time, married with 2-8/9ths children, so money sounded kind of nice. He said if I was interested, he would be happy to be my advisor working on an area called active noise control – a topic that was very new at the time and which I had never heard about. In layman’s terms, it essentially involves attenuating noise by adding additional noise in a very precise manner. He gave me some things to read, I found them very intriguing, and I accepted his offer to study with him. That decision set the course of pretty much my whole career, not only because that is what became the major focus of my research for the past 30 years, but also because I came to find out that my advisor was highly respected in the discipline. His nurturing of me, particularly in the final stages of my degree, and introducing me to various key players in the discipline opened up a number of opportunities for me that again influenced my future path.
My time studying at Penn State was very rewarding, but as I was finishing my degree it was time to decide the proper path for going forward. I didn’t know whether I wanted to pursue industry or academe, so I began applying in both arenas. It was a good time for us, and we had 10-15 job offers all around various parts of the country. And yet, as I would go out and interview at various companies and universities, I would call Lisa at night (this was before cell phones) and tell her about the day. At each place I would interview, we would love the place in many respects, and yet have the feeling that it just wasn’t the right place for us to go. In the midst of that whole process, Penn State came to me and indicated that if I was interested, they would like to have me stay and join the faculty. Now that was an opportunity we had never even thought of, and frankly didn’t even get excited about. We weren’t supposed to stay at Penn State. This was the time to go out and find life’s dreams and settle into a career in some wonderful, new, and exciting place for us. And yet, as we prayed about it, and as we went to the temple seeking guidance, it seemed that perhaps we were supposed to stay. We fought it, and it was a month or two process, but eventually we recognized and accepted that we were supposed to wake up looking at the same four walls of our apartment as I began my career at Penn State. This was another case of divine intervention. We did not want to stay there, and yet as we look back, I can see that staying at Penn State was certainly the best choice I could have made for beginning my career. It was, after all, the mecca of acoustics, and what a wonderful place it was to get established. My colleagues were excellent in seamlessly transitioning to not looking at me as a graduate student, but accepting me as a colleague, and I had many wonderful opportunities to collaborate with them and to hopefully grow as a scholar.
I had been a faculty member for about 4-5 years, when the next major development in my scholarly life occurred with two separate events aligning with each other. Lisa and I started to talk about whether we wanted to stay in Pennsylvania long-term. Lisa is from Salt Lake, and as I said, I grew up in southern Alberta. Both of those places are a long ways from Pennsylvania, and our children were starting to come into their teenage years with very few relationships with grandparents and cousins. So we wondered, should we look at making a move west? I even started to explore a bit whether any opportunities might be available somewhere out west here. At the same time, a critical event was happening in the Physics department here at BYU. For many years, Bill Strong had been the face of acoustics here. He had a couple of colleagues that collaborated with him some, but they had retired leaving Bill as the sole person working in acoustics, and he was also approaching retirement age. So, the department had a vigorous debate as to whether they should just let acoustics die with Bill’s retirement, or whether it was an area that they were interested in revitalizing? I was of course not present, but I understand the debate was quite vigorous, and when it came to a vote, the decision passed by one vote to keep acoustics in the department. As part of that debate, Bill had apparently lobbied that if acoustics stayed, the department should pursue seeing if I would be interested in coming and joining the department. Well, those things came together at about the same time, so we looked into the opportunity. As it became a more real option, there were some mixed feelings – I was at the mecca of acoustics, and did I want to leave that? And yet, as I thought about it, I got excited at the opportunity to come to BYU to see if we could hopefully build a world-class acoustics program at BYU that could maybe even rival Penn State. Did we want to leave our new home, friends, and higher salary at Penn State in order to come to BYU? But then again, there was the draw of family out here. I was excited about the prospect of building an acoustics program here, but perhaps the clincher occurred when my parents visited us in Pennsylvania as we were wrestling with the decision. We were talking and they suggested that perhaps we should pull out my patriarchal blessing and study it to see if it had any guidance. So we did. I remember that all four of us read the blessing, and as we did, every one of us remarked that it seemed to indicate that coming out west to BYU might be the correct thing to do. So we did. Now, what is interesting with that is that I have gone back and read my patriarchal blessing a number of times since then, and there is absolutely nothing in that blessing that talks about coming to BYU or anything of the sort – and yet, as the four of us read my blessing back then, we all had the same impression. Another faith-building experience to go along with trying to develop as a scholar.
So that got me to BYU in 1995, but it was far from helping me develop more fully as a scholar of faith. As I said, I came to BYU perhaps primarily because of what I saw that it might be able to do for me – definitely not the greatest reasons. I thought I could maybe be instrumental in building a world-class acoustics program – that would certainly bring fame and glory and recognition to me, which would make it all worthwhile – and it would also presumably build BYU. But, as I got here and began to progress here, there were various things along the way that helped to kind of kick me in the backside to wake me up to a broader vision of why I was really here. In various settings, I became more exposed to the mission and AIMS of BYU and to the Foundation Documents and history of this unique place. As I heard or read of the sacrifices and dedication of Maeser and other early leaders, the story of Alfred Kelly, and as I heard of or read some of the landmark addresses that make up the Foundation Documents, it began to sink into me that BYU is about much more than just me building a world-class acoustics program. Sure, that might bring positive recognition to BYU, and it would be a good thing, but that in and of itself wouldn’t necessarily really help BYU in accomplishing what its real mission is.
In 2003 I was asked to serve as chair of our department – something that had never even crossed my mind for a second previously in my career. That was also a wonderful opportunity to put me in a position where I was focused on the great things that others in my department were doing (along with some of their challenges), rather than focusing exclusively on what I was doing. It got me focusing more on the students here at BYU, and how they need to grow in both their faith and intellect during their time here. This influence became even more profound when I was asked to serve as dean of our college. I found myself asking questions such as, what were we supposed to be accomplishing as a college? And what is the path for us to get there? As we wrestled with those questions, it became apparent to us that the path for us to help BYU become what the prophets have seen for BYU involved trying to better understand and implement the integration of faith and intellect. So, I have wrestled with that question – in the classroom, working with students, and as a dean. That wrestling has helped me develop ideas and to try some things to help promote that integration.
One of those innovations involved my own children. When our oldest son, Kevin, came to BYU, I noticed that he went to devotionals and forums every once in a while, but it was pretty sporadic. So, when our second son, Bruce, was coming to BYU I figured I needed to try and do something to get him more committed to attending devotionals. I had the brainstorm and threw it out to our two sons that if they wanted to meet me for the devotionals and forums that I would be happy to take them out to lunch afterwards. Free food. That was enough to get our second son there every week, and with free food, it also got our oldest son there nearly every week. (Unfortunately, I thought of this idea after our daughter, Michelle, had come to BYU, so she ended up missing out on this.) As our other two sons, Ryan and John, came to BYU, it was an established tradition that you go to the devotional and then meet dad after to have lunch. And, as our sons got married, their wives joined us, as well. It was such a big deal that our children would go to great lengths to make sure that they did not have a class between 12:00-1:00 on Tuesdays so that they could get lunch off of me. So, it often cost me about $100/month, but was it worth it? You bet – both for the quality father/child time that we had, but also for the contribution it made to their BYU experience as students. But that got me to thinking that this should somehow be extended over to my students in class. Wouldn’t it be nice if they were attending? I have found the forums and devotionals to be almost universally outstanding, and yet when I look out at most forums and devotionals, frankly the attendance is usually rather pathetic. I couldn’t really invite all of my students to attend devotional and tell them I would buy them lunch after – not only for financial reasons, but also because I already had a commitment with my children. So, if I couldn’t entice them with free food, what could I entice them with? I decided on free credit. I decided to experiment on encouraging them to attend devotionals and forums and I would give them credit for doing so. The number of points was small – in fact, it would be a pretty rare case where the credit involved would be sufficient to change a grade. Yet, that seemed to be all that was needed. In the few years I have been doing that, the students in my class have been attending a very high percentage of the devotionals and forums. That has been a benefit, but it has gone beyond that. With my schedule as dean, I teach on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so we take just a couple of minutes at the beginning of class on Tuesdays to get feedback and thoughts regarding the devotional or forum that day. It is not a long period of time, but I have had some great discussions with the students actively participating and it has provided me with opportunities to share some of my feelings about the gospel.
Another thing that I have learned and relearned over the course of my career is the benefit of seeking divine help to tackle scholarly problems. I think it is fairly easy for many of us to slip into a pattern where we have our spiritual lives in one compartment where we try to draw close to the Lord, and then to almost separately have our careers in another compartment that may have little or nothing about them in terms of drawing close to the Lord. However, Amulek taught us that we should “cry unto [the Lord] over the crops of your fields, that ye may prosper in them. Cry over the flocks of your fields that they may increase.” (Alma 34:24-25). Our careers are our crops and flocks. As a graduate student, I began to recognize that I could and should seek help from the Lord in my education. Thus, there were a number of times where I faced difficult problems that I was trying to solve and I would go to the Lord in prayer asking for His help. As I sought His help, and then worked diligently, I would feel heaven’s help come. On more than one occasion, my wife and I would go to bed at night, and then I would suddenly jump out of bed with Lisa asking me, “What is wrong?” I would tell her nothing, that I had just figured out the problem I was wrestling with and needed to write down a few things so that I wouldn’t forget how to solve the problem. I have had to relearn that lesson a time or two at BYU, so that I remember when I am facing difficult challenges, or perhaps trying to help one of my grad students through a roadblock, I can and should go to the Lord and seek His help and guidance in working out the best path forward.
I have been particularly impressed with the experience that my associate dean, Tom Sederberg, relates from his career. Tom is very well known in his discipline, and has developed a technique called T-Splines that is making a big impact in meshing techniques for computer aided design. When he was working on developing this, along with a non-LDS visiting scholar and a graduate student, they were at an impasse where they simply could not see any path forward to work through the problem they were facing. Tom came into work one morning and suggested that they begin their research session with prayer, which he offered. They began to have insights, and over the course of a week or two they realized what the solution was, and that developed into T-Splines. As a research group, that began a regular pattern of them starting with prayer – something these non-LDS researchers described as “magic”, and what a difference it made in their research.
I have had a somewhat similar experience in my career, although without as big of splash as what Tom experienced. Early in my career, I wrestled with how best to proceed with developing improved approaches for implementing active noise control to achieve the desired objective of attenuating the sound throughout a desired space. At the time, attenuating the noise in a jet aircraft was a topic of great interest, and the traditional approach adopted by most researchers leads to systems that become very complex, very quickly for an acoustic space of this size. As I wrestled with this problem, I believe I was guided to a solution that can use a localized configuration to yield a global result, leading to a much simpler implementation. This concept has extended into a number of active control solutions that we have developed over the years. The concept has been picked up by other research groups around the world, and it has led to several patents. I would say that the insights I received back at that time over 20 years ago probably formed the backbone of a major chunk of my scholarly efforts that continue even through today.
I have observed that particularly here at BYU (but really anywhere), we can and should seek heaven’s help. In some sense, at least at first observation, we may be at a disadvantage to colleagues at other institutions, since it is clear that here at BYU we should be committed to and excellent in both teaching and scholarship, while at most other schools the faculty focuses primarily on one or the other. However, I am convinced that the Spirit can make up for that difference. How does that work? I envision that perhaps a colleague at another institution may have to walk down a dozen or more paths with his or her research to finally figure out the right path to obtain the solution to the problem they are studying. While my experience is that the Lord doesn’t just hand the solution to us on a silver platter, if we seek His help, perhaps we only have to walk down a half-dozen paths until we can discover that desired solution. Thus, I have learned that seeking the Spirit in my scholarly efforts can and has helped me along the path of my career.
Along the way, there was another thing that impacted me noticeably. About 5 or 6 years ago, Alan Wilkins and his colleagues conducted a survey among students to try and understand what helped them feel that their education was spiritually strengthening along with being intellectually enlarging. Two of the characteristics identified by students as contributing to a spiritually strengthening environment were for faculty members to 1) be a role model of living the gospel, and 2) be authentic and genuine. These findings reinforced in my mind the importance of striving to not only build scholarship in a purely academic manner, but to also make sure I am focusing on building my spiritual self, and maybe even more importantly making sure that I am not trying to compartmentalize the two but simply let them be integrated in all aspects of my life. (Next Slide) Pres. Kimball talked about this in his second century address when he stated that “as LDS scholars, you must speak with authority and excellence to your professional colleagues in the language of scholarship, and you must also be literate in the language of spiritual things.” (Spencer W. Kimball, Second-Century Address). I have come to realize that striving to do this has an impact as we interact with others. This was particularly reinforced to me through two events that have occurred in my life.
The first happened not long after I came to BYU when I was contacted by a former student I had in class at Penn State. (Next Slide) He was a student in a class of about 30 students. If you asked me to rank the likelihood of each of those students being interested in the gospel, he would have probably ranked right near the bottom – I would never have guessed that he would have any interest. However, he contacted me after I came to BYU to let me know that he had joined the Church. I was astonished. This is what he shared with me: “I saw and thought that you had been very much gifted to teach with such clarity. Later I found out you have a nice sized family to take care of as well. And always I could tell that you cared about people. I did not know you were Mormon until you were just leaving. So just knowing you as a professor here, I thought to myself, wouldn’t it be good to have some blessings in life, and calmness, like he does. Could I do a good job in life like this man? Somehow I sensed the Spirit from you, and it helped lead me.” Because of these feelings he had, he ended up listening to the missionaries when they contacted him, and ended up embracing the gospel. The second situation happened about three years ago. I had a postdoc come to work with me from China. When he arrived in Provo, he stayed with us for a few days while we helped find him a place to live. He had only stayed with us for about 24 hours when he made the comment, “Your church is pretty important to you, isn’t it?” I told him it was and that began some conversations, both with me and others, where he learned more about the Church. He was taught by the missionaries, and over the course of time, he was baptized (Next Slide) shortly before returning to China. These experiences and others have shown me that when we strive to combine faith and intellect, that comes through in our interactions and very naturally makes an impact on others.
So, as I have progressed on this journey, I have reached a point where I think there is a principle involved that is related to a scripture the Savior gave us during His ministry. (Next Slide) In teaching His disciples, the Savior said, “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: but whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it.” Now when the Savior said this, He was really talking about people becoming His disciples and following Him, and in so doing finding their real selves – as opposed to ignoring Him to follow personal desires and losing their eternal perspective and blessings. However, I think a similar principle has applied to my scholarly life. At times when I have focused on me, and what I can do to build myself up, I think I have in some sense missed the boat in terms of what I really can and should be doing. But, when I have had a significant focus in my life on building others – whether that be students or colleagues, then I think the rewards have been greater, and it has hopefully helped me a bit along the path of being a disciple scholar. This is not to say that I gave up on trying to be strong in my discipline and to contribute through my scholarship, but that the reasons and motivations for why I do what I do have changed – hopefully in a way that has brought greater meaning to my life and helped to contribute to the mission of BYU. In my career, I can look back and see other people who have made a significant impact on my development – both in my discipline and in my faith. So, as I have progressed in my career, I have found myself trying to put forth time and energy to hopefully build others. That includes colleagues – particularly those who work with me in the area of acoustics. I have been able to help get a number of them here to BYU, and then they have grown and become better than me, which has helped to strengthen both acoustics and BYU. It also includes students, both in classes as well as in research settings. Hopefully I have been able to be a positive influence in their lives to help them get a solid start on their paths in both their careers and in their spiritual growth. I guess in many cases it is hard to always know how much impact we have had on others, just as those who influenced me greatly probably don’t know the total influence they had. Nonetheless, as I have perhaps lost myself in extending myself to reach out and try to support and strengthen those around me, I think it has helped me to find myself in my career through challenging me in new directions. If nothing else, it has brought satisfaction in trying to help support and build others. I am grateful for those who have reached out to build me over the years, both professionally and spiritually, and as a result have helped me to hopefully understand a bit better that at least for me, the path to satisfaction in my career involves in some sense losing myself to help others as we all progress on our journeys as scholars of faith. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.