A crew of chemists, mathematicians, biologists, and physicists made what felt like endless trips up the stairs on the outside of a three-story building in the summer of 1973. Seeing the ocean to the west provided a little bit of consolation as they lifted box after box of supplies into their new home. The science building’s previous inhabitants had left it in disarray, as several now-retired professors recall. Graffiti, stacks of notebooks left behind, science supplies dumped in the hallways—and on top of all that, the elevators hadn’t been finished, hence the professors’ box-carrying summer workout.

That summer, the fledgling staff that migrated with the university from its previous Pasadena location knew it would be an all-hands-on-deck operation to get the building ready for students in the fall. The university was strapped, having just moved campuses. The professors struck a couple of bargains with the administration.

“The echo in the rooms was just unbearable,” said retired math professor Dr. David Strawn, who’d joined the institution a couple of years earlier. “The faculty came in and painted the whole building, which saved enough money so they could carpet it.”

In the physics department, Dr. Ken Aring took his colleague Dr. Garth Morse’s lead as a tinkerer—they drilled through concrete to set the lab benches up properly. Elsewhere, the professors plumbed the depths of their resourcefulness to cobble together basic supplies.

Even once the semester started, classes depended on a patchwork of equipment and ingenuity. When it rained, it wasn’t a question of if the roof leaked but rather where.

“If we had equipment that stopped working, we would not throw it away,” Aring said. “We had cabinets that were full of parts that could be reused to keep things working in the lab.”

Some of the foibles were entertaining, like the exposed plumbing—more evidence the previous college on the site had run out of money.

“The pipes in that building were all glass,” Strawn said. “You saw things running down the pipes over your head you didn’t want to see.”

But the bond that happens when a team of people works toward a goal couldn’t have had a better chance of developing. The professors there in the early 1970s came to realize they had a chance to build something special—an excellent science program at an institution that cared about students’ personal development.

They came decades after Pasadena College’s very first science education classes in 1913, taught by Cornell University biologist Dr. Paul J. White. But they knew they would need to work tirelessly to raise the sciences to a level of excellence.

Without a lot of resources in their new digs, when they looked around for something to make those departments stronger, they usually came to the same conclusion: build it themselves.

What they’ve built since those humble beginnings: a division centered on excellent instruction; an undergraduate research program the envy of many universities around the country; a rare interdisciplinary conversation around Christian faith and science; and a family-style connection with alumni and 90-some professors who’ve stretched PLNU’s scientific legacy in remarkable directions.

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‘Science Was in the Doldrums’

When Dr. Val Christensen graduated from the University of Kansas with a Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry in 1952, he went for some professorship interviews.

But when a member of one school’s hiring committee asked Christensen, “What are you going to major in, son?” the 25-year-old with a newly minted Ph.D. figured he’d pursue some real-world experience and come back to teaching later.

Eight years at Dow Chemical in Texas proved immensely enjoyable to Christensen. But then one day he got a letter from the then-president of Pasadena College, Dr. Russell DeLong.

“Science was in the doldrums” at Pasadena at the time, Christensen said. The school had lost a number of professors, including a dynamic physics and astronomy teacher named Dr. Phil Carlson who’d taught in the ’40s and ’50s.

DeLong was asking for help.

“If you have strong science, then everybody believes you have a strong school,” he told Christensen.

Christensen took a dramatic pay cut—$6,000 a year down from his private-sector $12,000 salary—and moved to California. DeLong had left the school by the time Christensen arrived in 1960, and university leaders had drastically scaled back a financing plan for a new science building to replace the campus’s two Quonset huts that housed the sciences.

Still, Christensen pushed forward and instituted a few rules he and his colleagues credit with the sciences’ ascendance in the following years.

The rules: any new permanent faculty members had to be Ph.D. scholars, had to communicate and teach well, and had to have a “positive Christian witness.” Christensen kept clippings and files on science students graduating from Nazarene and other Christian universities.

“I had the best intelligence in the denomination,” he said. “I made it my business to know where everybody was.”

Christensen’s standards were tough to meet.

“Val decided he was going to hire Ph.D.s when you couldn’t hire Ph.D.s in a place like this,” said one of those chemistry hires, Dr. Dale Shellhamer.

In math, Dr. Bill Hobbs was doing the same. He stayed in the dorms when the college first moved to Point Loma, waiting for his house in Pasadena to sell. Meanwhile, he began to work to tug the mathematics program into the modern day.

‘Just Stay Here; We’ll Do It Together’

When he hired Dr. Vic Heasley in 1963, Christensen had landed an important teammate. One of Heasley’s first students commented off-handedly that the college was weak.

“It made me think, boy, I’ve got myself into something,” Heasley said. “There was sort of an epiphany moment where I realized that I could make a big difference here, probably.”

Heasley believed passionately that undergraduate students should be doing research. It would raise the credibility of the departments and inspire the students to pursue a life of inquiry and discovery. He began a summer research program to which his brother, Dr. Gene Heasley, who taught at Southern Nazarene University, brought students.

Without any laboratory equipment, Christensen and Heasley knew they wouldn’t be able to do research. Heasley said the school didn’t even have standard-issue science department stuff.

But Christensen was persuasive.

“Just stay here; we’ll do it together,” he said.

They tried to get some money from grants. Christensen remembers pulling an all-nighter to write a grant proposal to the National Science Foundation, teaching a full day of classes the next day, and writing again all night the next night.

They didn’t get it.

But the next year, they tried again. Christensen and Heasley called up Occidental University for help and got some pointers to apply for the money. They got a $10,000 grant—contingent on raising another $10,000 themselves—to purchase basic equipment, like infrared and ultraviolet spectrophotometers, a gas chromatograph, and standard-taper glassware.

“We shopped, and we bargained with all the suppliers,” Christensen said. They squeezed every last drop out of the grant.

“Till today, you could not believe it started at those beginnings,” he said.

The chemistry department expanded and created a demand for another professor. They brought on Shellhamer, a third chemist, in 1972, right before the college moved to San Diego.

“I wasn’t sure when I came that I would stay,” Shellhamer said. “It was a recession. I couldn’t get a job in industry.”

But the draw was more than circumstantial.

“I got caught up in building this program of excellence,” he said.

Across disciplines, these scholars were setting in motion hallmarks of PLNU’s scientific acumen: published, peer-reviewed research findings that the undergraduate students co-authored; students going on to their own
careers in research; and a defiance that a school need not have graduate-level scientists to produce top contenders for medical school and further research.

“Why do you care if it’s excellent?” Heasley said. “Because the student deserves it. You’re turning them out, carrying Jesus along.”

And since those early-1970s days, they’ve been doing it in the same building.

The chemistry research program pushed the other sciences to a new level. In biology, Drs. Ken Hyde and John Cromer also created research opportunities for their students. (The San Diego campus did not allow vivisection, so Hyde—and his wife and two young girls—ceded room in the family garage for cages of rats for experiments one summer.) Hyde took a few dozen students to study endangered animals on one of the Channel Islands. The efforts inspired incoming professor Dr. Michael McConnell in 1978, who dreamed of creating a summer microbiology research program to study the salmonella bacteriophages he had studied as a Ph.D. student at Tufts University.

McConnell encountered similarly spare equipment storage rooms. The biology department had one old Korean- War-era autoclave and a non-refrigerated centrifuge that could revolve at the appropriate speed to allow for cell experiments and not much else.

But McConnell had good timing. A new program had begun the year before he took the teaching job that would help boost the science research programs even higher.

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‘First-Rate Research Going On’

A 1975 phone call from a doctor who’d studied chemistry at Pasadena College launched the summer research efforts to the next level. He offered $1,000 to help with Heasley’s students’ research that summer and offered it again the next—this time with a fellow alumnus who also gave $1,000.

The two said they knew of others, so Heasley and Christensen put together a meeting of eight students spanning different eras in 1977. The pitch to the alumni was simple: It costs money to produce research, more than what the university or grants can cover. Moreover, the alumni involvement in research would connect them to what current students were doing, and give the students role models in industry and graduate school.

By the end of the first year, more than $10,000 had been raised to help the professors network with medical schools on students’ behalf, purchase needed equipment and supplies, and provide stipends for students to spend their summers in research. Now the network, called Research Associates, spans decades and raises tens of thousands of dollars for research and the department’s continued growth.

The school’s research credentials, bolstered by this fundraising network, blew away incoming professor Dr. Darrel Falk when he joined the school in 1988. He’d spent the first eight years of his teaching career at Syracuse University, a school with high-level graduate and postdoctoral research.

“And then I arrive at Point Loma and here’s really, really first-rate research that’s been going on for many years,” he said. “As I saw it, what they were doing was on parallel with other research schools. That was so impressive to me.”

The impact is huge, some 30 years later. Since the first year McConnell started the molecular biology research summer program, some 622 students have been involved in biology and chemistry summer research. In 2014, 61 students will research alongside faculty and alumni.

McConnell said that connection to research was first sparked in him as a student of Heasley’s. He said he got a “fix” from making original discoveries.

‘Undergraduates Were Our Reason for Being’

If you walk the third-floor halls of Rohr Science, past the walls of posters of student research projects and articles, it’s not uncommon to spot Heasley and Shellhamer even now, after both retired two years ago. It’s in their being to work with students toward discovery.

“I’d rather do research right now than almost everything I can think of,” Heasley said. “That’s why I’m doing it in retirement.”

To a person, faculty members who helped build sciences and math at PLNU gush about their students. As PLNU built its reputation, professors went to bat for students to help them get into tough medical schools and competitive research programs.

“Undergraduates were our reason for being,” Falk said.

The one-on-one work in research and advising lends itself to deep family ties. Students can go to a lot of schools for a good education, but Strawn said the faculty in math and sciences at PLNU strived to create a community.

“We just believed enough in what we were doing, in what could happen there,” he said. “You get a group of committed faculty members, and you kind of wanted to get out of their way.”

Learn More: PLNU offers a degree in information technology to help prepare women and men for the future.

By Kelly Bennett

PLNU’s the Viewpoint publishes relevant and vital stories that grapple with life's profound questions from a uniquely Christian perspective. In addition to the content offered online, the Viewpoint print magazine is published three times a year in spring, summer, and fall.