Claremont professor combines love of science and God in her work
Rob Cullivan Feb. 1, 2018
Pomona Catholic alumna leads efforts to enhance school’s offerings
Mary Hatcher-Skeers, a chemistry professor at The Claremont Colleges, credits the staff at her Catholic high school for encouraging her to pursue a career in science.
Born to teachers, Hatcher-Skeers grew up loving both literature and science, but notes she thinks more like a scientist than an artist.
“As much as I love literature, I think science appeals to me because I can test a hypothesis and get a wrong or right answer,” she says.
Nonetheless, she didn’t really consider a career in science until staff at her alma mater, Pomona Catholic, encouraged her to consider one when she was applying to colleges in the 1980s.
“My teachers at Pomona Catholic and my college counselor were surprised I wasn’t majoring in science,” she says. “I’m a mathematical thinker and from an early age I was interested in science.”
Hatcher-Skeers attended a co-ed public school until ninth grade, when she enrolled at Pomona Catholic. She says the all-girls middle and high school was a different social and intellectual world than the one she left behind. At Pomona Catholic there was no division between “nerds” and “jocks,” she says, adding her best friend was a cheerleader as well as an outstanding science student.
“It was this incredibly warm and supportive environment,” Hatcher-Skeers says of Pomona Catholic. “It really enabled me to come out of my shell and gave me confidence.”
Graduating from high school in 1984, Hatcher-Skeers went on to garner degrees from UC San Diego, San Francisco State and the University of Washington in Seattle. She worked as a postdoctoral associate at Brandeis University as well as MIT and began teaching at the Claremont Colleges in 1998.
Despite her considerable career achievements – including two teaching awards -- she’s never forgotten her roots at Pomona Catholic, and has volunteered on and off at the school throughout the years. She has served as chairwoman of the school’s board since 2016, and the school’s principal, Samuel Torres, says Pomona Catholic has benefited greatly from Hatcher-Skeers’ service.
“With her leadership, Pomona Catholic has gained prominence in the community and re-established itself as the leader of Catholic education in the Pomona Valley,” he says. “We are blessed by her vision and enthusiasm.”
Part of her vision is encouraging females like herself to pursue careers in such traditionally male dominated fields as science.
“I’m an unabashed feminist,” Hatcher-Skeers says, “and I think that we need to support young women in whatever career they choose.”
Her daughter, Elana, attends Pomona and, like her mother, also loves math, Hatcher-Skeers adds. Her engineer husband Aaron is raising three daughters along with her, including Elana, and Hatcher-Skeers says with a chuckle: “We’re a proud nerd family!”
Speaking of creating proud nerds, Hatcher-Skeers has made it her mission to enhance the academic program at Pomona, and notes she and other board members have worked with the staff to get grants to update and remodel its science labs. Navy Phay, the school’s development director, credits Hatcher-Skeers with bringing needed change to Pomona Catholic.
“She is so passionate about the school and lends her support through such efforts as calling prospective (student) families, writing a grant for our science programs, and bringing fellow alumni back to school events,” Phay says.
Among the innovations Hatcher-Skeers has fostered at the school is its Advanced Placement Capstone program. She and other officials at the school worked to establish the program last fall. Capstone students learn to master argument-based writing skills and do research, and students who complete and pass the program exams are given the AP Seminar and Research Certificate, which enhances their chances to be admitted to the nation’s top colleges, Hatcher-Skeers says. As a veteran of the college admissions process, the professor says too many students come to college without the necessary skills they need to succeed.
“We want to see that students are taking the hardest, most challenging academic programs they can at their institutions,” she says. “We have students who have difficulty in our introduction to science course at The Claremont Colleges because they’ve memorized a lot of content, but they don’t have the critical and analytical problem solving skills they need.”
God and faith
Interestingly, in an era when such celebrities as geneticist Richard Dawkins have made a career out of attacking belief in God in the name of science, Hatcher-Skeers says she sees no contradiction between her faith and her scientific focus. While some fundamentalist Christians reject evolution, she notes the Catholic Church accepts it and that science can actually enhance one’s religious beliefs.
“I think the more I learn scientifically about nature, the more amazed I am in the God’s creation,” she says. “As I scientist, I believe that God provided humans with reason and intelligence as tremendous gifts so we could study and try to understand the natural world in all its beauty. Exploring natural science then, for me, is using the talents God gave me to draw nearer to him as I work to understand the beauty and complexity he created.”
She notes that prominent scientists who believed in God include Father Georges Lemaitre, SJ, the Belgian scientist and mathmetician who formulated the Big Bang Theory.
She adds that Pope Francis has spoken on the relationship between faith and science. For example, during a 2014 assembly of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, billed as meeting to discuss 'evolving concepts of nature,' the pope said: "When we read about creation in Genesis, we run the risk of imagining God as a magician, with a magic wand able to do everything. But that is not so. He created human beings and let them develop according to the internal laws that He gave to each one so they would reach their fulfillment."
“I have always believed that when God created the universe out of nothing, he created a beautiful world full of possibilities,” Hatcher-Skeers says. “The Thomists explain it as God causing natural beings to exist but their operations as independent. Thus, nature evolves because of how she was created.”
To learn more about Pomona Catholic High School, visit pomonacatholic.org.
Rob Cullivan is a freelance writer living in Portland, Oregon. He has written for Catholic News Service and other religious and secular publications.
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