Westmont Magazine Bending Perceptions of Physics
Westmont’s Liberal Arts Curriculum Helps A Student Develop Her Interests in Physics and the Arts
Bethany Sutherland ’12, a dancer and an artist, will earn a Bachelor of Science degree in engineering physics in May, the first Westmont woman to graduate with this major since 2008. She has embraced both science and the arts, excelling as she’s honed her diverse talents and interests.
Raised in an economically and racially diverse neighborhood in Lancaster, Calif., Bethany learned the value of education at an early age. Her parents, Scot ’80 and Rebekah Lee ’78 Sutherland, both teach in public schools.“I’ve grown up with the liberal arts,”Bethany says.“My parents have instilled those values in me since childhood.”
One of the top students in her high school class, Bethany gained admission to the engineering programs at UC Berkeley and UC San Diego. “Westmont offered something I couldn’t find at a UC,” she says.“I felt at home discovering ways to integrate my interests in dance and art with science and math. My parents have always encouraged me to be well-rounded and use all the gifts God gave me.The Westmont community has supported me as I’ve explored my interests.”
Bethany recalls being a shy child curious about how the world works.“It’s still what drives me in physics,” she says.“It’s so rewarding to understand a difficult concept. It makes it possible for me to discover a new level of beauty and complexity, and more fully appreciate how God made the universe.”
In high school, Bethany enrolled in honors math and calculus courses, but she took her first physics class at Westmont.“I’ve always been encouraged to pursue my dreams, and I’ve realized that God has blessed me with an analytical mind closely tied with my artistic abilities,” she says. “I learn by doing. I like building things.”After graduating, Bethany may attend graduate school to study architectural or structural engineering.
Bethany continues to invest in developing a community at Westmont where women feel comfortable pursuing their interest in science. She was the only woman in most of her physics courses at Westmont, which prompted her to write and present a senior paper about the overall lack of women in science.“I wanted to examine the broader anthropological reasons and sociological factors that shape gender roles in science,” she says.
As a member of Westmont’s dance group, NSTEP, Bethany has watched the troupe develop. This year, she and Reyn Halford ’12 co-lead a diverse group of about 20 dancers, including those trained in classical ballet and an international, award-winning traceur competitor in the discipline of parkour.“We come from all different majors, backgrounds and nationalities,” she says. “Our common love of dance unifies us in a way that allows us to embody the church, sharing the gospel through our movement.”
During winter break, seven NSTEP members flew to New York, performed for the homeless community at the Bowery Mission, and recorded an unplanned dance performance broadcast on “Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve with Ryan Seacrest.” “God continues to open doors and opportunities and show us how He wants to further the Kingdom through our work,” she says.
Most members of the Westmont community knew Bethany as a dancer and an artist during her first two years. But she returned from a semester abroad at the Studio Arts Center International in Florence, Italy, with a new sense of purpose, embracing her identity as a physics major. She traveled to Michigan State University with Professor Warren Rogers to conduct nuclear physics research and began building strong relation- ships with faculty and fellow students. “I discovered a whole new dimension of community with these guys,” she says.“We hang out and share our personal journeys. I’ve become like a sister to many of them.”
In January, Rogers invited Bethany and six other women students to attend the Seventh Annual Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics at Stanford University. Each participant submitted a statement of purpose and met with top female physicists in the U.S.
Bethany found two women to be particularly impressive: Kathryn “Kam” Moler, the first woman physics professor at Stanford, and Lynn Cominsky, physics professor at Sonoma State University and director of educational outreach for NASA. “These strong, sassy, independent women give us role models,” Bethany says. “I felt empowered to have these women, who’ve succeeded in a predominantly male field, take an interest in me. Their stories of how they balance life, struggles and work affirmed my identity and my sense of purpose. I learned that they also experienced moments when they didn’t think they could make it. It gave me hope to be able to share my dreams with like-minded, kindred spirits.”