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‘Like Finding a Palm Tree in Antarctica’: Benedictine Professor’s Astronomy Breakthrough


A professor at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, was part of a group of scientists who recently discovered new molecules in interstellar space.

“I never expected to be involved in such a big discovery,” Dr. Christopher Shingledecker told Moira Cullings at The Leaven in Kansas City, Kansas. “It’s really been a remarkable experience.”

Shingledecker has been working with chemist Brett McGuire, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as part of a project called “Green Bank Telescope Observations of TMC01: Hunting Aromatic Molecules.”

“This GOTHAM project really grew out of some interesting discoveries that we were making in a particular region of space — the molecular cloud called TMC-1,” said Shingledecker.

The group detected two polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) — the first molecules of their type ever specifically identified in space.

“It’s really unusual where we saw them — this cloud TMC-1,” Shingledecker told Cullings, “because it’s rather cold compared to some of the places where we might look. It’s a little bit like seeing a palm tree in Antarctica. You may not be surprised that there are palm trees, but you may be surprised that there’s one in Antarctica.”

“I always wanted to [teach] at a Catholic liberal arts college — it was my goal all throughout school,” said Schingledecker, who earned his undergraduate and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Virginia.

“It was easy to narrow down his choices,” wrote Cullings. “The only one in the United States with an astronomy major is Benedictine.”

Benedictine president Stephen D. Minnis is quoted hailing Shingledecker’s work as a “tremendously important discovery.

“His work and that of others in the sciences, along with the construction of the Daglen Observatory and expansion of Westerman Hall [at Benedictine], are great illustrations of why Benedictine College is becoming known as the Catholic college for STEM education.”

Shingledecker is a member of the Society of Catholic Scientists. The society’s director, Karin Oberg, a Harvard astronomer, told Cullings that her Catholic faith gives her “a source of confidence in the fundamental intelligibility of the cosmos.”

Shingledecker concurs. “It’s really lovely to be able to show [students] that faith and reason go together.”

Albert the Great, the patron saint of scientists, is a favorite of Shingledecker’s. “The church has preserved knowledge [and] promoted learning, schools and science. And for it to be seen as suddenly antagonistic to [scientists] is a betrayal of the legacy of the church in fostering learning and discovery,” Shingeldecker said.

Read The Leaven article here.


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Founded in 1858, Benedictine College is a Catholic, Benedictine, residential, liberal arts college located on the bluffs above the Missouri River in Atchison, Kansas. The school is proud to have been named one of America’s Best Colleges by U.S. News & World Report as well as one of the top Catholic colleges in the nation by First Things magazine and the Newman Guide. It prides itself on outstanding academics, extraordinary faith life, strong athletic programs, and an exceptional sense of community and belonging. It has a mission to educate men and women within a community of faith and scholarship.