Carl Helrich

Professor of Physics

BS, Case Institute of Technology, 1963
PHD, Northwestern University, 1969

WHEN YOU WERE A CHILD, WHAT DID YOU WANT TO BE WHEN YOU GREW UP?

When I was very young I, of course, wanted to be a cowboy. Then I regretted not being born two hundred years earlier so I could settle the Tennessee frontier, and maybe live with the Cherokees.

By the time I was about 9 I had settled on being an artist, which had been the family profession once, until my father told me I would die of starvation and I should forget being an artist. My interests then turned to aeronautical engineering. By the time I graduated from high school I had settled on rocket propulsion and set out for an engineering school.

WHY OR HOW DID YOU CHOOSE YOUR FIELD?

Because of my interests in flight. I somewhat lived for flying models, which I designed and built, through elementary and high school.

The turn to propulsion dynamics came with a more mature interest in the details of the physics and chemistry of rocket propulsion and in my own experience building and launching a rather large rocket as a high school student. I cannot deny that the launch of Sputnik in 1958 influenced me.

But where I am now is quite different from propulsion dynamics. By my senior year my interest began to shift from rockets to the detailed physics of molecules, statistical mechanics, and kinetic theory. I pursued these interests in a Ph.D. program in plasma (the ionized gas) theory.

What I am now doing is biophysics. I shifted from plasma physics to biophysics and neurobiology while a scientist at the Kernforschungsanlge Nuclear Research Center in Juelich, Germany. This was three years after my Ph.D.

WHAT’S EXCITING ABOUT YOUR JOB OR THIS FIELD?

Jobs all look greener from the other side of the fence. Each has ups and downs. But I received a call to teach when I was a sophomore engineering student. I have pursued that, with some logical gaps, most of my career. Teaching is a way to provide a service to individuals and to society. It is a rewarding profession. And it is not easy.

My research in biophysics, in which I involve my students, is probably more exciting than the teaching. We pursue questions and find more questions. At each step along the way we uncover new and surprising things.

My role in Maple Scholars is probably the most rewarding part of what I do as a teacher, and as a researcher. We encounter greatness each summer as we listen to our students present their work and their ideas, and as we ask together what all this means.

WHAT HAS BEEN A STRUGGLE IN YOUR CAREER JOURNEY?

The education, for one thing, was not easy. The long hours, and the amount of work and effort expected were rather daunting. I had decided I wanted a certain career and was willing to put forth the effort to get there. So I kept going. But the path was very steep.

And I did experience that call to teach. That calling required a Ph.D., which I had not previously considered.

Remarkably, perhaps, I once gave up my profession. I had a Ph.D., which is not really a requirement for building pole barns and being a free lance artist. And I am not sure it helped. But I once turned my back on my Ph.D. realizing that the word within the profession was that if you left science for 6 months you were out forever. I was returning to the intentional communities (the Shalom Covenant) and there was no possibility to live at Plow Creek Fellowship and be a biophysicist. So I built barns and worked at establishing myself as an artist.

This was not really a struggle. But it was dramatic period.

WHAT GREAT ADVICE HAVE YOU BEEN GIVEN?

To be patient.

I once wanted desperately to study in Germany. My undergraduate advisor told me frankly to wait until I had finished my studies and then go at the Germans’ expense. He pushed the advice by telling me that he would not take me on as a research student if I elected to step out for a year in Germany. I applied anyway. But as things turned out I did not go.

I wrote an undergraduate thesis under him and years later went to Germany at the Germans’ expense.

WHAT ARE YOU REALLY PROUD OF? (IN A MENNONITE, HUMBLE SORT OF WAY, OF COURSE)

What am I most thankful for is, perhaps, a better way of putting this.

I am most thankful for the ways I have apparently touched people with my artwork and for the fact that I seem to have been able to help many truly great students, who will go on to do more than I have.

WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO A YOUNG PERSON JUST STARTING OUT?

Pursue your interests. Do not be afraid because you think you may not succeed or because the road looks difficult.

You will, I suspect, not be happy just doing what you believe you are good at. Try to decide what you really find interesting and study that. Then work patiently and carefully. Nothing that is really worth your while will come quickly.

And, then, most importantly, as a Christian you should realize that you are first called to follow Jesus as a disciple.

WHAT WOULD YOU DO DIFFERENTLY?

Before answering this I must acknowledge that I was at a different place when I began my studies than I am now. Even though I think now that it would have been wiser to do other things, my choices then were not made with the wisdom of experience. But the question requires an answer.

There are a number of points at which I possibly could have done things differently, and perhaps should have.

I should have ignored my father’s advice and studied art. But I did love flight. And I was fairly young. So it was not difficult to think of a different career.

Then I should have left engineering earlier than I did. I spoke with a professor of physics when I was a junior and he outlined something of what he would have me do if I decided to move over. I should have dropped everything that afternoon and gone with this professor. He became one of the greatest historians of physics. And I loved history and the study of great ideas.

I should also have been more careful in choosing my Ph.D. advisor. I always carefully explain to my own students how terribly important it is to choose an advisor carefully considering many things besides just the research topic. You will do many things in life that are different from your Ph.D. dissertation.

But changing any of these, I have come to see in retrospect, may not have brought me to the place in which I now find myself. Life is long and full of twists and turns. And the future is always unknown.