The Theologian, Rachel Erin Stuart

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Spotlight on Hidden Physicists

The Theologian, Rachel Erin Stuart

PhD student, Hebrew Bible, Emory University Graduate Division of Religion, Sigma Pi Sigma, University of Rochester, 2012

I’m really just a polymath at heart. I started my undergrad studies wanting to go into theoretical physics or possibly music theory, but by the end of my junior year, one too many people had asked me why I wasn’t applying to seminary. Now I’m in the ordination process in the United Methodist Church (UMC), studying for my PhD in Hebrew Bible at Emory University and learning about digital scholarship. In my free time (what little exists), I sew much of my wardrobe, write hymns, and do armored combat and scribal work in the Society for Creative Anachronism, among other things.

I’ve never not wanted a PhD, so I’m thrilled to finally be at this stage of my academic career. I absolutely adore learning languages, and studying the Hebrew Bible is a delightful excuse to learn Middle Egyptian, Ugaritic, Akkadian, and Sumerian, in addition to all the modern languages I’m learning on Duolingo now that I’ve passed my German and French exams.

I also TA regularly—especially at the Candler School of Theology—and am a graduate intern at the Emory Center for Digital Scholarship, working primarily on the Sounding Spirit project. The project is creating digital and print editions of five major books of American sacred music from the late 1800s to the early 1900s.

As part of the ordination process, I’m a provisional elder, both to Emory and to the local church I attend, North Decatur UMC. As the theologian-in-residence I’m responsible for various pastoral tasks that include preaching, leading congregational classes (usually on books of the Bible), and writing portions of the updated liturgy for our traditional service. I’ve always been a total church nerd and love high church liturgy (the “smells and bells” type of worship service), so the fact that I get to be part of the team that’s making our service a little more liturgical is wonderful.

I already believed the liberal arts approach to education was a good idea when I was young, but it’s been borne out in my career so far—having some training in pretty diverse fields has been indispensable to just about everything I’ve done up to now, and I only want it to become more so as time goes on.

To aspiring physicists, I say stick with it if you really want to be in the field (that goes for anything, especially in academia), but don’t be afraid to let your interests change if they need to—and take physics with you if they do. Even if you land in the humanities or in the church or somewhere else that people tend to perceive as completely disconnected from science, you’ll find that having that training can help shape the kinds of questions you ask, how you analyze data, and what kinds of patterns you look for. If you work with colleagues who are primarily trained in the field you choose, a physics background can bring some added creativity and innovation to your work.
The same goes for those who follow a STEM path: Get as much training in the humanities as you can, because it will change the kinds of questions you ask and the way you approach both your theoretical work and the practical implications of what you do.

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