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At MIT, a new dimension of ministry

Chaplain gives ethical guidance

The metaphor for the Rev. Amy McCreath's unusual ministry hangs on the wall of her basement office. It's a cross formed from circuit boards.

As Episcopal chaplain at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology -- ''the galactic headquarters of scientism," in her words -- McCreath helps MIT students contemplate the ethical dimension of their scientific endeavors. The job involves more than filling the pews on Sundays. Four decades ago, the school's Episcopal chaplaincy created the Technology and Culture Forum, a program that invites noted speakers to campus to lecture on ethics and public policy.

A child of the Cold War, the forum initially focused on the ability of scientists to vaporize the world under nuclear mushroom clouds. (An early member of the program's steering committee had been involved in the Manhattan Project, said McCreath, the forum's coordinator.) These days, weapons production remains a recurring lecture topic, Other popular subjects are sustainable development and bioethics, including stem cell research.

''Our programs, we hope, give people the space to learn about [whether] the way they're using their skills . . . is meeting the world's greatest needs," McCreath said. ''If you decide to leave MIT and work for Raytheon or Dow Chemical, you can explain how you see that as a good decision for you . . . and the needs of the world that you want to meet, rather than just, 'Oh, they offered me the most money.' "

In the academic year just ending, forum speakers explored ''Nuclear Proliferation: Domestic and International," ''Beyond Agribusiness: New Models for Agricultural Production," ''Our Brains and Us," and ''Feeding the Global Poor: Innovations in Food Production."

The forum also hosted speakers on religious terrorism, the role of women in Islam, the rise of fundamentalism, and the American electoral system.

If the events may sound like ivory-tower gabfests, but the program has changed lives.

Cassandra Roth, wrapping up her sophomore year, planned to be a satellite design engineer until forum speakers awoke an interest in human rights and environmentalism. She spoke with her professors and asked them whether, given her new interests, she could still be an engineer ''and never take a job I thought was unethical. They said, 'Yes, it was possible, but . . . I'd probably have to quit a few places.' "

Now, Roth is leaning toward getting her degree in environmental science.

''When you're at MIT, you're just totally immersed in those science and technology courses," said alumnus Bashar M. Zeitoon, who received his undergraduate degree in 1987 and later earned a master's in chemical engineering. ''I was always interested in the social implications of technology. What does it mean? . . . But you're too busy with the engineering courses you take."

McCreath said courses scattered in the curriculum address ethical questions, but they aren't required for graduation.

After attending forum lectures, Zeitoon dropped plans for an engineering or business career and today works for Environmental Defense, a national advocacy group.

McCreath said she counsels several students a year who attend forum events and then find themselves questioning whether careers in science are what they really want. By hearing speakers from journalism, nonprofits, and other fields beyond science, students sample career options they might not have considered.

Scientists are stereotypically an agnostic bunch, and about 1,000 students, one-tenth of MIT's undergraduate and graduate enrollment, participate in religious activities, McCreath said. Still, religion is the launching pad for some students' ethical questions.

Part of ethics is dealing respectfully with those who disagree with you, but McCreath said that can be the toughest part of her job. This is, after all, a culture with best-selling books bearing such titles as ''Rush Limbaugh Is a Big, Fat Idiot" and ''How to Talk to a Liberal (If You Must)," she wrote in a recent article for a publication.

''Students and faculty often have very little experience or confidence entering into conversation with people who have different opinions from them," she said. That incivility occasionally creeps into forum lectures. ''Almost inevitably, when [MIT professor] Noam Chomsky's involved, there's somebody in the audience who has to stand up and denounce him and everything he's ever done."

Yet that may make the forum all the more vital to MIT.

''Serving Episcopal students through worship, Bible study, and doing pastoral care is important, but it's not enough," McCreath said. ''To really join God and what God is about at a place like MIT necessitates being out in the midst of the academic and technical life of the institute."

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