Century of Science

Benedictine College Celebrates Science History — and Future

Benedictine College announced a year-long celebration of a “Century of Science” at its Atchison, Kan., campus. [Click here for the Century of Science main page.

The Aug. 21 solar eclipse is a major showcase for the sciences at Benedictine College. Campus eclipse events (click here for more information) have been featured in news stories nationwide. 

The college is marking the Century of Science by: 

  • Building the finest science and engineering building of any small college in America.
  • Building Daglen Observatory in support of our Astronomy Major. Benedictine is one of the few Catholic colleges in America to offer Astronomy.
  • Pursuing the goals of our academic plan Benedictine 2020: A Vision for Greatness to make Benedictine College the Catholic, liberal arts college that educates engineers, doctors, scientists and health care professionals for the 21st century.

In 1916, the college offered its first science degrees. Today, the college is looking to the next century of science with a planned new Science and Engineering building.

From the beginning, the college aimed for the highest possible standards in the sciences, sending monks to the best universities to offer students the best opportunities. Fifty years later, in the mid-1960s, a new state-of-the-art Science Hall put the sciences front and center on campus again. One of the first Biology graduates who took classes in the new building was Wangari Maathai, ’64, who would go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

• A Video Presentation •

New Science and Engineering Building

“The best way to honor a century of science at Benedictine College is to prepare ourselves for the next century of science,” said the college’s president, Stephen D. Minnis. “Benedictine College’s science mission is to be the Catholic, liberal arts college that educates aspiring engineers, doctors, scientists, and health care professionals for the 21st century.”

The $25 million Benedictine science and engineering building project will be the college’s largest capital project ever. The college worked with one of the nation’s leading science and technology architects to design the best science facilities possible for the needs of the college’s engineering, biology, chemistry and biochemistry, physics and astronomy departments.

The project includes a 40,000 square foot addition and a renovation of the 60,000 square foot existing science building. When it is complete Benedictine College will have the finest science and engineering building of any small college in America. Possibly the largest, too.

“This building is the product of more than 45 design meetings with science faculty for more than 170 total hours of faculty time, making this a building designed by our scientists, for our scientists,” said Dr. Kimberly Shankman, Dean of the College. “As a result, we have a high level of confidence that the building will serve our STEM departments well, now and into the future.”

Click here to see the building plans.

“Engineering and science at Benedictine has a great past and an impressive present,” said President Minnis. “It is our duty to be sure it has a future of greatness, too.”

Science Successes

Physics professor Dr. Doug Brothers, who has taught at Benedictine College since 1968, is in a position to know a good deal about the history of science at Benedictine.  He is a past winner of the Educator of Year Award, has received numerous National Science Foundation grants, served as department chair for 45 years and even served as Interim Dean of the College for 18 months.

“I am — we are — most proud of the accomplishments of our students, and of the outstanding character and dedication to learning of our current students,” he said. “We are proud of the professional accomplishments of our alums.”

Those alumni include:

  • Wangari Maathai, ’64, a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, who founded the Green Belt Movement in Kenya.
  • Patrick Gallagher, ’85,who as the 14th director of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology held one of the nation’s top science jobs. He is now Chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh.   
  • Doctors. Benedictine College has a long and proud track record of launching successful medical careers. Raven doctors in the 21st century have been physicians at Mayo Clinic, running rural health clinics, and teaching at KU Med. (Find a more complete medical alumni list here.)
  • Health Care Professionals. The Mother Teresa Center for Nursing and Health Education at Benedictine College, in clinical cooperation with the Dooley Center, a U.S. News & World Report top nursing facility in Atchison, has seen its graduates join teams at major hospitals. 
  • Career Scientists. Raven chemistry and biochemstiry graduates are active in pharmaceuticals, medicinal chemistry, synthesis, environmental sciences, forensics, drug discovery, biotechnology, molecular biology, and research.
  • Engineers. Benedictine College engineers are at work at a number of firms including Black & Veatch Corporation, Garmin, and Burns & McDonnell. Every graduate of the program has passed the Fundamentals of Engineering exam and has found success in his or her chosen career path.

“Our majors have been successful in finding employment,” said Dr. Paul Steinbach, chair of the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department. “Some of our majors have successfully gone to graduate schools — KU, Penn State, Purdue, University of Illinois-Chicago, MU, etc.  Last summer two of our biochemistry majors scored above 80 percentile on the MCAT for medical school and a third biochemistry major scored above 80 percentile on the PCAT for pharmacy school.”

"No matter what you do in a lab or a lecture, it’s artificial. Other disciplines know that because they have their students do internships," said Dr. Dan Bowen, longtime professor and former chair of the Biology Department. "What we have to do in the sciences is actually do science and what the work in the Benedictine Bottoms has done is give our students the opportunity to talk with the governor of Kansas, meet with the Corps of Engineers, interact with scientists and have a genuine impact on society."

Engineering chair Dr. Darrin Muggli attributes the success to the college’s strong mission. 

“Benedictine College intends to leverage its established liberal arts education to become the leader in undergraduate engineering education,” Muggli said. “No one else can do this the way we can. Benedictine College students can communicate effectively and they have a broader sense of the world. They analyze problems from many different angles and viewpoints.”

Stephen Schaad, a senior mechanical engineer, said the program provided great real-world preparation.

“At Lennox International, I was interning with students from Texas A&M, University of Texas at Arlington, Iowa State and Purdue. By far, I am not the best engineer at Benedictine, but compared to students from these other schools I was considered the best intern,” he said. “We are not just an engineering program we are a top engineering program.”

Faith and Science

James Nistler, a senior mechanical and general engineering student, had the same experience at his internship — and added that the Catholic character of the school is integral to its success. “My teachers at Benedictine College who not only instruct me in the technical aspects,” he said, “but demonstrate to me what it means to develop fortitude as I practice my Catholic faith in the workplace”

The Century of Science comes at a crucial time for the Church. Pope Francis has made science education a priority for colleges worldwide.

In his apostolic letter Evangelii Gaudium, he called Catholic higher education to “an encounter between faith, reason and the sciences.”

In his environmental encyclical Laudato Sí, he called for vigorous science programs at liberal arts schools, saying: “A science which would offer solutions to the great issues would necessarily have to take into account the data generated by other fields of knowledge, including philosophy and social ethics; but this is a difficult habit to acquire today.”

President Minnis sees advancement in STEM disciplines as central to the college’s faith-based mission.

“At Benedictine College, we believe faith, morality and ethics are just as important in the sciences as in every other part of our lives. They cannot be separated,” he said. “That is why it is so important to train future doctors, engineers and scientists at a place like Benedictine College that understands the essential role of faith, morality and ethics in the sciences.”

The college launched a prayer campaign in support of the new science and engineering capital project, called the Memorare Army for Benedictine Science Advancement (click here more information).

A Proud History

The 500-year history of the Benedictine order has seen monks and sisters on the forefront of important developments in education and technology. Below is a timeline showing how that commitment played out at Benedictine College:


St. Benedict’s College (SBC) is founded, offering Natural Science and soon Physics, Chemistry, Zoology and Botany.


The renamed “St. Benedict’s College of Arts & Sciences” offers its first B.Sc. Degree.


Mount St. Scholastica College (MSSC) is founded, offering Physical and Biological Science.


Future Benedictine College president Gerard Senecal, OSB, ’51, begins postgraduate studies in a science career that will take him to Goddard Space Flight Center, the Atomic Energy Commission, and co-authorship of a paper with Nobel Laureate Luis W. Alvarez.


First classes held in Westerman Hall, a building designed to maximize laboratory research opportunities.


Benedictine College competes for, and wins, a rare four National Science Foundation “Student Originated Studies”. 


Father Eugene Dehner, OSB, ’37, becomes legendary for graduating students into medical schools nationwide.


Dan Bowen, Doug Brothers, Mike O'Hare and Steve Schweizer launch the Discovery Program, giving students graduate-level research and presentation opportunities.


Dan Bowen and Martin Simon initiated Biology student research projects on the Benedictine Bottoms.


The Biology Department won the Heuer Award from the Council of Independent Colleges for “Outstanding Achievement in Undergraduate Science Education.”  


Wangari Maathai, ’64, Benedictine biology graduate, is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.


Benedictine College biologists participate in the U.S. Corps of Engineers’ Cottonwood Project, which expands habitats for bald eagles.


The Engineering Department is established, offering Mechanical, Chemical, Electrical and Civic Engineering. Nursing program established.


Today, Benedictine College is continuing its investment in the sciences. The college:

  • Invests more in STEM faculty than any other academic area, hiring 15 STEM professors in the past 10 years; more than any other area.
  • Invests far more yearly operating dollars to STEM disciplines than any other area.
  • Invests more in attracting science majors than any other students: Science majors receive the largest academic scholarships of any majors on campus. 

The investment pays off in the students the college attracts.

  • Benedictine College science students come with the highest average ACT scores and GPAs of any in the school.
  • The sciences produce the largest number of Discovery Day Projects, providing our students graduate-level science opportunities in experimentation and presentation.
  • Our science excellence helps Benedictine College become widely regarded as one of America’s best, rated a top-20 best college by U.S. News & World Report and the Newman Guide.

Benedictine College faculty achievements include:

  • Larry Sutton, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry, explores an answer to antibiotic-resistant superbugs and receives major pharmaceutical financing for the project. “I’ve invented a way to booby-trap antibiotics such that when bacteria try to inactivate them, they sort of do a counter-punch and kill the bacteria anyway,” he said. “These dual mechanism antibiotics have garnered the attention of renowned infectious disease scientists and big pharmaceutical companies, culminating this year in a multi-million dollar financing and the establishment of Gladius Pharmaceuticals to develop these new drugs.”
  • Darrin Muggli, engineering chair, was recently awarded his third patent in collaboration with a team creating a process related to the production of military-grade aviation fuel from crop oils. “The compounds we were creating were potentially more valuable than the main product,” Muggli said. “Our research is very often focused on practical solutions that industry can use.”
  • Faculty research. Includes research into invasive plants, esophageal cancer, high-level solar energy harvesting techniques and environmental impact studies. Click here for more examples.

As for the future?

The future of Benedictine College science will be shaped by the new science and engineering building.

Superbugs researcher Dr. Sutton said, “Upgrading and expanding our chemistry laboratories will benefit our student research by allowing us to expand our research into areas such as renewable fuels, molecular diagnostics, protein engineering, nanotechnology and computational chemistry.”

“Our greatest needs revolve around having modern laboratory space and facilities, and maintaining and upgrading our laboratory equipment to provide essential experiences for our students,” said Dr. Brothers.

Chemistry Chair Dr. Paul Steinbach said, “For the future, we need to emphasize and increase the recruitment of high-caliber science students in order to continue improving the academic reputation of science at Benedictine College.

That is one of the chief priorities of the college’s plan Benedictine 2020: A Vision for Greatness. Other priorities include the new science and engineering building and increased research time for faculty and a new science building. How would that time be used?

Said Doug Brothers: “to pursue their research interests, to remain active in their fields, and to mentor new generations of scientists.”

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