Beside Still Waters: A Geophysicist's Path
The summer of 1953—the summer after finishing my first year of study in electrical engineering at National Taiwan University—I returned home to Taichung for summer vacation. A friend of my older brother came for a visit, and he told us things we had never heard before—things about God and His salvation through the crucifixion of Jesus. I found what this friend said very hard to believe, so I argued hotly. But what he said aroused my interest. Up to this point in my life, as a student with heavy class loads, I had had no opportunity to explore the issues of life: Where did we come from? What was the meaning of life? Where will we go after death? But now, I couldn't get out of my mind what this friend had said, and I wanted to know more.
During the next four years, I attended various church meetings in my spare time. I began to read the Bible and Christian books, as well as books about other religions to know what they had to say. My interest was to search objectively for truth—not some soothing teachings. The biblical teaching about one true God and His love and plan for saving mankind from sin and death through His son's incarnation and death on the cross sounded good, but I wanted to make sure this was true. I found it difficult to accept that I—like everyone else—was sinful, since I was considered a nice son at home and a good student at school. In time, however, I came to understood that God measures by a higher standard than human standards.
When I realized that by God's standard I was a sinner, I began to examine myself and found many sinful elements in my heart: selfishness, hatred, jealousy, lust, and even “little” misconducts like buying a short-distance bus ticket when I was actually taking a longer ride. But I found it hard to believe that I was a “slave” to sin, as the Bible says. So I began to try to live a perfectly moral life, without any sin—big or small. But it did not take long for me to realize that I could not do so! No matter how hard I tried, it was natural for me to become hateful when mistreated, jealous when I felt inferior to someone, proud when I did better than others, and greedy and lustful when tempted by circumstances. I realized that not only was I a sinner, but that I was indeed a slave to sin and needed the deliverance that Jesus promised: Therefore, if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed (John 8:36).
One evening, in 1957, I attended a gospel meeting at a church in Shinchu, where I was serving as an ROTC Air Force officer. When the preacher finished his message and invited people to accept Jesus by going to the front, I rose up from a back seat and went forward. After the meeting, I walked back to my dormitory in drenching rain without an umbrella. Being quite late, I dried myself, changed clothes, and went straight to bed to sleep. When I woke up, the sun was already shining brightly in the room. I realized that I had slept soundly—not just for a few seconds, but the whole night! I felt a peace and joy in my heart like I had never experienced before. Everything seemed so fresh and beautiful. I felt like asking everyone I met: “Are you a Christian?” I began to see things differently—to feel life to be more meaningful and bright, and to value eternal spiritual things more than temporary material things. My life was being greatly changed!
Accepted at Duke
During my college years in Taiwan, I never dreamed of doing graduate studies in the U.S. However, when my brother found a well-paying job in Taiwan, funds became available for me to study abroad. In my application process, I included Duke University, along with several other universities.
For a recommendation letter, I went to see Professor Chu in the electrical engineering department at my university, and he gave me a handwritten draft, which I gave to my brother to type, because he was the only person I knew who had a typewriter. In his eagerness to help, he not only typed the letter but also signed it, using the professor's name. I knew the signature was not genuine, but I reluctantly sent the letter to Duke, knowing the text had not been altered. But as soon as I put the letter in the mail, I began to have a sense of guilt that I could not get rid of. Finally, I was compelled to go to Professor Chu and tell him what I had done. He was displeased, understandably, but he advised me not to do anything more about the matter, for it might cause us to “lose face” as Chinese. But after more struggles and prayer—and against some friends’ counsel—I sent a letter to Duke, embarrassingly confessing that the signature of the letter was not genuine. Afterwards, I had peace in my heart, but I thought I might have ruined my chance of going to Duke. However, a few weeks later, I got a reply from Duke, asking me to send them another letter signed by Professor Chu—which I did. In response, Duke offered me a $600 research assistantship. Thus, I was admitted to Duke—not knowing that it was a private university, charging higher tuition.
After securing my visa, I began a long flight to the U.S. in an old propeller airplane that took me to Okinawa, Guam, and Honolulu, before finally landing at Oakland airport in California. From there, I took a three-day and four-night bus trip across the U.S. with only about $115 left in my pocket. I could not lie down to sleep, because I had to constantly watch out for stations to transfer, and I was terribly hungry, because I did not know what food to buy, not knowing what a hamburger or hot dog was. When I arrived at Duke, my advising professor and chairman of the electrical engineering department, Dr. Vail, could see that I was exhausted. He kindly called in a fellow student and asked him to take me to his apartment for the night.
The next day, when I went to see my professor again, I was pleasantly surprised to hear that he had decided to raise my assistantship to $1,000. One of the first courses I took was taught by this professor. He kindly repeated his first lecture, which I had missed, and slowed his lecture pace for me, although the other classmates were all Americans. Other professors (most of them Christians), staff members, and students were very kind to me as well.
Sometime later, Professor Vail invited me for lunch and told me why they granted me the assistantship. It had been decided in a faculty meeting of the engineering college. When the dean heard about the matter of my recommendation letter, he suggested that “this student should be supported.” When I confessed my wrongdoing to Duke, I was only trying to obey God's leading, in order to keep a clean conscience—without regard to possible consequences. The outcome was totally beyond my expectation and a very welcomed blessing!
From this experience, I learned an important lesson as a Christian: live life trusting and obeying God, and He will direct your path. I have experienced the truth of these Bible verses many times: ‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,’ says the LORD. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts’ (Isaiah 55:8–9, NKJV).
Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths (Proverbs 3:5–6).
Miracles Do Happen
During my two years at Duke, I studied hard in order to prepare to transfer to a graduate school for my PhD studies. I chose Princeton because of my intention to shift my major to physics—in accordance with my interest in seeking truth—and Princeton was known for its physics department. However, the first course on theoretical mechanics that I took in this field was very difficult for me, as I had a poor background in physics. I worried about the possibility of failing and consequently being kicked out of the university—and the country! As the final exam approached, my mind was foggy and I could not absorb what I was studying. I began to pray earnestly. Then, on the last day before the exam, a bright light began to shine into my mind and dispersed all the fog! By the time of the examination, I found myself quite well-prepared and calm! Prayerfully, I entered the classroom and took the examination sheet from the professor. At the end of the examination, I had solved all the given problems.
After about a week, I went to see the professor to inquire about my grade. While I stood anxiously by his desk, he pulled out a record book from a drawer and cast a strange look at me, saying that my grade was “1”. (The range for grades was from 1 to 7, with 1 at the top.) This was way beyond my expectation, and I was so glad and grateful to God for His timely and wonderful help. For me, it was a “supernatural” experience, and it greatly strengthened my faith in God. It helped me believe in the reality of the many miracles recorded in the Bible.
Unfortunately, at Princeton, I failed the qualifying examination and was not given a chance to take it again. Thus, I fell into the same awful situation that I had dreaded previously. At this critical juncture, a fellow graduate student told me he had an extra application form to Cornell University. For recommendation, I asked the help of my adviser at Princeton, Dr. Warfield, who had gotten his PhD from Cornell. Dr. Fullerton, from Princeton Evangelical Fellowship, helped me get transportation to Cornell, where two brilliant young professors—who had just arrived at Cornell themselves—interviewed me. One of them, Dr. Webb, accepted me as his first PhD student—and he offered me a research assistantship! I returned to Princeton to share the good news with Dr. Fullerton, and we joyfully gave thanks and praised God together. Later, I discovered pleasantly that the switch from Princeton to Cornell had not only led me closer to the field of physics as I had wanted, but also got me into an academically stronger department. In addition, because Cornell had girl students—unlike Princeton at that time—I got the chance to meet the girl who later became my wife.
Romance and Marriage
My life as a graduate student at Cornell during 1961-1965 under Professor Webb's guidance was busy, fruitful, and happy. Soon after my arrival, I joined a small group of Chinese students who met weekly for Bible study. The second semester, a beautiful new face showed up, belonging to Bi-Shia, who had just arrived from Taiwan. I soon learned that Bi-Shia was from a well-to-do family in southern Taiwan. She had been offered admission and a research assistantship two-and-a-half years before, but she was not able to pass the government-required tests that included subjects on politics and Chinese geography and history. Yet Cornell renewed their offer repeatedly. In 1962, when these requirements were abolished, Bi-Shia wasted no time in getting ready for the trip to the U.S. Arriving tired, hungry, frustrated, helpless, and humbled, when invited to dinner and a Bible study, she gladly accepted, though she felt she had no need for God.
Bi-Shia and I often studied in the library together and took walks on the beautiful campus, located on top of a hill with a lake and two gorges with flowing streams. We soon fell in love. In hindsight, though both of us had been frustrated by our respective failures, they turned out to be blessings in disguise. The timing of our arrivals at Cornell was just right to enable us to meet each other—God was leading us along His path for our lives!
During our months of romance, we talked about our future. One evening, I commented to Bi-Shia that I would go wherever God wanted me to go—even to Africa. She, on the other hand, was dreaming of having a comfortable married life with a husband of good reputation as a scientist. She had been raised in a well-to-do family and did not want to go to Africa to live a difficult life and possibly suffer poverty and danger. But she did not want to part from me either. In her quandary—and with a tangled mind—she prayed, “Oh, God, if You truly exist, please untie all the many knots in my heart. And if Chi-Yu is the man You mean to be my husband, please bless our marriage.” After this prayer, she felt peaceful and knew that God had heard her prayer. She was certain that God existed; she was assured that our marriage was in God's will; and she became a true follower of Christ. From this point, things of the world lost their glitter for her, and she was willing to live a simple life with me.
After our marriage, we lived a frugal life even with two incomes, because we needed to save half of my income to help my parents and five younger siblings back in Taiwan. Even so, we did not worry, but trusted God for everything. We were very busy and very happy. When our first daughter was born, we had saved $350 to cover the delivery, and when the bill came, it was exactly $350. We praised God for His care and sufficient provision.
Our daughter brought us a lot of joy and not much distraction from our studies. This was especially so when a nice elderly Christian lady came to stay with us. She was none other than the mother of the friend who had first told me about Christ. She stayed with us until I almost completed my studies at Cornell in September of 1965.
Headed to a Career
When I was about to graduate, I received an offer of a post-doctoral research fellowship in seismology at Caltech (California Institute of Technology), where many famous seismologists had worked. This offer was attractive, because my thesis research was on fracture, and earthquakes are a large-scale fracture problem important to society. So I accepted this offer, and we started to get ready for the trip across the U.S.—from Ithaca, New York, to Pasadena, California. We bought a new little VW “Beetle” using the $1,600 saved from Bi-Shia's one-year income after she finished her MS study. God had once again provided for all our needs! Thus, we began our professional lives—I as a Christian scientist, working in the field of geophysics.
Today in retirement, as I look back over my life and the wonderful career I've had as a geophysicist, I can only rejoice in the path the Lord chose for me and my family. He has led us like a Good Shepherd—beside still waters and in paths of righteousness (Psalm 23:2,3). Our cup overflows!