Catholic Women in STEM: Leading With Faith in a Secular World

“For it is [the task] of natural science not simply to accept what we are told but to inquire into the causes of natural things” St Albertus Magnus.


“Hey, you have some dirt on your forehead.”

This phrase, which I hear almost every Ash Wednesday, embodies my experience as a Catholic in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). Classmates and co-workers notice something different about me but don’t quite know what to do with it. 

Ever since I moved to the south in 2008, every year on Ash Wednesday, somebody has pointed out this “dirt on my forehead.” At first, it had more to do with the rarity of seeing a Catholic in North Carolina (where Catholics only make up about 3% of the population). However, as I moved to Atlanta and progressed to graduate school and beyond, this confusion about the dirt on my forehead never dissipated.

At first, I was confused by the confusion. Catholicism is a major religion. How could there be people who had never heard of Ash Wednesday? However, over the years I have realized that this moment, and others like it, are opportunities to share my faith and traditions with my ever-curious fellow scientists, the majority of whom are atheist or agnostic.

After just over a decade in this environment, I have developed a few strategies to share my faith in the secular world. Here are a few:

1. Don’t Be Shy

While I do not go out of my way to evangelize at work, I do not hide my faith. In my case, I wear a small pendant necklace with the Virgin Mary on it every day. It is a small, simple piece of jewelry that invites questions from those who are curious. When co-workers are discussing their upcoming weekends, I share my plans to teach faith formation at my parish and the funny things the little third-graders say. Both my jewelry and my time commitments are important indicators of my faith, and I do not hide them, even in secular settings.

2. Be Open

At first, when people asked about my faith or my pendant, I tried to end the conversation as quickly as possible with short one-liners. These conversations made me hyper-aware of the fact that I was one of very few religious people in the vicinity, which made me extremely uncomfortable. However, with time, I have come to realize that the curious are rarely harmful. While they may not expect that their fellow scientist has a devout Catholic faith, they are never offended by it. They sometimes even ask further questions about how I have maintained my faith and why it is important to me. I have learned that it’s important to be open to conversation and cultural exchange wherever possible.

3. Don’t Expect to Change Yourself or Others

One of my nonreligious friends once told me that what he likes about me is that I am deeply religious without trying to convert everyone in sight. While there are those who are called to missionary work or other explicit forms of evangelization, I do not feel that is my role. My form of evangelization is simply being witness to the secular community. Therefore, I treat any of these encounters as a simple exchange of information. I let people know that they may ask me anything at any time and are welcome to join me at Mass if they are curious. These invitations let people know that they are always welcome to join the faith.

Don’t be afraid to share with the world the story behind your faith! You may be surprised to find that someone else wants some dirt on their forehead, too.

Alessandra Richardson is a second-generation Cuban-American who lives in Atlanta with her husband, Christopher. She has a Ph.D. in cancer biology and works as a medical writer creating clinical trials communication pieces for physicians. She is also director of digital communications at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Atlanta (@sacredheartatl).