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Faith and Vocation: Coleson Wrege

By Coleson Wrege

Give us a brief overview of your work and its responsibilities.

I currently work and go to school at the University of Florida as a Graduate Researcher as of August 2021. About 10 years ago in college, I discovered a passion for aquatic entomology (the study of insects living in water). Since then, I have worked for an environmental consulting firm, gone to graduate school for aquatic entomology, worked for the US Forest Service, and taught at a technical college before landing at UF. While at UF, I have been studying the insects that live in wetlands in north-central Florida. While in field season, I primarily visit wetlands in the area, collect insects, and gather information pertaining to plants or nutrients in the water. Most of the insects I study are very small (<1 cm in length), and I look at structures such as their mouthparts or legs under the microscope to identify them. I then analyze what I have studied and write about the findings as part of my dissertation. I have also mentored undergraduate student researchers on their projects or as they help me with my research. It brings me joy to see students take ownership of a project or to learn something new as they develop as scientists.

I have taken many courses that vary from learning about insects in their environments, to freshwater ecosystems, to statistics. One of my favorite classes was Field Ecology of Aquatic Organisms, where I got to explore different habitats from the east to west coast of Florida and learn about the plants and animals that live here. A highlight was seeing a tiny seahorse out at Cedar Key! In addition, I have enjoyed helping as a teaching assistant where I have led discussions on research papers, prepared some lectures, and assisted with grading. A few times throughout the year, I collect insects and have live displays at UF or community events. Children are usually the most adventurous, touching or holding baby dragonflies or water scorpions while many of the parents cautiously approach the table wondering if anything will sting or bite them. I love seeing the enthusiasm and joy of children when they discover something new and parents or other adults learning about the importance of these organisms. Lastly, I’ve been involved in the graduate student organization for our program and helped host outreach and educational events while promoting the various research that happens through our program.

How does your vocation contribute to the common good?

I have always enjoyed being in creation and seeing God’s majesty (Job 12:7-10, Psalm 19:1-2). In my area of study, I have the privilege of seeing this on a small scale as I learn more about insects and share this passion and perspective with others. One of my favorite perspectives to share with others is that I witness the beauty in landscapes such as mountains and oceans, which contrasts with the microscopic, minute details in insects, all while marveling that God has chosen us as the pinnacle of creation (Psalm 8:3-9). This is not due to any merit of our own, but to share in His love and glorify His name. God has authored so many organisms that blow my mind, including caddisflies (Trichoptera), which live underwater in cases constructed of sticks, leaves, or sand held together with waterproof silk. There are also fairyflies (Mymaridae), that are so small that they look like a speck or are invisible to the naked eye but can float through the air on wings fringed with hairs. There are beetles adorned with brilliant colors (such as the rainbow scarab beetle, Phanaeus sp.) that are due to the structures of their exoskeleton. Yet in the midst of these marvels, I am reminded that God wants to be in relationship with us, a perspective I am so grateful for.

In a more general sense, when I study the natural world, I see many important applications ranging from stewarding resources sustainably, to providing ecosystem services or inspiring new inventions, to understanding how the natural world functions. When studying wetlands (and the insects that live in them) we understand the importance of healthy water. We can provide recommendations to land managers on how certain practices can impact wetlands or the role of wetlands and their organisms in the ecosystem. As a teacher, I am very passionate about sharing my knowledge with others, and I particularly enjoy mentoring undergraduate students as they discover their passions and gain research experience they can use for future careers.

How do you experience brokenness in your vocation?

There are many areas of brokenness I experience in this vocation, ranging from the politics of academia to materialistic naturalism (a focus on natural materials and denying the possibility of the supernatural or spiritual; 1 Corinthians 2:14). Academia can be very cutthroat and elitist, which can be frustrating when pursuing knowledge, researching, or interacting with others. Sometimes, research or science are deemed more important than relationships.

One surprise I have heard many times is that many people go into a natural resources career to limit how much they work with other people. While this has saddened me, as I get to know people, I often hear how they have been hurt by the brokenness of others and this world. I think this speaks in part to some common human conditions: the desire to be part of something bigger (Psalm 133:1), thinking there must be more than the brokenness of this world (Ecclesiastes 1-3, Habakkuk 1:2-4), and to try and minimize or retaliate against the hurt we experience in life  While I believe nature/creation are a gift from God to enjoy and are a witness of His handiwork, the enemy wants us to feel this vastness is what we need to be a part of or to worship it rather than the Creator Himself (Romans 1:25), which can manifest in various ways in this vocation. While no one wants to be hurt by others, there can be a tendency to withdraw or retaliate rather than forgive. Others seek solace in work or nature rather than pursuing reconciliation and healthy relationships. While I cannot expect forgiveness or reconciliation to be the response of non-believers, it challenges me to demonstrate what a Christ-like relationship can look like in this vocation.

What do you do to prepare yourself to face that brokenness?

There are a few ways I have found to prepare for this brokenness: First, I listen to people and their experiences/stories. We all need community, and to those who haven’t experienced Gospel-centered community (Matthew 18:20, Romans 15:5-7), simply listening can be very meaningful. Especially when people have been hurt by others, I have found that empathy is one of the best tools, as I look to Jesus’ example of care and compassion (Matthew 9:36, Matthew 22:39). In addition, I don’t have to agree with people’s worldviews, but by being someone they can be open with, I can build relationship with them.

Second, is a readiness to share and live out the Gospel to the best of my abilities (1 Peter 3:15). While there have been a few times I have encountered resistance to the Gospel or Christianity, most people I interact with are willing to listen, especially when rapport has been built and I have heard their stories. There have been a few times to bring up reasons for the existence of God or have other conversations surrounding worldviews, but most of the time, people are most interested in the relational side.

Finally, I need to be equipped to face not only the brokenness in this vocation, but in my own life, by spending time in Scripture, prayer, and community with other believers. Being reminded of my and everyone’s need of a Savior (Ephesians 2:1-3, Romans 3:23) helps my heart and mind be ready to face this brokenness with truth and love, gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15b), and to share the hope that there is in Christ (Ephesians 2:4-10, Romans 3:24).

How can you glorify God in your vocation?

There are many ways to glorify God as a scientist. I try to work with diligence in what He has called me to do while not idolizing my work (Colossians 3:23-24), which is a challenge that is not unique to graduate school or being a scientist. I seek relationships with others where I can teach and invest in them. I help others with their research when and where I am able. When opportunities arise, I share the Gospel and why it brings me hope (John 3:16-17, 1 Peter 3:15). It is also important to ask others for help (Proverbs 4:5, 13), including my advisor and fellow graduate students, as they have much wisdom and other expertise for collaboration.

A continuous journey for me as I seek to glorify God in my vocation is learning more about Him in general, and how to apply the Gospel to my vocation in each season. I cling to the promise that I and all others in Christ are freed from condemnation and are called to live in and by the Spirit (Romans 8:1-17). I hope to grow in listening to the Spirit’s nudges each day, that my heart would be malleable to what God calls me to (Ezekiel 36:25-27). My prayer is that I would grow in relationship with God daily to share His love with others and glorify His name while studying these amazing insects.