PHILADELPHIA n As a 19thcentury Augustinian friar, Gregor Mendel was expected to pursue his groundbreaking genetics research with the same passion he reserved for his religious studies.
Combining those disciplines isn't popular today. Villanova University, an Augustinian Roman Catholic college, is trying to change that by highlighting Mendel's work.
The school will declare the "Year of Mendel" starting this fall and is sponsoring an exhibit on his work at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. The effort complements an award Villanova has given since 1928, the Mendel Medal, to scientists who balance religious conviction and scientific progress.
"Saint Augustine talked about the pursuit of … knowledge and truth," said the Rev. Kail Ellis, dean of Villanova's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. "Certainly the sciences (are) a key part of our knowledge and our ability to function in the world."
This year's medal recipient, the Rev. George V. Coyne, directed the Vatican Observatory for 28 years until retiring in 2006. An astronomer and astrophysicist, Coyne pointed to the very existence of the observatory as evidence that the church sees faith and science as compatible.
"The same God that created the universe that I study as a scientist is the God who spoke to the Jewish people of old," he said.
But shrill voices from both the scientific and religious communities have created a tense climate for researchers in the United States, said Francis Collins, outgoing director of the National Human Genome Research Institute and recipient of the Mendel Medal in 1998.
Extremes in the debate can be seen in recent books by atheists who excoriate faith and in the new Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky., Collins said. The museum, which advocates a literal interpretation of the Bible, has attracted more than 400,000 visitors since it opened a year ago.
"Mendel would be horrified to see the way in which people are being asked to make a choice between God and science," Collins said. "That's an unnecessary choice."
Most people are inclined both toward a spiritual side of human existence and to trust science as well, said Collins, author of "The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief."
Catholics are more likely than other Americans to believe in evolution. A survey conducted last year by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found 58 percent of Catholics believed in evolution compared with 48 percent for the nation as a whole.
Influential Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn of Vienna, who has been speaking about evolution and faith, has affirmed that the Catholic Church rejects creationism. In a 2007 speech in New York, he said that "the first page of the Bible is not a cosmological treatise about the coming to be of the world in six days." He also said that "the Catholic faith can accept" the possibility that God uses evolution as a tool. But he said science alone cannot explain the origins of the universe.
At Villanova, which serves about 6,300 undergraduates in suburban Philadelphia, a two-day symposium on "Mendel in the 21st Century" is set for September. The school, which already boasts the Mendel Science Center, will also begin a campuswide sustainability initiative.
In addition, Villanova is sponsoring "Gregor Mendel: Planting the Seeds of Genetics" through Sept. 28 at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. The national traveling exhibit uses interactive displays to show how Mendel determined the laws of heredity, and where science has gone since then n from the discovery of DNA to modern-day
Mendel's research literally grew from 28,000 pea plants in the garden of his abbey in what is now the Czech Republic. His glasses, microscope, slides, journals, gardening tools and his own notated copy of "On the Origin of Species" n the seminal book on evolution by Charles Darwin n are included in the exhibit.
Mendel's work was not recognized until after he died and many of his personal effects were not saved. He presented his findings in 1865 but they were largely overlooked until other scientists essentially replicated them at the turn of the century.
"The world wasn't quite ready for what he had discovered," said Jacquie Genovesi, senior director of education at the Academy of Natural Sciences.
"What he discovered was pretty amazing."