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Depth of Field

by Caitlin Gipson

Provost Mark Stanton, Ph.D., made a point to stop by the office of Rachel Castaneda, Ph.D., M.P.H. “I’m impressed by the space she has carved out for students to assist in her research,” Stanton said. “It serves as a reminder of the outstanding work our faculty members do on a daily basis.”

Over the last four years, Azusa Pacific has added 72 full-time faculty positions, and last year alone hired more than 90 faculty members like Castaneda. The vast majority boast terminal degrees, and all bring the impressive academic and industry credentials that have become standard on the APU campus. Castaneda; Terry Dobson, MFA; Bin Tang, Ph.D.; and Tom Cairns, DBA, exemplify a growing cohort of industry leaders and world-class researchers who recognize that the Christian academy, and APU specifically, offer an unparalleled opportunity for the advancement of their discipline. The resulting synergy affects faculty and students alike, and means that APU graduates emerge ready to live their faith while tackling some of the world’s toughest problems.

Rachel Castaneda, Ph.D., M.P.H.

For Castaneda, assistant professor of psychology, research at APU represents a personal crusade. Her research grew from her family’s pain. “My father came out of addiction when he was saved. As a result, I vowed to better equip communities to fight the poison of addiction.”

During her undergraduate work with UCLA’s prominent Medication Development Research Unit, she studied veterans’ mental health and co-occurring drug abuse. After shifting from research to practice, she discovered systemic flaws in substance abuse treatment. “We treated addiction like an acute illness needing short-term treatment. Substance abuse doesn’t have a quick fix. After the four-month program, users would ask, ‘Where do I go now?’ My heart knew, ‘You need God!,’ but I couldn’t say it.”

Resolving to fix the broken system, Castaneda pursued a master’s degree in public health. Then, during her doctoral work, she received the phone call that changed her focus to youth: at only 17, her brother had overdosed on drugs. “He needed God, but didn’t want to hear it. I had to try.”

She took her brother in and began to manage his treatment. Over several years, he turned away from his addiction. “I prayed over him constantly. I’d text him Scriptures or questions about his values and career goals.” Eventually, he entered college and transferred to UCLA. Today, he teaches elementary math and science in an inner-city community, and is working toward a doctorate in higher education.

“When I asked what made the difference in his recovery, he said, ‘It was the continued support you gave me asking about God and my purpose in life, and your encouraging text messages.’” This insight drove Castaneda to apply for a grant from the National Institute of Drug Abuse to develop programs that focused on continuing care, incorporating mobile texts to support youth substance abusers after treatment.

However, Castaneda knew ultimate success required God. “I was prevented from integrating faith into my work at UCLA, which constantly frustrated me.” A colleague suggested a faith-based institution, and when the grant transferred, she knew God wanted her at Azusa Pacific. “APU’s academic setting allows me to explore treatment elements that the secular academy overlooks. Here, I can empirically investigate faith-based models that inform practice.”

This integrated approach transfers to the classroom. “We analyze theory-based models through the lens of Scripture. Often, students find that theories alone ignore personal values and address life on a superficial level. The Bible offers a roadmap for loving someone in treatment. A Christian perspective provides more ethical treatment, a more effective program, and the hope of everlasting life.”

­­­According to Stanton, this integration of faith and discipline and a student development focus play crucial roles. “Our vision for academics calls for a cogent understanding of faith integration and spiritual formation and the continuous improvement of student learning. The commitment that Rachel has brought to her role exemplifies this vision.”

Terry Dobson, MFA

Dobson, assistant professor of art and design, views his move to APU as the logical next step in his growth as an artist and servant leader. Two decades at the Walt Disney Company took him from graphic designer to creative director. Throughout his career, Dobson focused on storytelling and socially interactive play. “My niche was conceiving new kinds of Disney theme park attractions, where I could craft an authentic narrative around genuine experiences to help families create lasting memories.”

He led the creative teams that designed two Innoventions pavilions–which allowed Disney guests to interactively play with near-future technologies—and based on those project successes, next told the stories of countries around the world through the Millennium Village pavilion at Disney’s Epcot Center. After the project won a THEA Award, the themed entertainment industry’s equivalent of an Academy Award, Dobson spearheaded the Virtual Magic Kingdom, Disney’s first massive multiplayer online theme park. “I harnessed this medium’s power to influence tweens for good purposes, by revealing the magic of the science behind Disney’s theme park rides to inspire the next generation of young scientists, engineers, and mathematicians.”

After 20 years with Disney, Dobson felt pulled toward something greater. “It was difficult to talk about faith in that environment.” The moment he stepped onto the APU campus, he knew he had found his calling. “The quality of the faculty artists impressed me, as did the students they produce: solid, mature, creative young people who speak eloquently about their work. At APU, I’m challenged to be a leader and role model. Here, it’s about educating the whole student. I’m carried by their passion for learning.”

“Terry exemplifies the kind of mentor-scholars we seek as part of APU’s Shared Vision 2022,” said Stanton. “They combine outstanding industry experience and connections with a heart for growing students as Christ followers, scholars, and practitioners.”

As a result of Dobson’s background, his design students receive a unique opportunity: their senior project calls for them to design Christian theme park attractions, the results of which are critiqued in class by a senior executive from the Walt Disney Company. “This provides an opportunity to impress a Disney executive and perhaps make connections for internships or interviews. But just as important, students learn about making mission their life. They aren’t just designers or artists; they’re storytellers who can combine their faith with their creativity. Designers as authors of original content—that’s how they’ll make a real difference.”

Bin Tang, Ph.D.

Tang, assistant professor of computer science, chose APU to bring wholeness to his life as a researcher. The former Wichita State University professor studies computer algorithms and how sensor networks can tackle “Big Science” problems like climate change, renewable energy, or earthquake prediction. “I wanted an academically rigorous school that supported my research and emphasized both science and spiritual beliefs. Our culture often pits science and faith against each other, but I’m convinced that they don’t conflict. At APU, they are both integral.”

A recent National Science Foundation grant has allowed Tang to take his research and APU student involvement to the next level. He now works with five computer science students to tackle new sensor network problems and publish the results. “When sensors operate in harsh environments such as oceans, volcanoes, or glaciers, preserving the large amount of data they generate while taking into account storage and energy constraints poses a challenging problem. We must postpone battery drain and energy depletion in order to harvest the information gathered before the system dies. This presents multiple algorithmic problems that we hope to solve.”

The project gives students a glimpse into the practical side of scientific advancement. “To address ‘Big Science’ problems, we boil them down to a set of well-formulated algorithmic problems,” he explained. “Science is teamwork. We work together to confront large problems, one small step at a time. I hope that by letting students work on fundamental problems derived from real-world applications, they will be inspired to think more deeply and tackle them from angles that have never been studied before.”

Stanton agreed: “Every scholar exists in community, building on the work of others.” Student involvement in high-caliber research speaks to APU’s academic focus, and Stanton asserts, offers life-changing perspective to the students involved. “It gives a sense of the difference they can make. It’s not esoteric, or research for research’s sake. This is applied, real-life research—the results of which make a tangible difference in people’s lives.”

Tom Cairns, DBA

Cairns, associate professor of business and management, considers his move to APU as part of a progression of increasingly meaningful career roles. After leaving the military, he worked his way up the ladder in various human resource roles for NBC, managing culture change and human resources as the company bought television stations and other business units. Eventually, he managed the human side of NBC’s acquisition of Universal Studios. “I learned that though people are different, their issues remain the same. Everybody wants to engage in something meaningful.”

After 11 years as the senior vice president of human resources for NBC Universal, he took early retirement and that’s when he got The Call. “Nothing gets your attention quite like the question, ‘Will you serve at the pleasure of the President of the United States of America?’” said Cairns. “My work in entertainment was important, but this was an opportunity to serve my country.” As chief human capital officer under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama from 2008–09, Cairns oversaw human resource management and training for the Department of Homeland Security’s 200,000 employees. “I was involved in significant group processes there. We transitioned from one administration to another, so from a strategic standpoint, the government went through an acquisition.”

When his government role came to a close, he chose to apply his whole being to the subject of organizational leadership. “Our values have a dramatic impact on our character as leaders,” Cairns explained. “In a secular environment, I could go right up to the edge, but at APU, I can jump off into what really helped me be effective as a leader.”

Cairns enjoys weaving faith into the graduate classes he teaches online and on campus. “Students must understand that faith isn’t a separate component of their being, but rather it’s a fundamental part of their character as a leader.” His most popular assignment, a faith integration journal, frequently triggers important discussions about how God’s unconditional love translates into a business setting. Moreover, Cairns emphasizes that faith makes his students more than just businesspeople. “Believers exist across a large variety of industries. Businesspeople go into areas where no pastor can reach—YOU are the missionary.”

APU’s Shared Vision 2022 focuses on academic reputation, but Stanton contends that reputation must reflect quality. “Our continued ability to attract outstanding faculty who have secured recognition for their expertise affirms the quality of faculty who already exist on campus,” he explained. “Our commitments to Christ and scholarship allow faculty to integrate faith into their discipline. Rather than detracting from their commitment to their discipline, it adds to it. APU represents an opportunity for our faculty to be congruent, to live out who they are.”

Caitlin Gipson ’01 is a freelance writer, marketing consultant, and search engine optimizer in Reedley, California. apucaitlin@gmail.com

"We analyze theory-based model through the lens of Scripture. Often, students find that theories alone ignore personal values and address life on a superficial level.... A Christian perspective provides more ethical treatment, a more effective program, and the hope of everlasting life." - Rachel Castaneda, Ph.D., M.P.H.
"Every scholar exists in community, building on the work of others. It gives a sense of the different they can make. It's not esoteric, or research for research's sake. This is applied, real-life research--the results of which make a tangible difference in people's lives." - Provost Mark Stanton, Ph.D.

Originally published in the Spring '13 issue of APU Life. Download the full issue (PDF).