Sci. Sit-Down: Q&A with Matthew Heun


Matthew Heun is a longtime professor in the engineering department. Photo by David Fitch.

Every few weeks, Chimes publishes an interview with a science division professor to get to know them: their personalities, their research and their aspirations. We sat down with professor Matthew Heun of the Engineering department.

Heun is in his fifteenth year at Calvin and specializes in the study of energy, specifically the mechanical field, focusing on fluids. Heun returned from his sabbatical last year, in which he accompanied his wife, Tracey Kuperus, an International Development Studies professor, on the semester trip to Ghana.


Chimes: Can you tell me a bit about yourself outside the classroom, where you’re from, what you like to do?

Heun: From? Kalamazoo.

And what I like to do? I’m a big soccer fan. I’m full of darkness about the US national team failing to qualify. I don’t know what next summer is going to be like. A lot different than I expected it to be. That’s for sure.

I really enjoy chasing my children around to their various activities. My son, who’s 17, just got his driver’s license.  My daughter is a middle schooler who enjoys playing volleyball. So, I like to go watch her games.

I’m a little bit of an amateur runner.

I really enjoy traveling and being on the African continent.

Chimes: What is your specialty?

Heun: My background is in energy…I worked for a time for NASA at the jet propulsion laboratory and I was the second employee for an aerospace R&D company that I sorted started with some friends of mine.

My aerospace stuff went on for about 10 years and then I came to Calvin. I found myself teaching the mechanical energy type classes, so then I started looking into sustainable and renewable energy systems. And then within that, I started asking myself, “Why aren’t we moving more quickly to a sustainable energy future?”

And every time I sort of poked at an answer to that question, the answers always were intertwined with the economy in one way or another or concern that economic growth would falter and therefore sort of hurt the wellbeing of people all over the place.

So, then, I thought, I’d better learn about this economics stuff a little bit. That’s when I taught myself a dangerous amount of economic growth theory. And in the process of doing that, I learned about these other economic techniques, these input-output analyses.

Chimes: What was it like to work at NASA?

Heun: It was a lot of fun. And it was fun because there’s sort of a national profile to what NASA does that makes it a sort of vibrant place to work. It was fun because the unofficial motto around JPL [the Jet Propulsion Laboratory] goes something like “If it’s been done before, we’re not interested.”

And there were some really fantastic human beings and people with a ton of technical ability and smarts. They just have fantastic engineers there. I loved it.

Part of my work was in an area of JPL called “Advanced Concepts,” so we were looking at concepts or ideas for missions that would be 10–15 years in the future.

Chimes: As an energy-savvy person, what kind of car do you drive?

Heun: I drive a little, tiny Toyota Echo. It’s a four-cylinder. My neighbor joked to me that it has a sewing machine engine in it. That’s the car I usually drive.

Chimes: Have there been points in your life when you’ve gotten sick of what you’re doing?

Heun: I once taught a refrigeration class in Cape Town [South Africa], and I met a guy there from Rhodes University in Grahamstown South Africa and he was a facilities manager. He said to me once, “I love my job. And everyday I go to my job it doesn’t feel like work because it just feels like what I ought to be doing with my life. And I couldn’t imagine it any other way.”

I’ve never forgotten that and I kind of feel like I’ve been blessed to be in that situation myself. I don’t think any of the positions I’ve had, I’ve ever walked away from a day and said, “This is boring. I don’t know why I’m doing this.”

One way or another, I’ve been in positions where there’s always something new, and even when there wasn’t something new going on, I’ve been able to do that thing that keeps me interested in the position.

Chimes: What is it that inspires you about what you do?

Heun: I think it’s a fundamental belief that goes back to my religious convictions. That wherein I see humans on this planet as partners with the Creator to do right by the creation. That can take many, many forms, but for me, it’s a concern about depletion of resources that are available to us from the planet from the beginning of time and the effect that consumption of those resources have on the rest of the environment and the people.

So, I am compelled to do the work that I do because I want to understand those effects and to understand how we can do right by the planet and in that way also doing right by the being, the God, that created it.