Last week I mentioned that a large proportion of biologists believe in God, so it’s time to hear from one of those people. Philippa Darbre is an Associate Professor in Oncology at the University of Reading. She began her career with a degree in biochemistry from Birmingham and then a PhD from Cambridge. After 5 years at the Molecular Medicine Institute, Oxford, and 9 at Cancer Research UK, she joined the University of Reading in 1991. Philippa begins her own story of of relating science to faith with a verse from Psalm 8.
When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them?
At its essence, science is about observing the world around us, and exploring how it works, or, in my case in cancer research, trying to understand how things can go wrong. The beauty of the night sky is a reminder of the majestic universe in which we live, but for me, life at the cellular level is equally awesome.
I am fascinated by the intricate regulatory processes necessary for control of cell growth, and marvel at the ways in which the genes encoded in DNA can be used to produce the vast array of different cell types, each with their own pattern of gene expression. The focus of my research for the past 25 years has been on investigating the role of oestrogen in breast cancer, and in particular studying the mechanisms by which oestrogen and oestrogen-mimicking chemicals can regulate the growth of human breast cancer cells.
I am saddened that in recent years there has been an assumption that “science” and “faith” must be in conflict, because what gets me excited as a scientist is not in conflict with a loving personal God – it is simply to marvel at His creation. Natural selection has been used as one issue of conflict, and certainly natural selection can be observed at every level.
Oestrogen-deprivation of human breast cancer cells grown artificially in the laboratory forces the cell population to adapt to oestrogen-independent pathways of growth, and my research aims to investigate mechanisms behind this adaptation as a model for failure of hormone therapy in breast cancer. However, life is not always governed solely by the forces of natural selection.
The laws of thermodynamics describe a universe of increasing entropy (decreasing order), but cells are islands of low entropy (or a high level of ‘orderedness’). We are taught in the Bible by God Himself to care for the weak in society, the widow, the orphan, the poor, the sick – those who would be treated harshly by the natural selection process. When Jesus came to die for us, it was so that sin need no longer be the prevailing force but rather that our relationship with God could be restored.
Life is very much a homogeneous mix for me. Science provides some fascinating insights into the “how” of life but I will be forever grateful that Jesus came to show me that there is so much more to life than simply the mechanics of how it works. As a traditional academic, I consider research and teaching to be inseparable, but then so also is my family life and my relationship with Jesus. I know that for the moment “I see only through a glass dimly” but my prayer is that the next faint piece of the image could offer some route to prevention of breast cancer.
42% of biologists in the UK are female, with an average age of 37, and 47% are not from the UK. Not many labs keep a stock of funky pink lab coats, but the cartoon here is a reminder that the iconic picture of a Caucasian male (preferably with a mop of white fuzzy hair) is no longer representative of the average lab worker.
On the other hand, when sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund and her collaborators surveyed the population of British biologists, they found that gender, age, rank and institution seem to have no effect on whether a person is likely to feel a sense of religious belonging.* Some of the preliminary findings of this survey were presented at the Faraday Institute’s Uses and Abuses of Biology workshop in September, and it’s worth reading the full paper, co-authored with Christopher Scheilte.
Ecklund’s earlier study on religion among scientists in the US showed that there are a significant number of scientists who describe themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious’ (see earlier blogs). In the UK this group does not seem to exist. Perhaps, suggested Ecklund, the Church of England is so widely accepted as a cultural institution that people do not feel the need to distance themselves from religion.**
I was sad to find, however, that fewer UK-based biologists Read the rest of this entry »
Every time you breathe, a series of air pockets with a combined surface area the size of a tennis court is bathed with oxygen. In your lungs, the boundary between air and blood is so thin that oxygen and carbon dioxide can diffuse freely from one to the other. So every time your heart beats, the blood rushing around your body is refreshed with enough new oxygen to keep you alive.
A while ago I commented on the lack of current science in Christian worship music, but the very next month a song was released that at least hinted that we know enough about the working of our bodies to show us something amazing about God.
You show your majesty
In every star that shines,
And every time we breathe .
Your glory, God revealed
From distant galaxies
To here beneath our skin.
excerpt from Magnificent (Kingsway, 2011)
Matt Redman, who co-wrote th song with Jonas Myrin, is an astronomy geek Read the rest of this entry »
The film ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ and its recent sequel are reminders of how exciting it is when powerful things are used for good ends. Hiccup and his friends discovered how great dragons are at taking you flying, being your loyal friend, and protecting you from enormous monsters. A couple of weeks ago, Mike Clifford was using engineering to develop low-tech solutions to difficult problems. And at a workshop held by BioLogos this summer, psychologist Justin Barrett explained how the Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR) is useful for engaging more deeply with Christian ways of thinking. (The link with the film was his original touch, not mine!)
CSR is a growing field of research into the way we think, particularly the processes of our minds that could be classed as religious. One of the recurring themes in this area is the naturalness of religion. Some scholars look at the evidence that faith communities Read the rest of this entry »
In the last few weeks, the world has watched as a new burst of seismic activity in Iceland led to a dramatic eruption near the volcano Bardarbunga. Bob White, Professor of Geophysics at Cambridge University, heads up a research team who have been recording earthquakes caused by the massive underground flow of magma. Unusually for a full-time Professor, Bob is also the Director of the Faraday Institute. In this guest post, he describes the wonder of this spectacle and how it relates to his own faith.
We arrived at the eruption site around midnight on 1st September. My team and I were part of just a handful of people allowed into the 10,000 square kilometre exclusion zone – a black volcanic desert 2,000 feet high. The darkness of the night was uninterrupted by any human lights, and we knew there was no-one else Read the rest of this entry »
Some scientists are driven by answering questions about how the world works, and others are more interested in applying that knowledge to new problems. Before I interviewed Mike Clifford, I knew him as an engineer who works on appropriate technology at the University of Nottingham. What I found was that he is actually committed to both very technical mathematically-based research, and developing simple solutions to pressing problems. Our meeting was at a Christians in Science conference, and Mike is another example of someone whose faith and work are not so much complementary as indistinguishable.
I chose to study engineering at university because I wanted to do something practical. I was told that I would enjoy a combination of physics and maths, but I found myself enjoying beautiful equations more than anything else, so I rebelled and went on to do a PhD in maths. After several years doing computational modelling and braid and knot theory, I got a job modelling traffic pollution in an architecture department. That was followed by a project on chaotic mixing, and another on composite materials.
I could have easily stayed on the pure side of maths, but I rediscovered my desire Read the rest of this entry »
One of the people who set Charles Darwin along the road to evolutionary theory was not a scientist, but the Governor of the Galapagos Islands, Nicholas Lawson. When Darwin and the Beagle crew landed on Charles Island, Lawson invited him to dinner. As they talked, Lawson mentioned that the giant tortoises for which the Galapagos chain was named varied noticeably between islands. In fact, said Lawson, if any tortoise was brought to him, he could identify which island it came from. It turns out that the tortoise-naming party trick was not exclusively Lawson’s. Whether he was just repeating what the locals said, or had actually studied the tortoises personally, the fact remains that the person who set Darwin on the course of studying variation among species on the Galapagos islands was not a scientist. John Bryant, the author of last week’s guest post, told this story during his lecture at this year’s Faraday Summer course, and I enjoyed it because Read the rest of this entry »