This is the second of my interviews with Spanish scientists. Elena de la Torre-Madrid’s love of her subject and struggles in the lab will be familiar to many in the sciences, and it’s interesting to hear about those experiences from a faith perspective.
I left the decision about what subject to study at University until the last minute. I was standing in the queue to register, and there were about twenty people in front of me. I thought, ‘Okay I have approximately twenty minutes to decide what I want to do with my life’. I began reading down the list: “A, architecture…maybe. B, biology…perhaps. M, medicine, mathematics…perhaps.” In the end I had 15 possibilities. I thought, “In the last exams, my best mark was in biology. Why not study that?” I don’t really know why I picked it, but I love it! I think it is very difficult to study biology in Spain because there’s not much work, and what work there is, is not easy. But at the end of all these years of study, if I had to start again I would choose biology.
I work for a biotech company that focuses on rare genetic diseases. My PhD was in biochemistry, and right now I am on a Masters degree programme in biotechnology. My work involves keeping up to date with the latest research in biology, searching for ways to develop new drugs.
When I was at University one of my fellow students said to me, ‘I don’t know how you can believe in God when you are studying science’. But I wonder how you can study science and not believe in God! I am a very passionate person, and when I am doing anything I usually put all my soul into it. When I study cells and the ways in which all the different biochemical pathways work I think, ‘It’s amazing! How can you say that it’s only cause and effect? It’s not possible. There must be something or someone who directs that process, because it’s too perfect to be only serendipity.’ My commute to University was one and a half hours each way. All the people on the train would sleep or stare into space, but I would look out of the window. Looking at the stars or the clouds, I’d think about the immensity of God and wonder how anyone could ignore such beautiful things – both outdoors and in the laboratory.
As a PhD student I worked in a biomedical research institute, looking at the effect of morphine and other cannabinoids on the brain. I spent long days in the lab deciphering the signalling processes that go on within cells. One of the discoveries I made was that a protein called ‘Rap-1’ is dispersed throughout the inside of the cell, while ‘Rap-2’ is restricted to the outer membrane. It’s just basic research, and perhaps some people don’t think that matters – for me it was exciting.
My most important experience in the lab was something more personal. I had a really hard time with my PhD, and it took me six years to complete. Sometimes I would think, ‘I can’t go ahead.’ At those times I felt that God was with me. I knew I was there for a reason, even if I didn’t know what that reason was at the time. Now I can see that all my past experience made me ready for the next step, both personally and professionally. Working for this company, I feel that I am doing something that makes sense.
My boss – who’s not a Christian – asked me a couple of weeks ago, ‘Do you know why God brought you here?’ I wondered if it might be something to do with telling people about God. He disagreed: ‘No it doesn’t work like that. You are here to help cure all the children who don’t have any treatment right now.’ I realised that he was probably right. I’m here because God wants someone to discover these things. So I said, ‘Okay, let’s keep it at that!’ God has a reason for everything and a purpose for everyone, and I am discovering my purpose.