After a bit of a delay, we are continuing our series of interviews from Jubilee with a conversation with Jimmy Lin, an MD/PhD student at Johns Hopkins. Jimmy describes himself as “medical and scientific doxologist” — in fact, even his Twitter handle is @doxologist. At Jubilee, Jimmy presented several seminars about being a Christian in the sciences and medicine. I had met Jimmy online through ESN, so I was very happy to have the chance to meet him and his wife in person. Be sure to check out our previous interviews with Derek Melleby and David Naugle.
Update (3/26/2013): Read Meet Jimmy Lin, “Medical and Scientific Doxologist” (Emily Ruppel. BioLogos Forum. 3/25/2013) to learn more about Jimmy Lin’s current work.
Micheal Hickerson: You are doing a lot of different degrees. You are in an MD program, a PhD program, and you mentioned you are in seminary…
Jimmy Lin: I am doing four degrees concurrently, the MD/PhD [at Johns Hopkins], the masters in arts religion at Reformed Theological Seminary, and a masters in health sciences at the School of Public Health.
MH:Why did you decide to do so many different degrees at the same time, and how are you doing so many different degrees at the same time?
JL: It all started because I am very interested in bringing the discoveries of science and seeing it applied to the cure of human diseases or the welfare of humans in general. The MD/PhD is a very established program that I applied to and was accepted. It’s a great program. That’s where I started.
My research interest is computational biology specifically using the computer to do genomics work in cancer. That requires a lot of specific information which is in the field called bioinformatics. It’s not offered as part of the PhD program. My PhD is in pure biology, so that’s why I did the additional masters, to acquire those skills in bioinformatics.
In addition, the theology degree — I felt that I was very lacking in the field. I was reading so much about it anyway, but I was lacking formalized, systematic learning about these topics. That’s why I started in a seminary classes — and then got addicted. It was so much fun to have these top scholars come tell you what to read, teach you what they have learned. That’s why I pursued it, and my church was very supportive of it, so that’s why I do all that.
I think I do it out of love. I love learning and I love all the aspects of it.
How do I do it? That’s a good question. The medical degree is a very time intensive degree. Usually medical students spend 60 to 100 hours a week of studying and learning, whereas in graduate school [for the PhD], you are a lot more flexible. In terms of time, it’s less. The minimum is 40 hours, though people do spend a little bit more.
For example, during my PhD years, I could take [the theology courses]. Most of my weekends are free and I have a lab on weekends, and that’s when I take my seminary classes. During the PhD years, it was easier to take the additional classes then. Now I am going back to medical school, and I won’t be able to do that because the time commitments are so large for medical school.
MH: One of the things I was also very interested in, is you call yourself a doxologist. What’s the full term you used in your Jubilee bio?
JL: Medical and scientific doxologist.
MH: How did you decide on that term and what does it mean to you?
JL: I listen to a bunch of teaching by J.I. Packer, who teaches theology at Regent College and is one of the leading thinkers on these things. Interestingly, before any one of his classes, he says “Theology is for doxology,” and then the whole class sings the Doxology together out loud in class. I thought, “Wow, that is so great,” because everybody sometimes learns theology just for intellectual things [instead of for worship].
That’s not just true for theology, it’s for everything: biology is for doxology; chemistry is for doxology. That’s when I started to think, I should consider myself, first and foremost, as a person who praises God in what I do. And then no longer make “Christian” the adjective, right? “Doxologist” is the noun. But then what kind of doxologist am I? So I call myself a medical and scientist doxologist. I would call someone, for example, in the marketplace, a business doxologist. Or, someone who does art, an artistic doxologist. To really have the noun as our identity, and then our vocation as just a descriptor of how we do that.
MH: That’s a great point. A noun is always stronger than the adjective. So, you want that to be the focus, rather than the add-on.
JL: In our current culture, we’re defined by our jobs. It’s having a vocation. I wanted to shift away from that. I didn’t want to be a doctor first and foremost, or a scientist, but one who praises God. And evidently, within science you don’t want to call yourself a Christian Scientist. That’s another religion, so . . .
MH: [laughs] That’s right. I run into that, as well, when I’m teaching or talking about science to Christians. You always run into that stumbling block.
JL: With “scientific doxologist,” people don’t confuse them. You do have to explain what it means. And that gets in a little story actually, on what it means about vocation. It’s a small lesson — a teaching point when you do talk to people about vocation and calling. That’s why I use it.
MH: That leads to another question I have. There are two areas of thought about how to treat your faith while you’re still in graduate school or before you have tenure. One is to not really speak up about it, keep it to yourself, and try to stay under the radar. And then there’s others who say that you really can’t keep your faith under the radar — you need to be open about it.
You’re very open about your faith. Obviously you’re here speaking at Jubilee, and you call yourself a doxologist. You’re very clear about that. Why have you chosen to do that? Do you really see any cost associated with it?
JL: I think those choices must be made on a individual level, then in various fields specifically. For example, I know of Christians working in journalism, and of course they can’t be out there saying that they’re Christian first and foremost. Or, in filmmaking, for example.
In some areas of science you do carry a large cost of being out there about your faith. But it really depends, I think, on an individual basis. I’ve been blessed where I’ve been very vocal about my faith. People still are OK with what I do. Ultimately, hopefully, the merit of what I do comes from the work within itself.
I’m very public about my faith. I do Bible studies in my lab with a couple other believers every once in a while. I’m very public, and I think that’s just specific to the context of who I am.
In terms of cost, there actually hasn’t been that much cost, because I think people are going to judge what I do by my work. Obviously, I don’t go to science meetings and say, “Before I talk I want to pray.” I do not do that, but I don’t want to hide my faith. But I think both are incredible models and good models depending on what field you’re in.
The only cost that I bear, I guess, is maybe with some of the colleagues who are very anti-God or anti- any faith. Often we get into long discussions. I don’t consider that as cost. I consider that as a benefit.
MH: One thing I just found out about was that you are a Harvey Fellow. I have heard from other Harvey Fellows that there was a strong benefit to being one, not just the financial benefit but a spiritual benefit, too. Have you felt that to be the case and in what ways?
JL: For me the best thing about the Harvey Fellows is the community of Fellows. During the fellowship, there is one summer when they have the retreat of Harvey Fellows. You get great teaching from great leading thinkers. Then you get to start talking about people who are passionate about God and also excellent at what they do. I got to meet other people, and it’s nice because you think that you are the only person in the world that is so passionate about science, or so passionate about God, then you meet these people and you get the fellowship and you get to brainstorm and work together and develop.
The Harvey Fellow community continues afterwards. For example I am in Baltimore and we have several Harvey Fellows who get together regularly to encourage each other. Even though the Harvey Fellows are often in different fields, but within academia you encounter the same struggles. A friend we have there is a faculty member now who is really struggling with what academia wants from you in terms of publication and how that is made an idol versus what he wants to do in following Christ. He is talking about that [with the other Fellows]. So even if it’s different field, there are some very good discussions about that. It has been a very amazing community. People who are really passionate about god, first and foremost, as you can see, as well as being excellent in their craft.
MH: I guess my final question would be what spiritual practices help sustain you? What helps you stay in contact with God and keep a good foundation?
JL: First, I am interested in many, many different things. I sort of mix it up in terms of spiritual practices. Besides the fundamentals, of course, of quiet time, devotional reading, and scriptural reading, I do theological study because I have to do that academically. I find a lot of time with God through the spiritual disciplines, such as times of solitude — which is very interesting for someone who is in academics to no longer think about ideas but just to be quiet before God — how silence, time to think by yourself, or sitting in silence is also something you should foster.
In terms of spiritual formation, what you really need is definitely a good community of people. I have a very supportive community at my church. I’m the deacon of devotions, so that of course keeps me on track. It encourages me as I, in my own spiritual walk, encourage other people. Fundamentally, I think for all Christians, whether you are academic or no matter your vocation or calling, being in the Word and prayer are the most important things. Doing that and being spiritually fed is what is important.
Our final ESN interview from Jubilee will be posted next week. In it, I speak with editor/writer/teacher Alissa Wilkinson about her work with Comment, the International Arts Movement, and Kings College