The poets talk about life as a journey. But that just makes me wonder – in what space are we traveling? What metric can we use to assess distances? What sort of path-finding algorithm should we use? Will there be a giant ball of metaphorical twine along the way?
When I was asked to write a bit about my journey, I figured it would be easy; I’m the world’s leading expert after all. However, after several attempts, I could never get it to fit into any sort of particularly compelling narrative. It felt like a just-so tale; there was a chronology of events, and plenty of the usual milestones, but nothing that made for an interesting story.
But then I took a look around at where I was, and where I had come from, and I thought “Hang on. Just how exactly did I get here from there?” And so I started to wonder if maybe what was remarkable was that the changes had seemed so unremarkable as they happened. Because when I looked along particular dimensions, I realized I had gone pretty far.
Take, for example, the religious axis. I had a fairly conservative evangelical upbringing with church-going parents who sent me to Christian schools through 12th grade, plus the typical doses of Sunday school, vacation Bible school, youth group, and so on. As I neared college, I was warned that I would encounter such heretofore unknown specimens as evolutionists. But I was prepared; I was inoculated against an array of infections of the mind and soul that they might be carrying.
Or so I thought. Once I got to college, I found out that the options were far more diverse and nuanced than I had been led to believe. I was armed with all sorts of anti-evolution arguments, but it turned out they were largely for positions that no one cared to endorse any more. I imagine for many people, this would have sown seeds of doubt; if the Christian textbooks were wrong about what other people believed, what else might they have been wrong about?
Even worse, no one had told me was that I would meet these people, not in the classroom or fraternity quad, but in the very Christian fellowship my parents had been so careful to seek out for me before they left! Sure, plenty of my professors were evolutionists, but I managed to get through 9 years of undergraduate and graduate education in molecular biology without ever having to defend the theory of common descent. I had rehearsed for the day when I would have to choose between writing what I knew was true from the Bible and what I knew was required to get an “A,” but it never came. I didn’t have a plan for when my worldview was challenged at an InterVarsity Bible study.
Meanwhile, another retroactively surprising shift was going on in the career dimension. I was in the single digits, age-wise, when I decided I was going to cure AIDS and that more or less remained my target for roughly 20 years. I studied biology as an undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon, proceeded directly to a PhD in Molecular Microbiology and Immunology at the School of Public Health of Johns Hopkins University, and then followed that up with a postdoctoral fellowship back at Carnegie Mellon that explored, among other topics, aspects of the HIV vaccine development process. And yet now I work for a software company essentially as a project manager. What happened?
First, it turned out I’m not all that good at laboratory science. I could never quite identify why, but my efforts at the bench would be charitably described as mediocre. Second, I realized that bacteria and mice eat, grow, and bleed on a variety of schedules which do not always complement those of girlfriends, wives, and small children. I found if I focused on data analysis over data collection, I could make the numbers and computers work on a schedule that I dictated. And third, I was so engrossed in learning the science that I failed to realize there’s a whole host of skills involved in being a professional scientist that have nothing to do with science per se. I discovered, perhaps a bit late, I’m not naturally inclined to any of those either and I missed some opportunities to learn and cultivate them.
Still, all of that training honed an attention to detail and problem solving skills that serve me well in my present position. And while that job is still science-adjacent, I find it hard to honestly call myself a scientist most days, which is still a little surprising even as I type it. Nevertheless, I maintain a fascination with understanding how the world works. I’m still the same person who, as a high school student, spent my spare time reading books on particle physics and cosmology for fun; who studied enough math to be able to switch from doing laboratory biology to statistical modeling of biological data; who picked up enough computer science to be able to manage a postdoc appointment in computational biology.
And maybe that’s an answer to my question. My external circumstances may have changed in each case, but who I am remained largely the same. Additionally, in both cases I was able to process through the changes in the context of a community. Where some might have become disillusioned by unmet expectations, I was blessed to encounter a variety of Christians whose faith had already confronted those challenges and handled them in a Biblically authentic way. That was a blessing not only for the way that it smoothed these particular transitions, but by providing a model for how to handle future transitions. And by writing for this blog, perhaps I can smooth out some of the transitions that God’s grace smoothed out for me.