If that’s where you want to end up, I wouldn’t start here

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.

Pittsburgh Skyline

Driving around Pittsburgh, where I live, provides plenty of “Just how did I get here from there?” moments. Photo by Jodi Walsh

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.

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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog. His book Faith across the Multiverse is available from Hendrickson.

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  • kle.seaton@gmail.com'
    keseaton commented on September 20, 2012 Reply

    Truer words were never spoken!
    “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. ”

    And I’m glad that you and others like the data analysis/numbers crunching – I would much rather be in lab!

    • fb-p@venables-r.us'
      Peter Venable commented on September 20, 2012 Reply

      Andy, your story is quite similar to my own. (Perhaps not surprising since we were in the same InterVarsity group.)

  • Theresa Grosh commented on September 20, 2012 Reply

    Thanks for sharing. Can’t wait to hear more! Geez, you think you know someone… 😉

    • heatherashe@gmail.com'
      Heather Ashe commented on September 21, 2012 Reply

      Love this comment, Theresa! 🙂

  • drandrewwalsh@gmail.com'
    Andy Walsh commented on September 20, 2012 Reply

    Thanks for the comments, everyone!

    Kelly – The science community is a body like the church; some are the hands, and some are the math co-processors. I actually liked being in the lab; I just wasn’t good at generating results. Now I do my hands-on experimenting in the kitchen. 🙂

    Peter – There probably is something to that correlation.

    Theresa – It’s funny how you can spend umpteen hours driving a person to the Upper Peninsula and they can still have some secrets left.

  • heatherashe@gmail.com'
    Heather Ashe commented on September 21, 2012 Reply

    Andy, looking forward to reading more. You’re summing up some thoughts I’ve been having lately (related to my own life, on which I should be an expert!) Been mulling over a post on how we can look at threads in our lives and consider what God is doing through them and how we can surrender to Him to use those to His glory (rather than lamenting certain aspects), in terms of pursuing certain ministries, callings, etc. For me it’s been a life on the fringes of many groups, cultures, etc. What the heck is God doing/what is He calling me to? The path never works out as expected, and looking back over it all lets us see His grace in new and fresh ways. I’m REALLY looking forward to the rest of your series.

    Keep calling yourself a scientist. You are, regardless of the current job title. (You’re a very thoughtful and engaging writer too!)

    • drandrewwalsh@gmail.com'
      Andy Walsh commented on September 21, 2012 Reply

      Thanks, Heather. For what it’s worth, on the fringes is often where interesting things happen.

      Oh, and thanks for the endorsement of my scientistosity. Because I’m goofy, I’ve been toying with “natural philosopher” as an alternative. I don’t know if it fits any better, but I like the sound of it.

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