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EPISODE 02: An Intersection of Science and Faith

Dr. Jimmy Lin is the Chief Scientific Officer at Freenome, a research institute that seeks to detect, treat, and ultimately prevent diseases. He also oversees a non-profit organization that researches rare diseases. As a Christian, he sees himself as a “scientific doxologist” and encourages Christians to worship God as creator and healer.

Recommended Reading

Science and Faith by Alister McGrath

Faith, Fact or Fantasy: Truth in a Scientific World - by Michael Ramsden

Transcript


Welcome to Questions That Matter, a podcast of the C.S. Lewis Institute. I'm your host, Randy Newman, and today my conversation partner is Dr. Jimmy Lin. And we're going to explore the question that really matters of the intersection of science and faith, and in particular about scientific research. Dr. Jimmy Lin is the Chief Scientific officer at Freenome, and Freenome is a genomics company with the mission, let me read this, “to empower everyone with the tools they need to detect, treat, and ultimately prevent diseases.” Jimmy, welcome to Questions That Matter.

Thank you, Randy.

Introduction to Faith

Well, tell us about this work that you do. It's mostly research. I'm going to share more about your bio, but I thought maybe it would be better for our listeners just to hear right from the start. So what is this that you do in your day job?

Yeah, happy to. I’ve sort of dedicated my life to cancer research, from earlier mapping of the cancer genome to thinking about detection and monitoring and therapeutics, and what we’ve learned and what I've sort of come to thinking of is cancer, by the time you catch it in its late stages, it's really, really hard to treat. And as you know, chemotherapies can extend your life maybe by months, sometimes only even weeks, unfortunately. But the crazy thing is that, if you detect cancer early, in stages one and two, the cure rates are very, very high. So then the way to think about sort of curing cancer is not necessarily through—yes, we want better therapeutic interventions, but the best return on investment, if you will, is to be able to detect cancer early. So that's what we do at Freenome is figure out ways through right now a blood test to be able to detect cancers early, right now focusing on colorectal cancer. So, as some of you may know, colorectal cancer is right now currently recommended for screening, depending on the guidelines, 45 year old or 50 year old plus, to either screen by colonoscopy or a stool test. But unfortunately, not everybody is being screened. The goal is to get to 80%, but I think we're very shy of that.

So what we're implementing is a blood test. So the hope is you sort of go in for your annual physical, and you also have your blood drawn, and we'll look for all signatures of colorectal cancer in your blood and hopefully then catch cancers while it still can be treated. While we can do interventions. And we’re starting with colorectal cancer, then we're thinking of moving to other cancers and then eventually to other diseases, and hopefully your annual physical would be a preventive medicine to look for ultimately all signatures of diseases in your body, so we can do very early intervention.

I’m so thankful for your work and so delighted that God gives people the kinds of minds and brains to be able to explore these things. I should tell our listeners that you spent a number of years connected to the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute. You were connected to Johns Hopkins University and Washington University in St. Louis. You've done a tremendous amount of research about rare diseases. But I also want to let our listeners know that, for a number of years you were a board member of the C.S. Lewis Institute, and you've come to this calling in life from a Christian background. Tell us a little bit about the sort of the intersection of faith and science, if you will, in your own personal life.

Yeah. So I had early introduction to faith, but I really became more committed to my faith in college. And at that time I was sort of an avid scientist already and really sort of thinking about what are ways that I, being in science, can contribute? And also very interested in medical professions. And at the beginning I had, I think, more sort of basic thinking. I had this sort of hierarchy in my mind that the people who are most devoted to faith are ministers and pastors, right, and missionaries. And then one level down, then maybe are people who then earn enough money to support the missionaries, and having this sort of false dichotomy, if you will. And as I learned about work by Luther and others, who were thinking about even the bread maker praising God and the milk maid praising God and really thinking about what are ways that scientists can praise God?

And so that's when I started to think, and there are sort of two ways that I started to think about, ways that what God was calling on my life and my vocation, if you will. One was because of my gifts as sort of academic research to be a Christian in the academic circles. Many academics because of where they are within academia don't experience, have many interactions with Christians, especially in the sciences. So that's one area where I started a lot of my early work, thinking about Paul's calling was to the Gentiles and potentially my calling was to the biological scientists within academia. So I have some work in the past with [UNKNOWN 5:54] I had some theological training and really sort of helping me, thinking about that's sort of my mission field, to be in academia.

But then subsequently, too, there were opportunities as it came forward and as I was thinking about it, that there's also a big void even within commercial biotech ventures, where again, in the same way that there's a sort of a lack of Christian voice there, as well as sort of living out my faith to improve human flourishing as well. So I think about my life in terms of living my life as a witness and testimony to those around me. So whether it is in academia or whether it’s in the commercial sector, but as well, what I do, and the motivations of that. I think God calls us to be sort of co-creators and co-laborers in participating with redemption. And one of the ways is to sort of think about this world as fallen and sickness and disease as a result of that and participating in the turning back of sickness and disease and through my work of helping in terms of catching these diseases early, so we can do that. So I think those are sort of two of the major ways that I've sort of thought about my calling.

Oh, man, you have touched on so many issues, and I love it. I really love it. I don't know if you knew. I spent a number of years on the staff of Campus Crusade, and in particular, for the second half of my time, I was with the faculty ministry. And so I interacted with Christian professors in a whole host of different academic disciplines. And they regularly told me about how there were very few Christians in their particular academic fields, but that was just a wonderful platform that God gave them, first of all to just show people that very, very intelligent scientists or social scientists or whatever can be Christians and that there is no contradiction in that. But it's a tough place to be a witness.

I remember one professor in particular, he was a professor of astrophysics, and he was a Christian and he loved studying the planets and the stars. And he did a talk that he would go around to different places, secular universities, but also churches, and it was called “The Heavens Declare the Glory of God,” and he would talk for the first half of his presentation about: Here’s what we're learning from the stars and from the heavens, and here's why I think it shows the glory of God. And I think your research about the human body is also showing the glory of God. Am I touching on some things connected to your work?

Integrating Faith and Science

Yeah. Without a doubt. I think the human body is so complex. I think, actually, if you compare the complexity of the human body with astronomy and astrophysics, actually we have less understanding of the human body. We can predict and send people and land spaceships on Mars and the moon, but we can't predict whether, right now, a person is going to get disease in a year or two. The human body, even one cell, of all the different components of the different proteins and RNA and DNA, even in one cell, we're just starting to think about simulating one cell in supercomputers and now think about millions and millions of cells interacting in the body and the complexities of that. And we don't even talk about the brain. And I think a lot of biologists, even secular biologists, look at the complexity of the human body or just biology in general, and can’t help but just marvel at the complexity and how everything just fits together.

And in that context, then, within academia is, yes, you have marvel, you see the creation, but do you know the Creator? And then that's where I think Christian faculty, when I was in school, have been really formative in my life. And that's why, in the earlier parts of my career, I was really thinking about being hopefully one of the faculty that helps people behind me on their path of integrating faith and science, as those who walked before me helped guide me as well.

And like you said, there is a dearth of Christians in academia, which is a pity, really. If you think about even science as we know today and the people who laid the foundations, whether it be like a Francis Bacon, really committed to his faith. Or you think about all the... in the big physics, I sort of talk about the units of measure are really defining of Christians who made foundations, someone like Isaac Newton or Pascal, were all very, very committed to the faith, to the point where many of them have written more about their faith than about science.

Or even in biology. You think about modern genetics actually contributed by a monk. So this sort of dichotomy that people falsely portray between science and faith is actually unfounded because a lot of modern science was not only sort of laid the ground by Christians but as a result of their Christian faith. Or talk about, “the heavens proclaim the glory of God.” Someone like a Kepler, too, looked to the heavens, and that was a way of him living his faith out.

So scientists living out their faith actually historically has been more the norm and not the exception. Unfortunately, now, there's some sort of understanding and a false chasm. But if you look historically, people of faith, Christians, have laid a lot of the foundations of modern science, and because of their faith, they are able to look at the creation and understand the Creator.

Well said. Well said. And boy, I just want to echo and applaud and say amen. There was kind of a terrible I think I would almost call it an intellectual earthquake in the Christian world 100, 120 years ago, where there started to be an anti-intellectual, anti-science movement or so. But you're right. Before that, the long history was... well, the assumption was that God created the world and He created us and He created it with order and He gave us the kinds of minds where we could investigate it.

Exactly.

And we were confident that we would find out truth because there was a God of truth behind the whole creation. So I do think there's a work today of reclaiming some of that and returning to roots, but we'll save that for another program.

There’s so much to say. Yes.

Yeah. So tell us more about your work, and in particular, I heard you speak a number of years ago in downtown Washington, DC, about a work you were doing where you were really investigating very rare diseases. And for a whole host of reasons. We have money for research, and we tend to go for things that affect the most amount of people. But you had this heart and desire. What about the diseases that only affect a small amount of people? I mean, it affects them so profoundly. We should research it. Can you tell us about that side of your work?

Yeah, so around the time I was working on helping with cancer genomics efforts, I came across a family with a rare disease that was thought to be genetics, but nobody could help. And the thought is: Can we use the ways that we map the cancer genome to map these rare disease genomes and look for genes that are positive there? And so, along with some Christian brothers, we decided to think about what are ways that we can contribute. And we started a nonprofit called the Rare Genomics Institute, which is not a Christian organization, but mostly by scientists who think about: What are ways that we can use science to be able to help the least of these? Of course, we don't say that in our organization. But thinking about helping those with rare diseases.

And that sprung from a couple of things, from our faith in terms of thinking of the aspects, and then we also talk about... I'll talk about the secular side first, is that often these rare diseases point to very fundamental human biology. Think about, if you have a car, if you have, let's say, a broken mirror, it's still mostly drivable, a little bit more dangerous, right? But if you have something broken with your motor, it causes large problems with your car. So in the same way, if there are rare diseases that cause major biological defects, those are very fundamental processes. And for us to understand them is of great scientific value, from the secular perspective. But from a Christian perspective, we know that people are not just valuable from a sort of pragmatic value to society, but because they’re created in the image of the Creator, imago Dei, So that, driven by our faith, we think that all people are valuable, even if they have rare diseases. They may or may not contribute in the sort of purely capitalistic way to society. But as people, we know that they contribute in many ways, their interactions with their family, the ways that we work with them, and God’s glory be shown through them.

So we thought that it was very important to work with these families. Often because of how rare these diseases are, there’s not a bunch of scientific finding at the time for these diseases and not much scientists working on them. And we saw that we had a unique opportunity with the technology, with genomics, that we could make a significant impact. So we gathered, and we started this nonprofit, and we started with a very humble vision of if we can help one family at a time. And we started off by just doing crowd funding. This was just the birth of crowd funding and Kick starter. We had some friends who started these companies. So we just thought we can use crowd funding, and then we can crowd fund some of the funds, and then we’d go to top academic institutions, like the Harvard's and Yale’s, and ask for excess research capacity. And then we’d crowd source scientific ability from our network. Then we can create little tiny research projects that actually will end up sequencing these genomes of rare diseases one at a time and maybe start finding causes.

And close to a decade later, we've helped hundreds of these families, discovering new genes, starting off new research projects for these rare diseases. And for many people who participate, whether they're a Christian or not, have really found ways that they are able to use their research to have impact in the world. And for us who are Christians within the organization, really be a good steward of the gift of our brain and knowledge, of our intellect and our calling to make an impact for those who are widows and orphans in the genetic sense.

I love it. I love it.

We'll return to my conversation in just a moment. I do want to invite you to take a look at our website, cslewisinstitute.org, and avail yourself to the many resources that we have there. We have over 40 years’ worth of articles and recordings and events that can be tremendously helpful. Check out the different ways that we can help you share your faith or grow deeply in your faith. And consider also supporting the institute. If you click on the button that says donate, we would love to have you as a ministry partner. Now, let's return to the conversation.

Application of Truth

I love the way you're connecting these really crucial theological foundations. What does it mean to be a person created in the image of God? What does it mean to care about the least of these? What does it mean to love our neighbor? You know, you can say these things in sort of like these kind of vague platitudes, but then if you really think about them and then say, “Okay, so what's the application of this truth?” The truth is we’re created in the image of God. Okay, how does that affect me as a researcher of genomics or as a teacher of biology in a secular high school or a million applications? Can you share a particular story about how your research has helped a specific individual? Is that possible?

Yeah, happy to. I've done this in many contexts. So one of the early children that we met was born healthy, but around the age of maybe three, I’m a little fuzzy on details now, but started to have neurological decline. It's a healthy baby. It's sort of growing and having decline. Actually, the age was probably close to one and a half. And then the parents rushed him to the emergency room to see what was wrong. And they couldn't. And they went from doctor to doctor to doctor to doctor. And similar to, thinking about biblically right? The bleeding woman, for example, going doc to doc. They’ve done that. And by the time we met this family, they've been looking for doctors for over a decade, over a dozen years, and having no answers. And doctors are like, “We don't know how to help.” So when we got connected to the family, it was like, “You know what? We don't know for sure whether we can find out what’s wrong, but we can definitely give it a try.” So we mapped the genome of the boy and the family with the help of different universities, and lo and behold, we were able to find potential positive genes that were wrong. And these were in neurological pathways. And neurological pathways that was more affecting on the muscle part, of dystonia.

And this allowed the parents to do a bunch of things. Number one is, for the longest time the parents had thought that this little boy was intact in terms of his communication but just wasn’t able to move muscles, and have been really involved in this boy's life and exposing him. But this was now further evidence that it's purely a muscular thing. And this is when iPads were starting to come in vogue and being used for eye tracking, and they started to try this and convinced the doctors, and through those technologies, this little boy was starting to be able to actually communicate, and then that sort of.... The parents were like, “We knew that he was in there all along,” and he started to communicate with his parents for the first-time. And this little boy has an amazing sense of humor, actually. And in addition, to then also be plugged in, because of the gene that was found, to related diseases and then starting doing research there and be able to think about what are ways to be able to take care of him.

There’s not a match cure yet, and it's probably not going to be for a while, and this research is most likely going to benefit future patients. But even the very fact that there's now communication and he's living well. I actually attended his 18th birthday. And just seeing how this has helped transform not only the little boy but the whole family and the extended family through a diagnosis that initially was nowhere to be found. And that's one of many, many stories that really encourages all of us who do this work day in and day out. Even the smallest hope that you can give to families who potentially have given up really encourages them and potentially may have significant results.

Oh man, what a great work! What a great work. So tell me again. This is called rare genomics...?

Yes. Rare Genomics Institute.

And can people go on the Internet and find out about this?

Yeah. It's just raregenomics.org. Raregenomics.org.

Fantastic! That's really great. So I sometimes feel like part of my role on this podcast is to underline certain things or then to apply some things. So, as I'm listening to you, I’m thinking: Well, one of the things.... We very often will read about something in the news, about some new discovery or whatever, and it's reported that it's this discovery. And for people who don't have the technical training or the background, it's like, “Oh, well, okay. Scientists discovered something. Yay.” Or, “Oh, the people of the National Institutes of Health, they put something together about genomes and DNA,” and I do think for a lot of people, they downplay that or they dismiss it. But it seems to me that that should be a prompter for prayer for all Christians of, “Thank you, Lord, for raising up people with brilliant minds who can discover these things.” And then, “Lord, would you raise up other doctors and researchers and people like Jimmy Lin and the people he works with to help more and more people?” I mean, it's a prompter for prayer.

I also want to say we should also be, as the Christian church, we should be some of the greatest encouragers of students who are really scientifically minded to really pursue that calling and get to the best graduate school and get the best PhD and to do research along these lines. Because our mindset of God is the One who created us, and He created our world with order that we can research and find out and love our neighbors and help people with these diseases that are very rare, but so very, very intimidating and scary. So I know I'm just preaching a sermon here.

No. I listened to some teaching in the past by J.I. Packer, when he teaches his class at Regent’s. He actually sings the doxology before his class. And then he ends with, “Why do we even sing the doxology before we study?” And he says, “Theology is for doxology.” Too many people, even some divinity schools or schools of religion, often just study religion for religion’s sake. But actually, we need to, as Christians, think about why we study theology, the study of God, in order to praise God.

So in the same way, I've sort of adapted Dr. Packer’s teaching to think about: Science is for doxology, biology is for doxology, chemistry is for doxology, and all these scientific...astronomy is for doxology. So that's why it’s sort of thinking about, using a term that I use, is sort of us not a sort of Christian scientists, which obviously is confusing, but as scientific doxologists, that we praise God through our work in science. But this can be absolutely anybody, whether you're a journalist, journalistic doxologist, or whether you're a bread maker, a bakery doxologist, and all that we do is in praise of God.

And another example, another theologian that has been helpful, to sit under the teaching of, is Dr. Grudem, who thinks about... he gives an example which has been vivid in my heart, is he thinks about, if Adam were today and the very fact of going to open the faucet for a drink of Water and how amazing it would be. And he's like, “Wow, you mean God enabled people to create technologies to have pipes and to be able to make it clean and in this clear melted sand thing, container, so I can drink glass,” and just be blown away and praise God for that. Or something like John Piper. John Piper talks about praising God even drinking orange juice. And I think there's just so many opportunities for us to praise God in things that we see.

And as you said, I think scientific discovery is definitely an area where we see, “Wow! Praise God that humans, with the intellect that God has given them, have been able to understand another mystery of God that is now revealed to them, and to be able to show God's glory even more.” And hopefully everything that as Christians that we do, everything that we do adds to God’s glory in the world. So that's definitely an opportunity, as you say, in terms of looking at scientific discoveries, and that becomes something of prayer and praise.

Scientific doxologists. What a great term! I love it. I want people to explore all of those kinds of things. That's really great.

Have you ever wondered what heaven is going to be like? What will it look like? What will we do there? We all have questions about heaven, and we, the C.S. Lewis Institute, are delighted to invite Dr. Randy Alcorn, who has spent decades literally researching the topic. He's written award-winning books on the topic, and he's going to be presenting a live stream event for us through the C.S. Lewis website on January 22 at 8:00 p.m. Please check out the website, www.cslewisinstitute.org, and find out the details about the Randy Alcorn event. I think it'll be really great.

You know, if I can take a minute. When I was in campus ministry, I used to do this talk at conferences for students. “Is God Calling You to Academia?” And we used to have a very small crowd that came to our workshop. They gave us a very small room, and if we had a dozen students, it was always great. But I would do this talk, and I would tell about professors who are Christians in physics or biology or engineering or a million different things, and I would just encourage students. “You know, if you're in this field, maybe God has given you this heart for this, because He’s called you to pursue this, “and pursue this and pursue this. And one time I said, “God is calling people into all sorts of different academic fields.” And then, almost partly like a joke, I said, “He even calls some people into anthropology, if you can imagine that!” And part of it was that I knew a professor of anthropology who was a Christian at one of the schools that I worked at, and so he would always say that he was a lone voice in his department.

So after my talk, this young woman came up, and she was in tears. She was crying. And thought, “Oh, this is not a good sign.” And she said that she was getting a master’s degree in anthropology. And I thought I insulted her. And I said, “Oh, I'm so sorry. I didn’t mean to insult you.” She said, “No, no, no. It wasn't insulting at all.” She said, “You were the first Christian who’s ever said anything positive about anthropology.” I thought, “Oh, okay. All right. This went a different direction.” But we really do want to encourage people. If this is God's world, and He made it, and He made people in this world, we should study it. We should research it, and we should explore ways for both doxology and also loving our neighbor, loving people, even if they are of the least of these.

Well, Jimmy, we could talk more and more, but I want to wrap this up a little bit. Is there anything else you want our listeners to think about or to hear about your perspective of science and faith? Or where your particular research prompts you for doxology? Or anything in closing?

Yeah. I know people have different views on the intersection of science and faith, and then there’s even some fear of increasing of science then will decrease of faith. And for those who have that fear, I would just encourage that our God is a God of everything, including science. In fact, God created science. And to not see science as sort of antagonistic to our faith, but to see the many ways that science can be glorifying to our faith, glorifying to our God, and to not be afraid. And I know that there have been atheistic sort of uses of science to attack, but that’s just used in the wrong way. So for those who, you know, “I still have hesitation of science,” whether you're a student, whether you have kids who are pursuing it or yourself, don’t be afraid. Our God is much, much bigger than that. And I would encourage people to pursue the different academic disciplines that they're called to and see ways that God has really shown himself in that way and not be afraid of any of the academic disciplines of being sort of a vehicle to be against faith, but actually to redeem it, to be a continual vehicle to glorify God.

Oh, amen. That's a good place for us to wrap up. Our C.S. Lewis Institute, we say that we’re in the legacy of C.S. Lewis, and C.S. Lewis was an academician. He was a professor of English literature and medieval literature. And he saw no contradiction between pursuing things academically rigorously and also pursuing his faith very, very thoughtfully.

And so we really hope that this conversation that I've had now with Jimmy Lin will be an encouragement to our listeners, and in particular, we hope that this will help all of our listeners love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind. Please visit Jimmy's organization's website, raregenomics.org, and alsocslewisinstitute.org. And may God bless you as you love him with all of your mind.

 

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