It was the peak of the stem cell wars, the time when scientists were fiercely debating the use of embryonic stem cells in therapy. It was the first time Dr. Markus Grompe, geneticist and director of the stem cell research institute at Oregon Health and Sciences University in Portland, found himself at odds with most of his colleagues. He refused to test on embryonic stem cells in his lab. He calls himself “very Catholic.”
Grompe was among the geneticists and bioethicists who said embryonic stem cells should not be used in therapy, even if they were extremely effective. He instead advocated for alternative therapies, trying to find a way to make tissue cells behave like embryonic stem cells. He was ridiculed, along with others who said there was another way.
But not long after the wars began, Shinya Yamanaka in Japan was able to modify adult skin cells in mice to behave almost exactly like embryonic stem cells. The doubters began to be less vocal, says Grompe. And a year later, Yamanaka was able to do the same thing in humans. The need for new embryonic stem cell lines was gone. And the stem cell wars were dead.
When asked if he thought this scientific advance was a coincidence, Grompe quotes a friend, saying, “I don’t believe in coincidences, period.”
Being religious as a scientist isn’t common, says Grompe. But he’s never hidden his religious convictions.
“It turns out if your scientific work is good, then you even get a certain amount of respect,” he says.
Grompe is a cradle Catholic. He has never left the faith. Growing up in Germany, he was an altar boy before Vatican II. He attends Mass every Sunday at St. John Fisher Parish in Southwest Portland. He sings in the choir, and his wife teaches Sunday school. He says he is not a cafeteria Catholic.
Jon Taylor has a similar story. He is a cradle Catholic who always has loved discovering how things work.
“It was always the fascination with finding out about something that wasn’t already known,” he says. This drove him into his profession as a medical researcher six years ago.
It’s absolutely a calling, says Taylor. More experiments fail than succeed. He has to be able to obsess about a problem for months, or even years. His current work involves the effects of the comorbidity of chronic viruses and substance abuse. It’s taken Taylor two years to find one method that consistently works with the cells.
“The more you find out about something, the more intricate it becomes. It seems like more proof that you couldn’t just happen upon this perfect system.”
And while his research has strengthened his faith, his faith strengthens his research. Knowing it’s not just randomness gets him through those tough periods when problems seem unsolvable.
Dr. Edward De Robertis is medical researcher and endowed chairman at the University of California, Los Angeles. He joined the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 2009.
“Biology, my field, has been used as an excuse to create false oppositions between faith and reason. I, therefore, welcome this opportunity to help in your task of building bridges between science and faith,” De Robertis said during his self-presentation to the academy in 2009.
For this embryologist who studies the molecular mechanisms of embryonic inductions, science and faith are usually kept separate. De Robertis uses the scientific method to test hypotheses and then must accept the answer that nature provides. Prejudices must be kept out of the experiments. Yet, sometimes the nature of God in science becomes obvious.
“There are some aspects of biology that are really surprising,” says De Robertis. He points to phenomena in evolution that have occurred only once, like the single genetic code that is sometimes referred to as the language of God.
“It is just amazing that we humans are here,” says the doctor.
While science has been beneficial for civilization, De Robertis says that faith has been equally important for mankind.
“It was only in a Christian society that science became possible,” he says, “where you could question the functioning of nature through experiments. That was a very revolutionary thing. Modern science could only occur in an environment that was conducive to it.”
As an academician with the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, De Robertis gets to meet with fellow Catholic scientists every two years and at workshops throughout the year. The academy presents a place of pride for these men and women of science, proving that the church wants to be informed of the advances of the world.
While Grompe spends much of his time running a research department to make scientific advances, he also treats patients. Usually these patients have genetic diseases that can’t be cured.
“Those days where you actually have to tell a family that their kid has something that you can’t do anything about, that can be hard,” he says. He tries not to dwell on it. But suffering is the one concept he finds difficult.
“The whole question of why is suffering allowed and why creation comes about through death and disease and selection is an interesting challenge for me.”
However, Grompe says he has to accept some cognitive dissonance, and his questions have never gone down to the core of doubting the existence of God.
“For some reason my brain doesn’t do that.”