Paying Attention to Product and Process

Many scientists, especially biochemists, love to cook when they are not spending time in the laboratory. After all, a recipe bears resemblance to a protocol, some measuring cups look like beakers, and a creative dish is just an edible experiment. Whenever I have the opportunity, I enjoy spending time at the granite lab bench known as the kitchen counter.

My goal when cooking is a tasty, nutritious meal that appeals to my family and any guests present. This meal is the product.  I can choose to bake, boil, sauté, poach, steam, fry, broil, grill, braise, or cook sous-vide. These techniques are the process. My choice of cooking method and my skill using that method will affect the quality and properties of the product. For example, steaming vegetables preserves more vitamins than boiling them. Both steaming and boiling transfer heat through water. When you steam broccoli, you place the vegetable in a closed environment (pot with a lid on it) saturated with steam. This method softens the broccoli while maintaining the flavor and vitamin C content. If you were to boil the broccoli, the water-soluble vitamin C would leach out into the water, reducing the nutritional value of the vegetable. Cooking the broccoli sous-vide (under vacuum) preserves water-soluble vitamins, but requires the use of special plastic bags and controlled temperatures not normally found in home kitchens.

College students planning careers in medicine go through the experience of memorizing biochemical pathways for metabolism in the human body, such as the breakdown of carbohydrates into energy. Glucose, fructose 6-phosphate, and glyceraldehyde 3-phosphate are some of the products of sugar metabolism that a student needs to memorize. However, hexokinase, phosphoglucose isomerase, and glyceraldehyde 3-phosphate dehydrogenase are equally important to students, scientists, and physicians. These enzymes convert one metabolite to another. They are responsible for the process that makes the products. Inborn errors in metabolism can cause serious disease for infants and small children. These errors arise from defects in enzymes. When the process is wrong, you do not get the products you need.

Products often catch our attention, while we forget the importance of the process. We see the athlete holding up the Olympic gold medal for the cameras, the graduate walking across the stage for his diploma, or the crisp pages of a newly released book. These products may inspire us to reach for similar goals ourselves. However, if we want the product, we must be willing to go through the process. If you want to be a world-class athlete, you must face hours of repetitive and grueling physical training. If you want a diploma, you have to learn to study. If you want to write a book, be ready to invest blocks of time writing and editing over the course of months.

We may admire a person of good character and forget that spiritual growth is also a process. “Make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness, and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love” (2 Peter 1:5-7). To each good trait that we develop as we grow, we need to be prepared to add the next one. The process of growing to become more like Christ resembles slow cooking more than deep-frying. To get a healthy product, we must be willing to forgo our impatience with the process. Instead of becoming discouraged, we need to stick to the goal and take the next step, trusting that God finishes what He starts (Philippians 1:6).

Key Concepts to Tweet

  • Products often catch our attention, while we forget the importance of the process.  Buffer
  • If we want the product, we must be willing to go through the process.  Buffer
  • To get a healthy product, we must be willing to forgo our impatience with the process.  Buffer

What Lab Glassware Taught Me About Community

As a graduate student working in a research lab, I quickly came to appreciate the person who washed and prepared the glassware. If we ran out of clean graduated cylinders, beakers, and flasks, all the experiments for the day would need to be put on hold. Furthermore, we had to place our trust in the person who prepared the glassware. Any soap residue left behind could ruin an experiment. If the flasks were not sterilized properly, our results would be skewed. The lady who prepared our glassware was a member of our research team, and her work was no less important than ours. My scientific adviser taught us to respect all team members by inviting everyone to laboratory social events.

In the laboratory or in the church, there are no unimportant people. Everyone is a vital member of the team. The key to appreciating the unique contributions made by each person is a little dose of humility. “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves (Philippians 2:3). Humility purifies my motives, helping me look beyond myself to the needs of others. Humility teaches me to share credit with others on the team and acknowledge their perspective. Humility produces a realistic view of life, showing me my role within a given organization is vital but time-limited. Knowing I will someday yield my role to another motivates me to teach and train those who will take my place.

When I am able to honor people for their contributions within a workplace or church community (Romans 12:10), I gain the freedom to learn from them, and I feel less pressure to pretend to be someone I am not. Celebrating another person’s success does not diminish the value of my own work on the team. Instead, acknowledging the achievements of others motivates me to do my part with greater excellence.

Key Concepts to Tweet

  • In the workplace or in the church, there are no unimportant people.  Buffer
  • When I am able to honor people for their contributions, I gain the freedom to learn from them.  Buffer
  • Celebrating another person’s success does not diminish the value of my own work on the team.  Buffer

Constructing Newton’s Bridge

Isaac Newton, one of the most influential scientists who ever lived, also was a Christian theologian. He once said, “We build too many walls and not enough bridges.” His quote resonates with me because bridges filled the landscape of my childhood.

I spent the first eighteen years of my life growing up in “The City of Bridges”. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, contains more bridges within its city limits than Venice, Italy, with the current number of bridges totaling nearly two thousand. Three major rivers come together at the Point, the location of Pittsburgh’s iconic fountain first built in 1974.  In addition to the presence of rivers, the steep hills and ravines around the city make bridges a necessity for transportation. The early European settlers of Pittsburgh quickly learned that they had to choose between living in isolation or finding creative ways to span the waters and valleys.

People cluster on one of two riverbanks in their approach to relating human reasoning to faith. The first approach, common in many Christian circles in my childhood and college years and persisting to this day, revolves around mistrust of the intellect. Acquiring knowledge, analyzing information, and questioning assumptions become suspect activities. Too much thinking means that you are not listening to your heart; you are out of touch with practical concerns; or you are not truly spiritual.

Many Christians find support for mistrusting the intellect in a variety of Biblical passages. All the way back in Eden, Eve’s temptation included a desire for wisdom and knowledge. In Proverbs 3:5, an often-quoted verse reads, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.” In the New Testament in John 20:29, Jesus said to the doubting Apostle Thomas, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” In his letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 1:27), the Apostle Paul explained, “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.”

Clustered on the second riverbank, we find those who worship the life of the mind above all else. Human reasoning reigns supreme. The standard for judging truth becomes data collected through the human senses and processed by rational thought. Atheists and agnostics wield Occam’s razor to slice away the possibility of revelation, preferring explanations that avoid spirituality. While the 14th century Franciscan friar William of Ockham was right to suggest that a scientific model should avoid introducing more causes than necessary, the principle often is used to exclude from the possibility of existence everything not perceivable by the human senses. Occam’s razor is a sound approach to the practice of science, but when brandished too freely, justifies positivism. This philosophy persuades those dwell on this second riverbank to stop their search for spiritual truth when they reach the limits of human reasoning and empirical evidence.

Perhaps the two camps of settlers could survive adequately without venturing beyond the limits of their respective riverbanks. Yet I join Isaac Newton and the early settlers of Pittsburgh in the conviction that a richer life waits for those willing to construct a bridge.

Key Concepts to Tweet

  • “We build too many walls and not enough bridges.” Isaac Newton  Buffer
  • People cluster on one of two riverbanks in their approach to relating human reasoning to faith.  Buffer
  • A richer life waits for those willing to construct a bridge.  Buffer

Blip or Trend?

At some point in every relationship and along every path to a goal, something goes wrong. A friend disappoints you. A partner is insensitive. You are disillusioned by how a teacher, coach, or church leader handles a situation. You experience a setback. You make a careless mistake. You skip your morning run and choose a double fudge sundae for an afternoon snack. The moment is forever gone; the words cannot be unspoken; and the regret begins.

You cannot undo your choice or rewind your circumstances. Your failed midterm will never magically be given an “A”. In all likelihood, your former boss will not hire you back. However, you have a new choice to make. You get to decide whether this moment in your life remains a blip or becomes a trend.

Choosing Your Future

About five years ago, I learned the concept of the “blip” from a friend who worked as Director of Human Resources for a large bank. He said that a person who loses his job at the bank must decide if this event is a “blip” or the beginning of a career downslide. If the ex-employee is willing to learn the necessary lesson from the unpleasant experience, the event becomes a blip. If the person goes on to the next job with the lesson unlearned, history can repeat itself again, slowly derailing the person’s professional life. Finally, if the person learns his lesson but becomes too demoralized by the experience, the person may never regain his former career trajectory.

Graphing Your Life

A “blip” refers to a point at which a line on a graph makes a sharp change of direction before returning to its original course. A trend is a long-range change in a certain direction. In other words, one argument does not need to create permanent conflict. One double fudge sundae does not necessarily mean the end of a person’s diet. You can lose a battle and go on to win the war.

Marriages that go the distance happen because a husband and wife decide to turn setbacks, disagreements, and stressful events into blips, not trends. People who attend the same church for years do the same within their faith communities. Successful businesses surmount a bad quarter to turn a profit over time. History teaches that individuals who make their mark on society persevere past the quitting point for everyone else.

Clearing the Hurdles

Jonas Salk, the University of Pittsburgh researcher who developed the first safe and effective polio vaccine, had to clear several hurdles before he led his own laboratory. Three institutions turned him down before the dean of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine offered him a lab. However, when he arrived in Pittsburgh, Salk quickly discovered that the lab was in a cramped basement location of an old building with no laboratory equipment. Yet Salk found funding from the Mellon family, a wealthy and influential family in Pittsburgh.  He turned the cramped basement into a working virology laboratory and went on to develop a vaccine for the worst disease of the postwar era. The rejections became blips and Jonas Salk became a household name.

The next time your faith is shaken through challenging circumstances or frustrating encounters with difficult people, remember Jonas Salk. Choose to make your momentary problem a blip. Even if justified, reject the impulse to wallow in your frustrations, turn away from relationships, and become cynical. Instead, question your doubts, re-engage people productively, and get back in the game.

Key Concepts to Tweet

  • You can lose a battle and go on to win the war.  Buffer
  • Choose to make your momentary problem a blip.  Buffer

Which Butterfly Caused the Tornado?

The public expects science to deliver discoveries that provide increasingly precise answers about our world. Yet some scientific discoveries suggest inherent limits to scientific knowledge. One example is chaos theory, popularized as the “butterfly effect.”

The butterfly effect is a simple insight first extracted from the complex science of meteorology by Edward Lorentz in 1961 at MIT. He found that small changes in initial conditions, such as rounding a number used to represent an atmospheric condition from .506127 to .506, could completely transform a long-term weather forecast. He explained this insight in his 1972 paper, “Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?”

His paper described both a practical limit for weather predictions and a philosophical limit for the explanatory powers of science. In complex, nonlinear systems, a small change in input can produce a large change in output. Thus, weather predictions more than a week in advance always will be fairly inaccurate. The philosophical limit is that the effects of chaos prevent us from knowing which butterfly caused the tornado.

So the lesson of the butterfly effect is that our world will remain fundamentally unpredictable because tiny differences in our scientific measurements make too big a difference in the final answer. Everything happens for a reason, but science may be unable to give us an exact cause for an event. Accepting limitations to the explanatory power of science does not diminish the importance of science. After all, the discovery of our human limitations in fully comprehending our world is a finding with profound significance.

Questions to ponder: What does the inherent limitations of science say about the limits of human understanding? Does science preclude spirituality?

Key Concepts to Tweet

  • Everything happens for a reason, but science may be unable to give us an exact cause for an event.  Buffer
  • Accepting limitations to the explanatory power of science does not diminish the importance of...  Buffer

Finding Answers Together

 

Near the end of a typical Harvard commencement ceremony, the University President confers degrees on the candidates from the various schools. Doctoral candidates belonging to the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences are welcomed “to the ancient and universal company of scholars,” a traditional phrase that accurately describes the life of an academic researcher. The University President admits the seniors of the undergraduate class to “the fellowship of educated men and women.” The ceremony concludes with bells ringing from church towers across Cambridge, with at least fourteen churches participating.

 

The Harvard Commencement ceremony recognizes that good scholarship happens in a community. The research of today links with the work of the brilliant minds of the past. This process connects with Christian thinking expressed in the Bible in Proverbs 27:17, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” The community of scholars refines and corrects the thinking of any one researcher.

 

By asking questions of other scholars and learning from each other, researchers advance knowledge. Perhaps the scientific community offers a good model for those embarking on a journey of faith, seeking answers to the questions that science does not answer.

 

We do better in life when we join together with others. We make better scientific progress working together than we ever could accomplish alone. I believe that we also experience enhanced personal growth when we connect with others to find meaning in life and to seek ways to make a positive impact on our world.

 

My hope is that this blog community will become a place where we can find answers together, accomplishing more than we ever would on our own.

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Key Concepts to Tweet

  • The research of today links with the work of the brilliant minds of the past.  Buffer
  • The process of discovery rarely happens in isolation.  Buffer
  • We do better in life when we join together with others.  Buffer

The Power of a Good Question

I believe in the power of a good question. Questions promote discovery. Every scientific experiment starts with a question that leads to a hypothesis.

Why is the sky blue?

What causes uncontrolled growth in tumor cells?

How do plants convert sunlight into energy?

In life, questions can clarify your goals and sharpen your sense of purpose.

What do I do well?

How can I live life to the fullest?

Who matters the most to me?

Questions also reveal truth and cut through unnecessary complexity.

Do you love me?

Why wasn’t I invited?

What happened to all the cookies?

This new blog, Question Your Doubts, is all about asking questions. Questions to promote discovery. Questions to clarify your life goals. Questions to ignite a sense of purpose. Questions to reveal truth. Questions to strength your faith, your confidence, and your relationships. Thanks for visiting!