US Catholic Faith in Real Life

How Abraham helped me become a scientist

Abraham’s journey in the wilderness reminds me that the road to finding one’s vocation can be a winding one.

By Will Olds | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
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Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” (Gen. 12:1)

Thus begins Abraham’s journey. It reminds me of my favorite narrative archetype: A ragtag group of adventurers follow a cryptic map to find untold riches hidden inside an ancient temple. Growing up, I loved solving the puzzles before the protagonists and was enamored with the metaphor of exhuming our past to find valuables for today. Lacking access to a secret map, I felt called to pursue a career as an archaeologist. God was calling me to adventure, like Abraham out of the land of his fathers. 

The day before I was to give a class presentation on archaeology, the Human Genome Project was completed and my presentation was scrapped. I had finally found my treasure map. Our DNA is ancient human history, written in chemical hieroglyphs. With it we have discovered migration patterns, ancestry, and the region of the first humans. At the time, I was excited about how, if we could just solve this puzzle, we could learn about the diseases encoded within us and find cures. God eventually blessed my scholastic efforts with the opportunity to study at Yale. 

I felt that God made it clear to me that academia was not my destination. During my Ph.D. qualifying exam, my advisers told me that I did not deserve to study at Yale and did not have what it takes to succeed in science. Like Abraham, I experienced a period of famine and needed to leave. I traveled home to Indiana and spent hours praying in a chapel before the Blessed Sacrament. I thought about my advisers’ assessments and dramatized my mistakes, but I also imagined Jesus sitting next to me. With every bead of the rosary, I pleaded for solace and clarity. Solace came gradually, but clarity came later.

Returning to Yale, I explored nonacademic careers. Finding scant resources, I formed a group with a few classmates to create programming for career exploration. This led us to organize Yale’s first career fair for Ph.D.’s. Meditating upon the wider range of possible careers, I recalled that initial call to adventure from God, of searching for priceless artifacts in the ancient temple. Biotech is precisely that, using our scientific insight of nature’s ingenious mechanisms to solve disease and other issues plaguing the world. 

In biotech I develop tools for scientists to investigate nature. Meanwhile I have felt called to help fellow treasure hunters with my story of discernment in science through a career development podcast and high school visits. In these exercises my goal is to teach others that uncertainty and exploration are critical to vocation. Abraham knew of no world outside his home and was in advanced age, yet he believed in God’s guidance. Though I have but an attogram of faith, I pray that sharing my story helps fellow travelers in the way Abraham’s helped me. 

This article is part of a series of reflections on faith and vocation that appeared in our August 2017 issue. The essays will be collected here as they are published.

Image: Via Unsplash

Published: 
Thursday, August 17, 2017