22 Oct Alumni Interview: Andrew Das
Andrew Das is an alumnus of the Residential Internship (2014/15) and works as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Otago, Christchurch. He lives with his wife, Rachel, and their son, Caleb, (pictured) in Phillipstown and worships at Grace Vineyard Church. Here, Andrew shares some reflections on wonder in his work and home life.
Tell us about the parts of your work that inspire wonder
My research is focussed on understanding leukaemia, a cancer of the bone marrow. Over the past decade, we have uncovered some of the processes that help each cell in our body remember its identity. When cells forget their identity and the role they play, they can become cancerous. One way this can happen is when cells multiply and our DNA code is not copied correctly. Here’s the thing: our bone marrow carries out the copying process at an extraordinary rate on a daily basis. It generates 100 billion cells, which is approximately the number of stars in our galaxy, every day. The fact that for most of us this goes on uneventfully, day after day, week after week, is incredible.
Another thing that inspires wonder for me is the intelligibility of the natural world. We can use what we already know to investigate further, and, if the experiment works, we get information that actually makes sense. Of course we may not have the full picture at the time, but we treat each piece of information as a piece of a larger jigsaw puzzle. This may sound like a simple description of what scientists do, but it is worth mulling over what is happening. The fact that creativity, understanding, and inspiration can collectively spark insight into how nature works is amazing.
On top of this, most of my experiments investigate events that are too small to see with my own eyes (or even a standard microscope for that matter). I need to use equipment that other people have made to infer the existence of things I cannot see. But recently, advances in physics have led to the development of microscopes that can let us see particles smaller than the wavelength of light—something previously deemed impossible. Combined with other developments in biology, we can now take videos of single molecules inside living cells in real time. I mean, you go to university and sit in lectures and see diagrams about these things, but now we’re seeing them in motion. The first time I used a microscope like this, I felt like a child again.
How has this work changed your understanding of wonder?
I think the relationship between work and wonder is an interesting one. To be honest, the way that science is taught and practised can sometimes be devoid of wonder. This is partially because we can get caught up in the demands of finishing a degree or just getting done what you need to in a day. But I think the problem goes deeper than this: it is a lack of openness to wonder itself. Although it takes effort, it is possible to cultivate a receptivity to wonder in the midst of the demands of work and life. One thing that has helped me in this endeavour is having time to walk through a green space a few times a week. Conversation with a mentor who gets excited about science, reading a good book, contemplative meditation, and having time when I am not distracted by entertainment definitely help too. When I am receptive to wonder, I find myself engaging with my work in a more fulfilling way. I am no longer approaching work with the attitude “what can I get out of this?” but with one that is, hopefully, more open to being taught.
What about your home life, what are you grateful for in this season?
I am very grateful for family and friends during this season. Rachel and I welcomed Caleb into the world this year, and it has been wonderful learning to love him and watch him develop. The support we have received from our wider family and friends, particularly during the first few months, has been humbling. And it has been wonderful to see the joy that Caleb brings others just by being who he is. Seeing the world through his eyes has helped me be grateful for a number of things I usually take for granted. Just being able to walk somewhere when you need to, for example! When he falls asleep in my arms, there is still a sense of wonder at this new life: part me, part Rachel, along with his own personality, and yet, where did he come from?
What are some opportunities you’ve encountered this year and what are you hopeful for in your work, life, and church community?
Like many others this year, we have had some uncertainty surrounding work. I was hoping to take up a job in Melbourne, which has now been put on hold until the borders open up fully. We are hopeful for a community that we will be able to be part of over there.
What passages of Scripture have you found helpful and encouraging?
Hebrews 11–12:3 and Revelation 4–5. I find these passages really helpful for getting perspective, particularly when it feels like things are not going well.
What’s your favourite podcast, movie, and book?
It was the first movie I’ve seen that really addresses the present lack of a pioneering spirit to get back into space and explore the stars. Plus, you get to see what a black hole might look like in real life!
Oathbringer by Brandon Sanderson
This one is too hard, so I’ll have to pick a recent favourite, Oathbringer. It’s the third book in a series by Brandon Sanderson. I don’t usually read epic fantasy, primarily because it is hard to find stories where hope, beauty, truth, and redemption, not just the harsh reality of life, are central to character development and plot.