A couple of months ago I came in to work to find a Starbucks gift card on my desk and some congratulatory Slack messages from colleagues: it was my work anniversary! Nine years.
In some ways, I feel like I’ve been connected to BioLogos for most of my adult life. I was halfway through my PhD program in cell biology at The Scripps Research Institute when I turned the final page of Francis Collins’ book The Language of God in 2006. I sighed and remarked to my husband, “This is the book I wish I could have written in the future.” It helped to solidify where I “fit” in the science/faith landscape.
Francis’ book continues to be transformative for so many people, both for his dramatic conversion story and his winsome and compelling vision for how science and faith can exist in harmony. I was one of the hundreds of people who wrote to him with appreciation and questions—and was amazed when he personally responded. I met Francis in person at a 2008 meeting, and a picture we took there graced our family Christmas card that year. For me and so many others, Francis was and continues to be a role model as a scientist and as a follower of Jesus Christ.
At that fateful meeting Francis suggested I reach out to Darrel Falk, as we both lived in San Diego. Darrel was a biology professor just down the road at Point Loma Nazarene University (PLNU), and he was helping Francis get BioLogos off the ground. Darrel was a natural mentor and soon became a real friend; we’d meet for lunch every month or two, and he always took an interest in my life and research. When it came time to defend my PhD, we’d already been talking for some time about possible roles for me at BioLogos, and I couldn’t have been more excited. I remember, though, that he gave me The Talk. It went like this: “Kathryn, you know I’d love for you to come and be a part of BioLogos, but you should know this is a pretty risky path for a scientist. If you leave the lab, it won’t be easy to come back.” Those were sobering words. After much prayer and reflection, it was a risk I felt ready to take.
Joining the BioLogos team in early spring of 2010 would turn out to be a great decision, one that has been personally and professionally satisfying. On the personal side, BioLogos brought our family to Grand Rapids, MI, in 2013, soon after Deb Haarsma became president. I had gotten to know Deb when she joined the Advisory Council and noticed her gentle spirit and strong leadership style—a rare combination. The opportunity to move closer to family (my in-laws live in neighboring Indiana) was a real draw, especially as we had one child and another on the way.
It would be impossible for me to mention all the people and experiences that have been a part of my journey with BioLogos over the years, so I’ve collected just 10 reflections, arranged more or less chronologically. It feels like a personal indulgence to share them, but perhaps they might serve to showcase the value I see in BioLogos.
1. Refresh, refresh, refresh
When the BioLogos website launched at the end of April 2009, I was waiting. I’d been in touch with then-Program Director Syman Stevens and knew when it was supposed to happen. I remember sitting in the lab and refreshing the website over and over in between writing lines of code and analyzing movies of cells captured under the microscope. Finally, I clicked again, and there it was! In the coming days I’d email Syman a number of times with little typos I found (I wanted it to be just perfect). I devoured the Common Questions and assigned many of them to the science/faith discussion group I led through my church. I suppose I was a superfan from day one.
2. That wet dog smell
At first when BioLogos was headquartered in San Diego, we didn’t have an actual office. Darrel Falk worked out of his biology office at PLNU, and I worked out of a windowless nook shared by the adjunct biology faculty (who had priority, by the way—when they needed the office I’d find an empty classroom to work in). Soon, though, we got a beautiful new office suite; it had an office for Darrel, an office for the Executive Director, and a slightly larger office shared by the rest of us staff and interns. Cozy is perhaps the most charitable way to describe it. One day it rained (a rare thing in San Diego) and a colleague (an intern, I think) decided to dry out his wet shoes by the heater. The smell of wet stinky shoes (similar to wet dog, but from a less desirable source) soon permeated the office until we had to vacate. When BioLogos moved to Grand Rapids, better real estate prices allowed us to make our home in a much larger office space. Now, we have a comfortable space with restful blue and green walls, big windows overlooking a pond, a mix of enclosed offices and cubicles, and even a little room to grow. Our physical presence has matured along with the organization.
3. Chicken embryos
In 2010, BioLogos and PLNU partnered to host the first of a series of week-long professional development workshops for high school teachers. Teachers studied and worshiped together with PLNU faculty and BioLogos staff for a week one summer; participated in online work throughout the school year; and returned for a final week the following summer. Our topic was developmental biology, and I was tasked with running the labs. We saw sand dollars and sea urchins spawn, studied zebrafish development, and observed baby chicks develop from a tiny dot of a pulsing red heart.
To do the chick lab, each teacher used a dremel tool to carefully cut a semi-circle through the shell of a fertilized chicken egg (procured by yours truly from a local farmer). The contents of the egg, enclosed in the membrane just under the shell, were then gently placed in a small dish and covered by a clear plastic lid. Each dish was kept in an incubator, such that we could take them out and look at them each day. Because we’d prepared embryos like this at a couple of time points before the workshop started, we could watch the entire 21-day developmental process. By the end the chicks were fully grown, with feathers, feet, and beaks that they nestled under their wings.
Unfortunately, without the process of breaking through the shell, the chicks would not be viable, and it fell to me, after the workshop was over, to put them to a merciful end. The protocol for that was to place them in plastic bags in an ice bath and then transfer them to an autoclave. You’d think as a biologist I would be able to do this easily, but I was a computational cell biologist and had not done animal research before. I wept. I prayed over them. I asked God to redeem their little lives and make the learning experience deep for all of us who had participated. At least for me, I felt a new kind of reverence for the lives of animals used in scientific research, and I thought in new ways about the nature of embryos.
4. How can I keep from singing
In June 2011, Francis Collins gave a plenary conference talk at Pepperdine University in Malibu, an event that Darrel Falk and I attended. That was a seminal event for a couple of reasons. First, it was there that Darrel met theologian Kenneth Keathley; I remember listening in on their lengthy lunchtime conversation, out of which flowed the fruitful Southern Baptist Voices exchange with BioLogos writers. Ken would go on to become an important conversation partner, moderating discussions between BioLogos and Reasons to Believe, and editing a book that arose from that dialogue.
The other memorable thing that happened was that we got to meet Joni Eareckson Tada, a visit arranged by long-time BioLogos friend Ralph Veerman. Joni was eager to meet Francis, having admired him greatly for the medical advances he had enabled with the Human Genome Project, which were now making an impact in the world of disability. Of course we were all over the moon to meet Joni. I have never met anyone more full of pure joy, despite (or maybe forged by) her intense bodily suffering. Darrel’s sister had had a heart attack the previous day, and Joni prayed for her. It was an enormous comfort to Darrel and his family. To top it off, we even had an informal hymn sing after lunch. Unforgettable.
5. Irreducible complexity
My firstborn, Lucy, entered the world in mid-January 2012. Nine weeks later, she took her first airplane ride. While I was in BioLogos meetings all day, my husband walked all around New York City with her snuggled to his chest in the Baby Bjorn. I’d sneak out to nurse Lucy at various points; it was my first experience of the awkward beauty that comes with being a working mom.
Being a first-time mom, I didn’t have a good sense of what my limits would be and naturally made some errors in judgment. One such lapse was having accepted a speaking invitation at Wheaton College for just after the NYC meeting. So off we flew to Chicago, where in total exhaustion I gave a talk opposite Michael Behe, one of the most prominent leaders of the Intelligent Design movement.
The evening turned out to be a lot of fun, but upon leaving the auditorium my elation turned to concern—my mother-in-law, babysitting Lucy (for the first time) in a hotel room, was frantic because Lucy had was projectile vomiting and all the milk and formula were gone!
6. The last dodo
From 2013-2015, I managed our Evolution & Christian Faith program, which distributed several million dollars in grant funding toward the development of new scholarly and lay-level resources on origins and faith. The panel of judges, ably led by Jeff Hardin (now chair of the BioLogos Board), had the unenviable task of sorting through hundreds of proposals and allocating funds to 37 individuals and teams from across North America and the world.
The program was extremely fruitful, leading to hundreds of events, books, videos, and other resources. For me—and I suspect for the grant recipients too—just as important as these artifacts were the relationships that developed over the years. The grantees convened for a few days each summer, allowing us time to get to know each other over meals and times of recreation and worship. By the end of those three years I felt like their den mother.
The second summer meeting took place in Oxford, England. On the final evening, we held a banquet dinner at the storied Oxford Museum of Natural History, site of the famous 1860 debate between Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford, and
Thomas Huxley, a biologist from London. Three things stand out to me from the night. First, we got to go on a private tour of the museum before dinner. One of the curators led a small group of us into a room filled to the brim with specimens in labeled boxes. She lifted the lid of a small box, revealing the head of a dodo with skin intact—the only remaining soft tissue specimen of a dodo in the world! The second thing I remember is the heat. The museum, being a Victorian-era building, has no air conditioning, and we were dining on the second-floor gallery. In mid-July. I worried for the servers—they had to carry all the food up two flights of stairs—but thankfully nobody fainted. That leads to my final memory of that night: our spirited songs of worship and praise, echoing off those old, stone walls at twilight and falling on the dinosaurs and beetles below.
7. Friends in glory
I’ve had the privilege of knowing two men who, in the course of their service to BioLogos and other Kingdom work, have gone ahead to glory. The first was Jud Carlberg, former President of Gordon College, who served as our Board Chair for several years. Jud was a wise man, a leader of leaders. We are a better organization because of his time with us.
The other was Michael Cromartie, who served on our Advisory Council. Michael organized a beloved and highly strategic series of events called the Faith Angle Forum. Michael knew everyone in Washington, D.C., including many reporters from mainstream media outlets who were tasked with writing about religion but who didn’t understand it. At each Faith Angle Forum, Michael would convene a couple dozen reporters and give them access to three faith leaders for talks and extended Q&A sessions. A number of BioLogos scientists and scholars participated over the years. I attended one at which Jeff Hardin and sociologist Christian Smith spoke, and found myself face-to-face (or face-to-shoulder, in the case of David Gregory; he’s tall!) with incredibly thoughtful, inquisitive media personalities. Not a little intimidating. Through it all, Michael Cromartie’s million-dollar smile made me feel welcome. The day we learned that his fight against cancer was over, Deb Haarsma and I burst out of our offices and wept together.
8. Risky business
In the early years of BioLogos, we had conferences, but unless you were paying close attention, you probably didn’t know about them. That’s because the early meetings happened behind closed doors, with promises of anonymity given to invited participants.
In those days it was risky business for conservative Christians to discuss evolutionary creation openly, except to condemn it. The first conference organizing committee—composed of people like Tim Keller, Philip Yancey, Os Guinness, and Andy Crouch—were incredibly brave to put their names behind the invitation. They did so not because they were personally convinced that evolution was true, but because they believed the church needed to work out the theological implications if it were true. They were convinced of the critical importance of interdisciplinary dialogue about science and faith for the integrity of the church.
Unfortunately, I’ve seen a few too many casualties over the years. A seminary professor was fired for saying on a video the same things he’d said in academic books for years. A high school teacher was called dangerous for teaching his students that Christians have different perspectives on origins. Multiple professors have been fired or forced to leave beloved Christian colleges because their belief statements became unnecessarily restrictive. Various friends have had to find new church homes when their views on creation became known.
It is still risky in many communities to openly embrace or even consider evolutionary creation, but it is much less so broadly speaking. That is wonderful to see and not something I could have envisioned 10 years ago.
We have now hosted three large public conferences, the last of which took place just a couple of months ago in Baltimore. It was remarkable to see a big ballroom full of scientists, pastors, teachers, and plenty of interested laypeople, talking around tables about all sorts of things: gene editing, exoplanets, how to talk about our faith in a post-Christian world, and yes, evolutionary creation. The sense of danger has given way to a sense of relief and optimism.
9. Strawberries in my pocket
The past couple of years I’ve been working with a small team to develop a Christian worldview curriculum supplement for high school biology. The six of us ladies live in five different cities, and while we get a lot done via email and phone meetings, our best work happens in person.
Last summer we rented a house for a week in East Lansing, Michigan. Most of our time was spent camped out on the sunroom floor, working in pairs or individually or talking as a full team. It was intense and focused and very productive. But we also had fun: we grilled chicken on the deck under umbrellas in the rain, power-walked the neighborhood a couple of times a day, and confided in each other over late-night glasses of wine. (I learned about important stuff like menopause.)
One night Sarah Bodbyl Roels and her husband Steve hosted us for dinner on their farm. We walked the gorgeous property, met Sarah’s horse, tried to learn to catch chickens (I failed), and enjoyed burgers from their freshly butchered cattle. I was so captivated by the place, I decided we had to do a video interview with Sarah and Steve on site, rather than at the office at a later time, as we had originally planned. (Videos of scientists are a part of each unit in the curriculum.) I returned a couple of days later with my kids in tow, and while we adults were doing the filming, they stuffed strawberries in their pockets from the garden and caught bugs and worms. Which is what we should all do on a regular basis to stay young.
10. It takes a village
People are often surprised to learn that BioLogos only has 10 employees. Our impact is disproportionately larger than our staff. That’s because we’re embedded in a large, diverse community of dedicated people. While we’re not as ethnically diverse as we hope to become, we’re diverse in other ways, and this diversity one of the things I appreciate most about BioLogos.
Many Christian traditions and denominations are represented in our community. Our theological diversity has given me a clearer understanding of the essentials of the Christian faith. Being exposed to streams of thought outside of my own Reformed tradition makes me aware of my own biases and opens up fresh ways of thinking. And because we’re frequently in conversation with skeptics and atheists, I regularly have to reflect on my own beliefs and assumptions.
In a similar way, the vocational diversity of our community has made my experience much richer. Every day I learn something new! In what other job would I, in the space of a day, have conversations with a pastor, a paleontologist, a philosopher, an astronomer, a schoolteacher, and a student? BioLogos is a microcosm for the full body of Christ. Everybody brings something unique and important.
That truth extends back in time, as well. It’s a practical reality in every nonprofit that people come and go. I’ve had to say goodbye to many people I consider dear friends over the years. Yet I can say with confidence that every single person who has served on staff (including every administrative person, event planner, and intern), on the Board, or on the Advisory Council, has contributed to making BioLogos what it is today, which is a gentler and wiser place than it was in its early years. Furthermore, every person who has written an article, shared a book with a friend, left a comment on the Forum, given financially, or come to one of our events has contributed to our mission.
I don’t know what the future holds, or for how long I’ll be called to this work, but I don’t see this changing: I love this place, and I am grateful for each of you.
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