Dr. Christin Hanigan: Gene Expression, Public Health, and Incorporating Science at Church
Christin shares with us her journey in science, faith, and now in teaching others. She shares with us what she does for work, as well as how she broaches tricky topics and questions with her faith community.
Dr. Christin Hanigan is the Senior Specialist for Advanced Molecular Detection at the Association of Public Health Laboratories (APHL), where she works in partnership with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and public health laboratories on their implementation and use of Next Generation Sequencing for infectious disease detection and surveillance.
She and I were able to discuss her journey in science, faith, and now in teaching others. She shares with us what she does for work, as well as how she broaches tricky topics and questions with her faith community.
Were you raised in a faith tradition?
I was raised in a home that acknowledged God and some of the basic Bible stories. I went to Sunday school for a few years as a child, but faith and church were not a big part of my childhood.
Can you describe your journey to your Christianity?
When I talk about my faith, I say it really started in college. My senior year in high school set the stage—it was kind of that first foray into the idea that “life is really hard.” I lost a friend very suddenly and a friend also lost her mother to cancer. Being hit with a lot of unexplained tragedy, started a conversation with God of asking “why?”
I went to a Catholic college, and there were people from all different Christian denominations and faith backgrounds there. As I had more conversations with people about what they believed and why, I realized that I didn’t necessarily know why I believed there was a God, and what that meant for my life. I came to the realization during conversations that I needed to figure out what I believe, and understand why people say “This is where I stand.” And so I just started reading the Bible, and during that process came to the realization that I needed to either say all that was in written there was true, and this is what I wanted to build my life around, or it’s not true—and not just keep walking that in-between.
After I made the decision that I was going to pursue Christianity (I don’t think I fully knew that was me becoming a Christian), there were three women who I got connected with who were strong Christians. Because we were at a Catholic college, there wasn’t much in our campus ministries that was for non-Catholics. So we formed a Bible study together that came from a Protestant perspective.
Were you always interested in science, or is it something you discovered a passion for in college?
I made the decision to pursue a career in science in high school. I went to college on a scholarship that was for someone who majored in biology or chemistry. I knew that I wanted to pursue a graduate degree after undergrad to do cancer research.
Throughout high school and college, I had some pretty amazing teachers and professors that continued to foster my passion for science. After college, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to pursue an M.D. or a Ph.D. I took a year off after college, and did a post-baccalaureate fellowship at NIH for a year to help me figure out what I wanted to do next. I really fell in love with research during my time there and decided to pursue a Ph.D.
For graduate school, I entered the Cellular and Molecular Medicine program at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Its goal is to train those of us who want to be bench scientists, but also train us on recognizing how the work we do as a bench scientist could be used and applied to medicine. I always wanted my pursuit of science to be for the good of humanity. This program was perfect for me.
I did my graduate research in cancer epigenetics. I was fascinated in learning about how gene expression was regulated beyond genetic changes. This added layer of complexity of how cells gene expression profiles could be regulated and changed was really intriguing.
Upon my receipt of my Ph.D., I did a post-doctoral research fellowship also at Hopkins continuing in cancer epigenetics. During this time, I tried to figure out what I wanted to do next. While I still had a passion for research, I was also disenchanted with how few academic positions there were and how hard funding was to secure. In looking at what was next, I went back to what initially drew me to science—I wanted to use my scientific training and expertise to practically help others.
How did you segue into your current role at APHL?
As I said before, when I made the decision to leave academia, I thought about what drew me to science. I took this position because of the opportunity to use my scientific expertise and background to help people around the country, and be part of this new era of infectious disease detection and surveillance. At the Association of Public Health Laboratories (APHL), I work with the CDC and public health laboratories on the implementation and use of Next Generation Sequencing (NGS) Technology. This technology has been around for several years, but its use in public health labs (PHLs) was new when I started.
NGS has big impact for for infectious diseases from helping determine outbreaks in foodborne illnesses, to flu vaccine prediction, to determining antimicrobial resistance. PHLs are on the front lines in these outbreaks in detection and surveillance.
While I am no longer in the laboratory, I get to work with amazing scientists and help coordinate and create programs and training for PHLs across the country and have a wider impact on their work and get to support them. I have coordinated and helped create bioinformatics trainings for microbiologists in PHLs. Bioinformatics is a skillset that is new to PHLs and many of the staff require training. I am also a Principal Investigator on a project to help create tools for a quality management system for NGS testing for PHLs and CDC laboratories.
Do you think your personal faith journey is related to your journey through science? To what extent do your science and your faith interact?
Being a scientist has helped me to have a deeper faith. I’ve always thought that getting to understand how things were created and understand the biology of cells and molecules helped me appreciate the beauty of God’s creation.
I am an elder at a church which has a lot of scientists, engineers and who have been really open to wanting to talk and learn more about scientific advances. We hold these events called “Pressure Points,” where we dive into topics that tend to be contentious between the church and science. We’ve done one on climate change and how as Christians we are called to care about our earth and take care of it. I recently hosted one on science and faith where we talked a lot about CRISPR and genetic engineering and the bioethics.
I also occasionally preach at my church and usually I wind up using some science example! I preached on prayer last year and did a PubMed search on “prayer” and found how many articles and studies that people had done on the power of prayer. I talked about how people were trying to “figure out prayer” and that as a person of faith, I was glad that there was no formula for prayer, because as much as I liked to figure things out a as a scientist, I didn’t want God to be reduced to something we could just figure out.
I also recently used heatmaps in an illustration—I talked about how people who are color blind can’t see the red/green heatmaps but can see blue/yellow heatmaps. I used that as an illustration of how we need to put “on God’s corrective lenses” to and see things with his perspective.
Being both a scientist and being a woman of faith are things that are deeply part of my identity. In reality, I see my role as a scientist as someone who is curious and learning about the world around me. As a person of faith, I see myself as someone who is appreciating, learning, and understanding more about God. I learn more about Him through his creation. Both roles leave me realizing that there is so much I don’t know and will never know. But I can appreciate the beauty and complexity of what I do understand, experience and see.
Do you ever feel your faith challenged in a such a scientifically-steeped environment?
I don’t know that I’ve ever felt my faith was challenged in any of my scientific environments. I will say that due to a lot of preconceived ideas about what Christians believe, I was cautious in when and how I talked about my faith when I was younger in my career because I didn’t want others to lose respect for me.
In your opinion, what are the biggest up and coming bioethical issues we should be watching?
I think the issue of genetic manipulation and the use of CRISPR for medical purposes is going to be a big question. The recent jailing of the Chinese scientist who did genetic manipulation on an embryo does send a message that the scientific community and certain governments are not okay with genetic manipulation at the germline. As we understand more about how to manipulate genes, we as scientists also need to realize that we may not fully know the downstream consequences of gene editing.
I also get questions about how reliable the results are from direct-to-consumer DNA tests like 23andme. As people have greater access to their genetic information, there’s going to be a greater need for scientists and medical professionals to educate patients. As someone who did their graduate and post-graduate research on other ways that gene expression can be controlled, I also know that DNA sequence is only part of the story. Gene expression can be controlled and changed through DNA methylation and histone modifications, so genes that have a “normal” DNA sequence may still not be expressed.
What are the best ways to start conversations with Christians about these topics?
A news article or another source that already explains a science topic in layman’s term can be helpful, but in this information age, we can become inundated with information. It can be hard for Christians to see how some of the random scientific advances (like CRISPR) can have ethical implications. In my experience, I’ve mostly found Christians to be curious, but can be confused as to what reliable sources are and how to find sources that are tailored to a non-scientist. As a Christian and a scientist, I think there is a responsibility to help inform Christians and help educate them on potential implications.
For example, during the “Pressure Points” I recently hosted, we talked about gene editing and talked about the complexity of how we look at this technology. At first glance, some Christians could think that genetic manipulation is bad. We talked through how this technology has the potential to alleviate suffering from certain genetic diseases and so shouldn’t be immediately dismissed. At the same time we talked about the potential ethical issues that can come with genetic manipulation and the need for safeguards. We talked about how controversial organ transplant was originally and how some felt that it could lead to people being killed for their organs. Now organ transplant is relatively common and well accepted and a lot of safeguards and systems have been established to alleviate the initial concerns.
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