In the past few months, scientists and doctors across the globe became public figures as people have sought the latest knowledge gained in the fight against COVID-19, and many of them are Christians. In the US, this is particularly true of those in the medical field. Sociologists Elaine Howard Ecklund and Christopher Scheitle reported in a 2017 book that when you look at those working at scientific jobs in the United States, such as doctors or nurses (and others), 65 percent identify as Christians, and 24 percent as evangelicals. While the percentage of Christian scientists at elite research institutions is smaller, they are an active bunch and many apply their research out of a sense of service.
CT reached out to a handful of these scientists and doctors to ask them how they’re staying grounded. We contacted people doing research on treatments or vaccines, improving patient care, or contributing to public health responses, some of whom are also working in hospital wards. While we could not include all of the responses we received, we talked to scientists in the US, the UK, Italy, Singapore, and Australia. We asked them how they’re coping and how they’re praying amid this crisis. Many shared anecdotes, Scripture, or prayer requests. They practice faith in a variety of ways, and though they practice medicine in labs and hospitals against different geographic and cultural landscapes, they’re united both in purpose and in spirit.
Career field: physician and geneticist
Works in: Washington, DC, as director of the US National Institutes of Health.
Focused on: Collins oversees biomedical research in the United States, which is now aiming to develop treatments and a vaccine to control the coronavirus. He receives probably four or five interesting ideas every day, he said, which makes it a challenge to figure out which ones to prioritize. The NIH also manages a hospital that runs clinical trials, now including COVID-19 research. Prior to his NIH appointment, Collins led the team that first mapped the human genome.
How he’s praying: Collins views his calling as a public servant to be a Christian one, where he can wield the tools of science to alleviate suffering. “I pray every morning that I will find a path forward to do that with God’s help. I’m fond of Joshua and the verse in the first chapter: ‘Be strong and courageous.’ I need that. Sometimes I get discouraged and down,” he said. Collins described the grief he’s been feeling, saying, “I’m trying to figure out how to turn that into something, increased self-knowledge as well as actions.”
Collins prays for health workers, who are afraid to go home, and for researchers, who are working night and day to come up with solutions.
Career field: physician
Works in: Reggio Emilia, a city in northern Italy, as director of a semi-intensive care unit at a local hospital.
Focused on: Negri cares for COVID-19 patients on noninvasive ventilation. His semi-intensive care unit will be adaptable to care needs as the pandemic plays out, he said. His colleagues assume coronavirus infections will go on for several months, though they plan to reorganize the hospital for the next phase as case numbers slope downward following the peak. As a team, they are exploring the hypothesis that patients experiencing lung inflammation may suffer from an amplified immune response called a “cytokine storm,” which they with are targeting in trials with several clinical drugs.
How he’s sharing his faith: Because of all the protective gear worn by medical professionals, Negri’s COVID-19 patients cannot necessarily hear him speak, but they don’t have to in order to experience the gospel. “It’s not a time of witness by word,” he said. “People around me will observe my behavior.”
He shared a letter from one of his hospital’s first patients: “I personally felt a miracle in the sense that the Lord put me in the hands of these professionals who can do their job well and which, in the end, allowed me to embrace my loved ones. I will never forget those sweet eyes hidden behind those plastic barriers. When I can get out of the house again I will meet many people, maybe even some of those who saved my life, but unfortunately I will never be able to recognize these people. I will not know who they are, but my thoughts will go to them forever. To them I will owe the most precious good: life. And to all of them I say THANK YOU.”
“Jesus had ‘sweet eyes’” (Matt. 9:37), said Negri. “It’s almost impossible to speak to my patients now, but they need our sweet eyes. We need to pray to show empathy.”
Expertise: physician scientist
Works in: New York City at a university hospital as director of the Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease Program.
Focused on: In addition to maintaining outpatient care via telemedicine, Wattacheril was “redeployed” to work ICU triage overnight, helping make decisions about patients who worsen and need a higher level of care. Within her specialty, she and her group are collecting data to better understand how COVID-19 affects transplant patients, as well as the effects of therapeutics currently being tried. She’s hoping to repurpose an algorithm that might help identify at-risk patients so providers can suitably prioritize needs for recovery.
How she’s holding onto hope: Wattacheril described how she became discouraged recently, as she hoped for changes in leadership—such as a new tone of messaging, more emotional intelligence, and a readiness to comfort others in pain. “I prayed my anger and yelled at God on my roof. Later that day I was reminded—through John 15 about Jesus as the vine and we as the branches—that my job was to abide in Christ. I was too concerned with the fruit and anxious and distrustful of what God was doing.” That reminder helped her remember her purpose, and “hope came online quickly after that,” she said.
Wattacheril also talked about processing grief, saying she uses practices she developed several years ago after experiencing grief. She stays “anchored in prayer,” either by herself or with others. She meditates, seated or on walks, and listens to music or sermons. Also, “I have a beautiful community aligned to help and rally and remind me of what I tend to forget about myself as well as my well-worn Scripture verses with decades of history,” she said.
Career field: electrical engineer
Works in: the UK at the University of Oxford’s Institute of Biomedical Engineering.
Focused on: Tarassenko works with colleagues on developing new patient monitoring techniques, from sensors to machine learning for data analysis. Now, he’s shifted these tools toward the fight against COVID-19. He described three ways the technology has been adapted: (1) the remote management of high-risk pregnant women, with the aim of preventing infection; (2) the triage of suspected COVID-19 patients in “primary care hubs” using video camera technology and (3) real-time monitoring, using wearables, of patients with COVID-19 being treated in isolation wards.
How he applies faith at work: “I am very mindful of the parable of talents and the need to put these talents to the use that God would want me to,” he said.
“I am also very conscious that our world is not limited to what we can see or perceive with our scientific instruments,” he said, quoting Hebrews 11:3: “By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.”
Career field: infectious diseases physician, epidemiologist
Works in: Melbourne, Australia, as medical director of the Victorian Tuberculosis Program at a research hospital.
Focused on: At his hospital, Denholm runs a screening clinic for people suspected of having COVID-19. He also manages patients over the phone so that they can avoid coming into the hospital and calls people to give them coronavirus test results. While he’s very busy with these tasks, he’s also conducting a clinical trial, which is testing a range of drugs for a planned 2,500 patients hospitalized with COVID-19.
How he’s feeling: “To be honest, at this point I’m pretty tired and find it hard to pray. I take some comfort in thinking that God is with us in everything, whether in illness or in working hard to relieve it,” he said. Denholm hopes that Christians around the world will support each other while physically distanced. “The support of communities is critical for all of us right now, and I’m grateful for all the ways that groups are finding to care for each other, and especially the most vulnerable,” he said.
Lim Poh Lian
Career field: infectious disease physician, also specializing in public health
Works in: Singapore at the National Center for Infectious Diseases.
Focused on: Lim moved to Singapore from Seattle, Washington, out of a sense of calling to serve Christ in Asia, ironically arriving months before SARS hit the country in 2003. Ever since, she’s been involved with outbreaks in WHO and UN advisory groups and task forces.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, she’s been working on the front lines with patients. “I love direct patient care,” she said. “I also help develop clinical, public health, and research protocols.” Her role at WHO focuses on mass gatherings risk assessment.
How her faith impacts her work: “I see my outbreak work as ministry,” said Lim, explaining how her work fulfills the greatest commandment to love God (Matt. 22:37)—by thinking clearly and strategically in outbreak control issues, caring compassionately for patients, and pointing people to trust in God. “Faith in Christ gives me courage and an anchor of rationality,” she said. “God has given us, not a spirit of fear but of love, power, and a sound mind—which he expects us to use!”