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Department: Molecular Biology

Getek Molecular Biology

Kathryn Getek ’99

Doctoral Candidate in Theology, Boston College Catholic Chaplain

Studying the basis of life

In part, my love of math and science came from the plain fact that I seemed to be good at it, and particularly that I was a girl who was good at it. I delighted in challenging stereotypes. But even more, there was the precision and the logic that enraptured me. What could be more beautiful than a clear, indisputable solution? What could be more breathtaking than making sense of a small, unassuming recess of our world? More than once, I proudly declared that some people might go to the bookshelves marked “Philosophy” or “Religion,” but the closest a person could get to truth was a few aisles away . . . under “Science.” I entered Princeton thinking that I would major in molecular biology, and I departed through FitzRandolph Gate exceptionally pleased to have followed through on that initial impulse. The molecular puzzles kept my mind happily mired in navigable complexity for four years. From the creativity of formulating a hypothesis to the meticulous care of the investigative method, I delighted in the labor of discovery. My final year was perhaps best measured in microliters. For my thesis, I assembled a specialized DNA construct, placed it and the mutation it carried into mouse embryonic stem cells, and, in turn, had these injected into blastocysts to create chimeric mice that carried this baffling genetic feature. It was an experience at once humbling and empowering. In the process, I found myself challenging yet another stereotype. I was raised and still practicing in the Roman Catholic Church, but there was not a bit of this science that contradicted or weakened my faith. I was merely unraveling a tiny strand of that one awe-inspiring mystery that animates it all.

Finding the sacred science

My standards for evidence and logic have always been high. I am to this day a committed disciple of the scientific method; my claims must be based on the most intellectually honest analysis of all the available evidence. And so how did it come about that I replaced the lab bench with the pew? Likely only the most fervent adherents to St. Thomas Aquinas would speak of theology as a science. Certainly theology sheds a very different light on the notion of evidence. Yet, after a year of faith-based volunteer work and a year of teaching high school math, my ever-critical, analytic mind stumbled upon the study of God. Needless to say, the study is ongoing. As I began my doctoral program in theological ethics, I was able to justify this seeming academic-180 through teaching and research in the area of bioethics. As time has gone on, however, I have strayed further from this overlap and have taken up the issues of justice, punishment, and virtue. This shift stems from another unexpected development: part-time work as the Catholic chaplain of a correctional institution. Past volunteer work gradually blossomed into an extensive ministry in which, among other things, I weekly preach and lead prayer for both the male and female inmates. It is theology in action, a transformative labor of discovery that is essential in my self-understanding as a theologian. Though the solutions are no longer so clear and indisputable and though it is eminently difficult to make sense of this recess of our world, the same beauty and truth persist. Now there is nothing so breathtaking for me as raw encounter with life, suffering, and ultimate meaning.

How genes led to God

Theology affords me an opportunity that molecular biology never could. I now not only have the chance to be descriptive but to be prescriptive as well, to suggest how the world should be. I add my two cents to an expansive conversation about meaning and purpose in our lives and the lives of our communities. In the end, with pipette in hand, I simply did not have the tools I needed to talk directly about poverty and oppression, about justice and hope. However, it is beyond any doubt that I speak of them in the way I do because I held that pipette. I am the only theologian I know who talks of “collecting her data.” Though I deal in a world of tradition, scripture, and spiritual experience, my claims are no less accountable than they were before to precision and logic. Indeed, as before, there is a necessary humility that comes with every conclusion, and there is an unflinching willingness to revise initial premises upon further consideration. A living faith that seeks theological understanding shares much with a scientific faith in the ability to understand life.

My undergraduate training at Princeton obtained for me an enduring regard for all sources of knowledge, and it produced in me an intellectual creativity that relies on the boundlessness of inquiry. Furthermore, having developed considerable facility in the language of science before aspiring for a fluency in the language of faith, I find much to gain in speaking with individuals from diverse perspectives and welcome the task of mutual translation. Molecular biology has made me a better researcher in my current field, and even more, it has made me a better teacher and minister. I remain convinced that this world and the life in it are inscrutable realities worth scrutinizing. And to what end? I still believe now, as I did back in Princeton’s Lewis Thomas Lab, that there is truth and goodness to be discovered within the mysteries. I still stand humbled and empowered by the fruits of my labor. And I still hope now as ever before for clear, indisputable solutions.

“I am the only theologian I know who talks of ‘collecting her data.’ Though I deal in a world of tradition, scripture, and spiritual experience, my claims are no less accountable than they were before to precision and logic.”