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Interview: Denis Alexander, molecular immunologist  

11 November 2022

‘My earliest memory of prayer was being lost in the New Forest at the age of seven’

Immunology is about the many ways our bodies defend ourselves against foreign invaders like Covid-19. Molecular immunology focuses on the molecules involved in that process. If you can understand the molecular signalling pathways inside the different types of cell involved, this opens the door to making new medicines to control those pathways.

My mother was one of the first women to study physiology at Oxford in the early 1930s.
I got interested in chemistry by setting off home-made bombs in the back garden as a small boy — great fun. I became interested in neurochemistry because my elder brother suffered from bipolar disorder, and I did my Ph.D. at the Institute of Psychiatry in London.

I married Tina in 1971 in Cambridge,
and we drove overland to Turkey that year to set up our first home in Ankara. I spent nine years there, when scientific teaching and research were still in early development, and the Church there then, as now, was small and persecuted. I hoped to do my bit to help with that situation, as a scientist and Christian.

Most of that time I was at the Middle East Technical University,
setting up a research lab in neurochemistry in the new department of Biological Sciences. We had a group of Christians, mainly students, some with a Muslim background, meeting in our house,because there was no church in Ankara then.

Later, I helped set up the new national unit of human genetics at the American University Hospital in Beirut.
My proudest achievement was discovering a novel human mutation with medical implications, never before described in the biomedical literature, within just a few weeks.

Biomedical research is the same everywhere in the world
— but the challenges and opportunities vary hugely from place to place. Turkey, in the ’70s, was a developing country; so doing neurochemistry was simply a way of teaching graduates and undergraduates the biological sciences. In Beirut, I was much more involved in biomedical research with a direct application to the country’s needs. First cousins often marry there; so genetic diseases are common. Being in the UK research community is very easy compared with working in the less developed countries of the world.

At that time [1971-86], scientific research was little developed in the Middle East outside Israel,
though it’s since developed in leaps and bounds. It brings people together from many backgrounds and cultures, though it remains difficult for Israeli labs to collaborate with Arab labs. Most current political difficulties in the Middle East stem from the failure to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict, coupled to the ancient animosity between the Sunni and Shiite branches of Islam.

Everything in the Middle East is political,
and things we’d separate, like religion and culture, are there fused. Turkey’s President is antagonistic to teaching evolution in Turkish schools, and he’s largely succeeded in blocking it.

My work in Beirut came to an abrupt halt because of the kidnapping and killing of Westerners there in 1986.
The immediate trigger for our third and final evacuation was the bombing of Libya by US warplanes that took off from the UK in a failed attempt to kill Colonel Gaddafi. Two Brits, plus one American, were killed in Beirut in retaliation. The British Embassy evacuated us within 48 hours. Providentially, I was able to get a temporary post back in London, at what is now Cancer Research UK.

It meant a change of research field once again,
this time to molecular immunology. From London, I obtained a position at the Babraham Institute, Cambridge, where I ran a research lab for 20 years.

I retired in 2008,
and my research then focused more on writing for a general readership, such as Are We Slaves to Our Genes? It’s a popular approach to determinism and free will in the context of human genetics. Plenty of atheists believe we have free will, as Christians do. We are known as “compatibilists”: free will is compatible with a scientific understanding of the brain.

Genetic variations influence behaviour
— there’s plenty of evidence for that — but that leaves open the question how far that goes. Clearly, there are genetic mutations that lead to medical pathologies that make the degree of responsibility much less, but, generally, the influence doesn’t remove responsibility for someone’s particular actions altogether. We’re all on a spectrum, but, most of the time, we have full responsibility for our actions.

My colleague Bob White and I got a bit tired with hearing scientists slamming religion without really knowing anything about it;
so we set up an institute [the Faraday Institute] as part of St Edmund’s College, in 2006, where those of any faith or none could discuss the relationships between science and religion. Our initial grant from the John Templeton Foundation was for only 30 months, but the institute continues to flourish 17 years later, with 17 staff. It carries out research and dissemination, including very active youth, and schools, and church-engagement programmes.

I was exposed at a young age to scientists who were committed Christians,
and Donald MacKay, Professor of Communications — brain science— at Keele, gave academically rigorous talks on science and faith in Oxford in the mid-1960s, when I was a student there. Here, in Cambridge, we’ve had Professor John Polkinghorne, a particle physicist who became ordained and wrote dozens of books on science and Christian faith [Obituary, 26 March 2021].

I wrote my first book on this at the tender age of 25.
Beyond Science [Lion, 1972] sold rather well, because there was little competition at the time. Now, there are hundreds of good books around on science and faith, pitched at different readerships. There are also plenty of websites where the reporting of science is decidedly dodgy; so discernment is needed.

Secular thinkers are often unaware of this corpus of academic scholarship,
and the media often totally ignore it. Oxford and Edinburgh offer Master’s degrees in science and religion, and the Faraday Institute offers short courses for anyone, including church leaders.

It’s also good to remember that our own language is rich with observational imagery.
We still say the sun rises and sets, and so forth. There’s plenty of poetic language in our hymnody, and the Bible simply reflects the cosmology of the time. Taking biblical passages very literally, as if they were aiming to teach us science, is a problem, so communicating the importance of hermeneutics to Christian communities is certainly important.

I was raised in a conservative Christian home where both science and faith were highly valued,
with two older brothers, both now in heaven, and an older sister. Our three children were born and raised in Turkey and the Lebanon, countries they love to this day. Chris lived for 15 years in Central Asia, and writes Christian novels under the name Chris Aslan. We gave him the middle name Aslan because Aslan is Turkish for “lion”.

My earliest memory of prayer was being lost in the New Forest at the age of seven,
very scared, and praying that I’d find my way back to the farm where we were staying. The prayer was answered. I became a Christian at the age of 13 while at a Christian Crusaders house-party at Westbrook, in the Isle of Wight, by repenting of my sin and committing myself personally to Christ as Saviour.

I pray most for the family and for their well-being.

What makes me happy?
“I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth” [3 John 1.4].

Computers that don’t work properly make me angry.

I hope for the new heavens and the new earth,
experienced through bodily resurrection. In terms of immediate action, I’m always hopeful that we’ll see change. Climate change and the pandemic have stimulated a lot of co-operation between countries. Challenges have a positive aspect as well. I also have some hope of greater scientific collaboration in the future between Israel and the Arab world — hope tinged with realism.

I’d choose to be locked in a church with Kenan Araz,
a Turkish Christian whose biography, My Big Father, I wrote under the name Bruce Farnham in 1986. A second edition is due out this year. Kenan was the first Turk to have a successful kidney transplant, but he died when he was 34. His difficult life was characterised by a wonderful spirit of praise.

Dr Denis Alexander was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Are We Slaves to Our Genes? is published by Cambridge University Press at £22.99 (Church Times Bookshop £20.69); 978-1-108-44505-4.


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