Through RTB’s Visiting Scholar Program, we often have the pleasure of hosting and working with experts in various fields of study. Earlier this year, RTB welcomed Dr. Russ Carlson, a biochemist who has contributed to important research on complex carbohydrates and taught at the University of Georgia for 26 years. Russ received his PhD in biochemistry from the University of Colorado in 1976, and currently serves as an emeritus professor of biochemistry and molecular biology and of the Complex Carbohydrate Research Center at the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia.
I had an opportunity to talk with Russ on my podcast, Straight Thinking (you can listen to the episode here). On behalf of Reflections, RTB editor Maureen Moser sat down with Dr. Carlson to discover how his faith and research intersect and how he approaches apologetics in his own outreach efforts.
Let’s begin with your scientific discipline. What do you research?
I do research in biochemistry and molecular biology. My research has mainly focused on how microbes interact with host cells, whether they’re pathogens (in my case, the microbes are bacterial pathogens) or symbionts (in which case, the interaction is beneficial to both the microbe and the host).
I work at the Complex Carbohydrate Research Center. The surfaces of all cells—including the bacterial cell and the host cell—are coated with a complex array of different carbohydrate structures. These structures are the first point of contact between a microbe and the host cell. So complex carbohydrates play a role in determining pathogenicity in a pathogen and the ability of a symbiont to carry out its function inside a host cell.
Where do you see evidence for design in this field of research?
I’ve been asked this question a lot and sometimes my mind just goes blank because I can’t think of a point in that process where I don’t see evidence for design. The evidence is in everything.
If biochemists see a specific molecular structure, we want to determine its function. We want to understand the structure-function relationship of the molecule. Any biochemist will assume that there is a function (that is, a purpose or meaning) for a molecule. All scientists operate under those assumptions. For me, this is an assumption that’s really supported by my Christian faith. I believe function, meaning, and purpose are best explained as the products of a Mind and support intelligent design.
On a personal level, how does being a scientist impact your faith?
One of my favorite things as child, and later as a college student, was solving mathematical, chemistry, or physics problems. It was just fun to see what the solution was and to understand what was happening. And, further, the fact that we can understand these things in nature was an awesome feeling.
Now, as a research scientist, I still find that it’s an awesome thing to understand just how a molecule is made, what its structure is, and what its purpose is in the cell. It really gives a sense of joy.
Would you say such understanding is a connection to the Creator?
Yes, and I think it is for a lot of scientists, whether they’re Christian or not. But I think that if a scientist is a Christian, this understanding increases the satisfaction of the discovery. You feel a connection with God because you’ve understood something He’s made and how it works.
Understanding how something works in nature is a powerful confirmation of what God did and how awesome He is. Understanding brings more strength to my faith, rather than detracting from it.
That’s awesome! Continuing on the personal note, whom would you name as the critical mentors in the development of your faith?
I had great examples. My father was a pastor; he and my mom were tremendous examples of what it meant to be caring, compassionate people whose motivation was to help others in their present circumstances and help them spiritually to know God and what He did for them through Christ. My wife, Cheryl, came into my life at a time when I was dealing with some questions and her parents also were tremendously important in my life.
And at school, during my time of questioning Christianity, it was my science professors who were very encouraging to me in my faith. The questions I faced were created by some of my theology professors. That’s where the challenge came for me.
That’s very interesting. Now you have had the opportunity to be a professor yourself. How did you reach out to the students you taught?
A number of years ago, a lecture by Walter Bradley challenged me to do something I’d never thought about before. That was to identify myself as a Christian during my introductory lecture to new students. So, I did that. After telling students a bit about myself, I would end by saying, “The most important thing in my life and my wife’s life is our faith in Christ.” And then I’d start the course.
The first year I did that a handful of students approached to ask me about evolution and how to be a scientist and a Christian at the same time. My wife and I decided to invite these students to our home for dinner and a discussion on faith and science. We’ve been doing that for quite a few years and it’s been very encouraging to us and to the students. It’s been rewarding for Cheryl and me to see young people who are serious about their faith and pursuing truth.
Some of the students, both Christians and nonbelievers, are under the impression that there’s a great conflict between science and faith. Many of them don’t understand that Christianity was instrumental in the development of modern science. Researchers that we consider fathers of certain disciples—like Michael Faraday, Louis Pasteur, James Clerk Maxwell, and Robert Boyle—were men of faith. I think it’s unfortunate that science students know nothing about the beliefs of these people. It seems to me that this idea of a conflict between Christianity and science comes from their education. This is a great disservice both to the students and to science.
What advice would you give to someone who wants talk to college students, or their own children, about science and faith?
Don’t be afraid of pursuing the truth. We can pursue His truth by examining and studying both nature and Scripture. And we don’t have to be afraid of apparent conflict—further study will often set things right.
If someone asked you, “What’s the best evidence in support of Christianity?” what would you tell them?
There’s five things I would list: (1) Jesus really did exist as a historical figure; (2) He was crucified on a cross and buried in a tomb; (3) the tomb was found empty; (4) many of His followers claimed to have seen Him after he died; and (5) Christianity formed out of these followers’ eyewitness accounts and many of them were willing to die for their beliefs.
All of these facts are recognized as pretty reliable. I think the best explanation for them is that Jesus is who He says He is, did what He said He did, and did it for the reasons He gave. This, for me, is the strongest evidence for the Christian faith.