The
Inspiration
Project

WITH BRENDAN CORR

GUEST Elissa Deenick

Episode 28

Episode Description:

On this episode of ‘The Inspiration Project’, Brendan Corr talks to Associate Professor Elissa Deenick who works at the Garvan Institute where she is the head of Immunity and Inflammation. Dr Deenick talks about going to a Christian School, where her interest in science originated and following Jesus.

Associate Professor Elissa Deenick Episode Summary

  • How an interest in the human body led to immunology.
  • How studying science at a Christian school led to her becoming a scientist.
  • Science explores the natural world; God created the natural world.
  • How Christianity makes more sense of the world than other religions.
  • What was it like as a young Christian studying science at a secular university?
  • Pursuing the truth no matter the cost.
  • What does it mean to be created in the image of God?
  • Where true peace is found in an uncertain world.
  • How Christians should view vaccines

Associate Professor Elissa Deenick Episode Transcript

Sponsor Announcement:
This podcast is sponsored by Australian Christian College. A network of schools committed to student wellbeing, character development and academic improvement.

Introduction:
Welcome to The Inspiration Project, where well known Christians share their stories to inspire young people in their faith and life. Here’s your host, Brendan Corr.

Brendan Corr:
Hi everybody. Welcome to another episode of The Inspiration Project podcast. We’ve been bringing you stories of successful people of faith who’ve been able to navigate their professional life and include the essence of their Christian beliefs within that. And this morning we are talking with Associate Professor Elissa Deenick. Dr Deenick graduated from Covenant Christian School and then undertook Medical Science studies at the University of Sydney, where she completed her PhD. Then she undertook some postdoctoral research at the University of Toronto, focusing on immune responses and the physiology behind our capacity to fight off disease. Moved back to Australia and is working as a Head of the Lab at the Garvan Institute, again focusing on immune responses and reactions. The body’s reactions to infection. Dr Deenick it is really delightful to have you with us.

Elissa Deenick:
Lovely to be with you.

Brendan Corr:
Did you have an early interest in germs and the sorts of things that have become the focus of much of the world in recent months?

Elissa Deenick:
No, I didn’t really. It actually started out probably more with an interest in the human body and how the human body worked. And I think I just stumbled upon immunology in some ways. I don’t really know how. I think I was reading the course descriptions when I was started my degree. And looking at it and just thought that’s really interesting and kind of in some ways yeah, my career just kind of happened you might say by chance or the hand of God actually, that I’ve ended up here.

Brendan Corr:
So let me start. The place of science and moving into hard research science from a Christian school. What things were going on in a Christian school that encouraged you to enter into a career in science?

Elissa Deenick:
I really loved my science classes at school. I didn’t actually study biology at school. I studied physics and chemistry instead. And I just loved understanding the way things worked and I had teachers who were really great. Strong Christian people but also kind of helped with that interest and kind of explained things to me in a way that I wanted to keep looking into them.

Brendan Corr:
So let me explore with you. Obviously, there’s a common misunderstanding that those two things shouldn’t align. A Christian belief and an interest in science. Was that ever a problem for you? Did you have to rationalise that for yourself or was the environment that you were growing up in able to balance that or give you an insight into the unity of those ideas?

Elissa Deenick:
I never really had a problem with that. I should probably say as well, that my dad was trained as a scientist… a geophysicist and then became a teacher. So not only at school, but also at home, I had a strong science influence as well. And this modelling of the fact that the two easily went hand in hand. But also I just never really saw the conflict. To me they were just exploring different things. So science was exploring the natural world. How our body’s worked, how forces worked. That kind of thing. Whereas my Christian faith was operating kind of at a higher level, a different level where it was explaining kind of the way of things. Not the mechanics of things. So I didn’t see that conflict and I still don’t see that conflict. I think they have different strengths and different reasons.

Brendan Corr:
Good, I’d like to come back and ask you a bit more about that. But can you share with us a little bit about how you became a person of faith? You obviously grew up in a Christian family and had that strong influence and had that presence of faith in your home. What made it become yours and not just what was around you?

Elissa Deenick:
That’s true, so I did grow up in a Christian home and I can’t point to a time when I didn’t believe in God. But really it was in my high school years that I began to really understand it more and take it on for myself. So come to understand that sin is more than just doing bad things. But it’s our bad relationship with God and our rejection of him. And really kind of want to embrace that myself. But also, to start asking those questions about Christianity. Because you grow up and it’s… just seems like well that’s the obvious choice. But then when you start to understand other worldviews and then you have to start asking yourself okay, why do I think this? Christianity is right and these other things aren’t. And kind of having to look at other worldviews and say do they have truths? Why do I really believe in Christianity? And came as I thought through that to think, actually Christianity makes the most sense to me. Of the way the world operates and of who Jesus is.

Brendan Corr:
So you mentioned there that Christianity made sense to you. That there was a rationality that you could find in the claims of Christianity. And you also mentioned that for you, you don’t necessarily understand why people see a conflict between the scientific view of the world and a Christian view of the world. What do you do with the people who will then say look, Christianity is all about the supernatural, the miracles. That is contradictory to a scientific understanding, scientific explanations. Where do you sit in that… or how do you answer those charges?

Elissa Deenick:
I think you have to point out… and I’ve had these discussions with friends who are scientists. That every kind of worldview requires faith. Like for you to say as a scientist, there are no miracles. The only thing that exists is the natural world that we can explore by scientific experimentation, is in itself a faith statement. There’s no way as a scientist, that you can prove that the world you see in your science is all that there is. And so I think that’s one of the things that I think… particularly scientists. Because they’re so rational and they’re like well I… they like to believe that they have made no leaps themselves. That everything they think comes from rational thought. But we have to start… even the idea that rational thought can give us truth is in itself like a faith statement.

Brendan Corr:
So you’re really talking about the philosophy of science and the philosophy of faith. And I completely get that. So you came to faith in a Christian school. You came to a love of science in a Christian school. Were there people of significance in that part of your life that were shaping your understanding of those two parts of understanding the world?

Elissa Deenick:
I think my family certainly had a big influence on me. My parents particularly… modelling their Christian faith and my father kind of modelling this very well thought out, rational approach to understanding life. I had some really good science teachers who were very clear about their Christian faith as well. I remember one of my science teachers actually apologising to us as a class because he had got angry. And he’s like, we follow God, we’re slow to anger and abounding in love. And I on this day did not act that way. So to have these people who were strong, loved science but also really demonstrated a deep love of God and wanting to live his way in everything they did, was really inspiring.

Brendan Corr:
That’s terrific, to have people that are able to point you in the direction of being a thinker. But also being somebody that’s experiencing life in all its complexities. I wonder Dr Deenick, you have the benefit of growing in this academic pursuit and honing your intellectual skills, as well as deepening your faith in a Christian community, a Christian family. What was it like for that young Christian person to go to university, where maybe there wasn’t as much common understanding of the way you were seeing things, as you might have experienced in the past?

Elissa Deenick:
I did feel like actually maybe I was a bit naïve to university, in hindsight looking back. And yeah it kind of came… to then having people teaching you who actually sometimes were a bit dismissive of Christianity. But I think that actually is a really positive thing in some ways because when you’re challenged about the things you believe. It really makes you have to stop and think about what you believe and the reasons you believe that. And as Christians, I don’t think we have to be scared of those kinds of attacks because if what we believe is true, then we don’t have to fear to look closely at questions about miracles and who Jesus was. Because that’s the truth and if we look closely we’ll see that. We won’t… we don’t have to be scared of that I think. Which is sometimes I think when we’re… particularly when we’re young and when we’re unsure of ourselves and we come up against those attacks, we can be afraid. But I think we can be confident actually that this is the truth.

Brendan Corr:
Where did you go to or who did you go to, or where? If it wasn’t your personal experience… advice for some young person who might be in that space. Where do they go, who do they talk to if they do feel that they’re under challenge? There are things coming, ideas that are coming to them from around about and they haven’t thought through? It seems to be reasonable… asking questions they don’t have answers to?

Elissa Deenick:
Well, I went to both older, more experienced Christians who were able… and in that, if it’s a question related to science you go… I was able to go say to my father or to other people who I knew were Christians to talk about that. But I also just read books and read books both by Christian authors who kind of talked through these things. But also by non-Christian authors, because you want to be able to see what their arguments are and work through those arguments for yourself. So you know kind of what their strongest argument is. Which is very much like science, right? If you’ve got a hypothesis and this person’s got a different hypothesis, you have to really understand their hypothesis in order to disprove it.

Brendan Corr:
And I think that’s a useful point to make, is that it’s about finding what is right. It’s not necessarily finding what we feel or what we prefer, or what’s comfortable. But doing the hard work of thinking it through and finding what is at the bottom… at the end of those questions, right?

Elissa Deenick:
Yeah, and it’s actually something I’d say to students in my lab… in relation to science as well. Embrace the truth. Because even in science with your… sometimes you can have a… your pet hypothesis in science that you think the immune system works this way and then you do an experiment and it kind of shows the opposite. And you can have a sense of disappointment right that your pet idea was ruined. Whereas you’ve actually got to embrace the truth and be open about seeing what that is. Because that’s really what you want to know. You want to know the truth, not just what makes you feel good.

Brendan Corr:
Yeah, that’s right. I want to come back to that point a little down the track in our conversation, but let me ask you. You tell me that you studied physics and chemistry at secondary school, in high school. You’ve ended up immersed in the deep dark secrets of biology and physiology. Where did the change happen for you? Where did you go from hard science of physics and equations to looking at life?

Elissa Deenick:
I actually went to a science summer school when I was in about Year 10 I think. And that was an… that had a lot of biology and stuff that I quite liked. So that had kind of sparked my interest, but clearly not enough to get me studying different subjects in Year 11 and 12. But I think by the time I got to the end of Year 12 I knew that I really wanted to do study in the human body. Now I have to say there are still parts of physics and chemistry that I miss because… particularly physics I think, has much more big picture understanding. Where biology can be incredibly detailed. And sometimes it’s hard to bring all those details together into kind of a big picture view. So sometimes I miss that about the simplicity of a physics equation that can sum things up.

Brendan Corr:
Do some pro-numerals and that sort of stuff can make it a bit easier. Because you’re right, when you’re looking at biochemistry… the cycles of energy transfer and what information response is. So university - you’re specialising in this very demanding, deepening… still at this stage emerging understanding of how our bodies are responding. What has that done for you to either build or to expand your notion of what it means to be created in the image of God?

Elissa Deenick:
Well, certainly I’ve learnt that the body is incredibly complex. I think… I’ve just had no idea. And I mean even now I think every year things just kind of… the depth of what we know about the human body is increasing. And yet still we’re barely scratching the surface to some extent. So I think… I mean that’s given me a great wonder about what God has created. And the idea… and also I think, which is maybe not quite about being created in the image of God. But also gives you a sense of how far our knowledge is from God’s. That he created all this, he understands the way it works. And we’re… even with all our enormous endeavour and so many great minds working on this, we’re only beginning to scratch the surface of understanding the way things work.

Brendan Corr:
More detail than you’re unpacking as you are researching these processes and finding the little bits of the jigsaw that all fit together. Is it deepening your conviction that we were fearlessly and wonderfully made?

Elissa Deenick:
Yes, I think… just to think that something so complex could be completely random just seems ridiculous. Clearly, other people think that’s true. But it just… the way it works together is just amazing. And particularly in immunology, the way that you can respond against so many different infections is just incredible. And to think that we have a God who is capable of making all that. And that’s just one small part of the world that he brought into existence. And there’s planets and galaxies and everything beyond that. It’s just the greatness of the universe is just extraordinary.

Brendan Corr:
As you’ve progressed through your career and enjoyed appointments to more prestigious positions and more opportunities, has being a Christian ever been problematic for you? Has it ever been something that the people around you have found difficult to deal with?

Elissa Deenick:
I’m not sure actually. No one’s expressed it to me. I think certainly the people closest to me in my career have not had a problem with it. I think people tend to have to some extent a… “you do what you want to do”, kind of outside your science life kind of thing. No, I suspect there is some degree of… particularly for people who don’t know you as well. That there might be a sense that people would think that was a bit strange and kind of look at it a bit strange. And certainly, you do get… people will make throwaway comments in talks sometimes that are a bit disparaging of Christianity for some reason or another. But I think there is a sense in which people… when people know you personally and then that isn’t an issue as much.

Brendan Corr:
And I suppose there is the work defence itself, that’s part of the scientific method, is it? That if you do the work…

Elissa Deenick:
Yeah exactly. If you’re doing good science, then people are going to respond to that I think.

Brendan Corr:
If you look back on the things that you’ve learned, understood and had insights about. What’s one of those moments when you felt completely mind blown by an insight or a discovery, or something that was new to you?

Elissa Deenick:
Gosh. I feel like sometimes it’s more incremental than that. I think some of these… for some of these diseases. So within immunology, I work on people who have genetic conditions, which make them then susceptible to particular infections. And I think one of the things that are just incredible about some of these diseases, is that you can get someone who has a genetic problem and it makes them susceptible just to one or two infections. Like, all the rest they respond to fine. But there are just one or two infections that they can’t deal with. And just the idea that your immune system is so finely tuned that its got a particular responsibility for this infection and for that infection, and you find the gene that’s underlying that and suddenly you’re like wow. That one signal goes wrong and the whole system for that infection falls apart is just incredible. And that it can be yes, just kind of balance in a way that most of the time it works really well is incredible. Given the complexity.

Brendan Corr:
So the specificity of our immune response is something that you regularly get reminded about how unfathomably detailed it is and impressive it is. Yeah, that’s a good response. Working with the disease the way that you do, or necessarily our response to disease. Is the rise of the pandemics and infections and superbugs, is that something that worries you or that you think should worry us?

Elissa Deenick:
Yes, clearly yes this current pandemic has shown we are not as in control as we’d like to think. And certainly not just emerging viruses, but as you say antibiotic resistance has the potential to send us back to the way things were pre-antibiotics. When people got a scratch and potentially died. But I also think that this pandemic has been also an amazing demonstration of how far we’ve come in science. Just the speed in which progress has been made in identifying the virus and trying to understand it is impressive. And look we still don’t have answers, but I think that we will make progress. Hopefully, we’ll end up with a vaccine. But I also think… so I guess I think there will always be emerging things. I think there will be problems. I think as a human race we would be naïve to think that just because things are in control now, they’ll always be in control. But as a Christian, I think that shouldn’t be surprising to us either. And anyone who studies history, it shouldn’t really be that surprising too. And I think particularly in the early days of this pandemic, as an immunologist I could see how bad things could potentially go and have gone in some places. You could kind of see that happening. And in one sense that made me incredibly anxious. But in another sense actually, that made me turn back to God and put my own trust in him much more. Because I think when as humans we think that we’ve got things under control. Modern medicine can cure everything. That the economy is going pretty well. We can forget that we’re actually entirely dependent on God. So for me actually, this pandemic was a wake-up call, a reminder that actually in all of life we have to put our trust in God. Because actually, we’re never in control, even in the times when it looks to us like we’re in control.

Brendan Corr:
And Dr Deenick, are you using that as a metaphor, as a symbolic thing? Or as a much more literal, that God is orchestrated or God is involved in the mechanics and the global activity? How do you see that being worked out, the sovereignty of God or the divineness of God?

Elissa Deenick:
That’s a tough question. I certainly don’t see one particular purpose. Something sent by God as a punishment for anything in particular. But I do think that God is in control. That nothing can happen without him allowing it to happen. So in that sense yes, he has allowed this virus to spread. He has been there, in that. But also I think he’s given us scientists and doctors who have talents, to fight that as well. So it’s… the two work together. It’s not like we just then stand back as scientists and go well, God’s in control I’m not doing anything.

Brendan Corr:
Just pray.

Elissa Deenick:
Just pray. But we use the talents that God has given us. We work to fight that, but knowing that in the end, God’s plans will come to pass.

Brendan Corr:
It’s interesting, you mentioned or you made a comment at the start of our conversation about you feeling that your faith was operating at a higher level of reality I suppose, is what I interpreted you saying. And I think you said there. That there is this over or undergirding… whichever way you make the comparison… concept of whatever is real and what actually is going on that holds together the mechanics of infection or of the immune response. And I wanted to ask you. Having spent so much time understanding those processes, those mechanics. Even though they are alive, they’re living cells that are involved in a process. What stops you from falling into a mechanistic view of what it means to be a person? And you have such a mastery of the mechanisms that are involved in life.

Elissa Deenick:
I think to some extent it comes back to you almost have to understand that there are two levels. And to some extent for me, I think that comes back to the fact that if everything were purely mechanistic, then things stop making sense again. Even our rational thought stops making sense. Because you end up than that it’s just neurons firing and how does that ever… how does it kind of give truth and what even is truth? And then you also actually, it’s not just… people sometimes worry that the sovereignty of God takes away free will. Actually, if we’re just kind of biological machines, then we also have no free will because actually, I only thought that because that neuron fired and that only fired because of 1,000 other things that happened before that. So in a sense, there is an element of faith in that. That you have to say well, I believe that the thoughts that I’m having are true and that my rational thought processes actually do give me the truth. I can’t prove that but in a sense, that’s what all scientists operate on. The idea that my rational thought can make sense of the world. And in that sense, you then have to believe that there’s something operating besides just machinery… biological machinery.

Brendan Corr:
So as Christians living in a world where we do see the rampant spread of this disease and many other diseases. And the threat of other things that come on our lives. And particularly by way of infection and the response of medicine. We look to science. We so often look… we need a vaccine, we’re looking for those sorts of treatments. Where do you think… how do Christians hold a sense of hope in that sort of space and what should be the message that we are sharing with society as faithful witnesses to God, in those sort of circumstances?

Elissa Deenick:
In terms of the actual practicalities of it, I think there are many very intelligent scientists who are working on this. And I think actually we will come up with therapies, we’ll come up with new vaccines. The next new disease that comes along, it is likely that we’ll be able to come up with solutions to that. But there’s also the potential that there will be significant death and destruction before that happens. But that is actually the human condition. So I think as Christians we’ve got to hold out a greater hope that actually it’s not just this life, it’s the life to come and that if we trust in God if we trust in what Jesus has done for us. That no matter what comes in this life, our next life is assured. And that actually, that’s the only thing that will truly bring peace. Whilst as a scientist I like to think that we’ll come up with solutions. If your ultimate hope is in that, you’ll never have peace and you’ll never have true assurance and you’ll always be anxious because there could always be a new, more deadly virus. Or a new climate disaster or an asteroid coming from space. We… life is uncertain and because of the fall, death is a certainty for all of us. It’s just a matter of when it comes.

Brendan Corr:
Yeah, I think that’s a really important point that you’re making. That Christianity doesn’t just hold out the blessedness of an endpoint or confidence in a God. But it brings comfort and consolation, even when things are tough and challenging. As Christians, we can hold both of those messages of hope that we carry off into the world.

Elissa Deenick:
Yeah.

Brendan Corr:
The notion of where things are heading, where your research is heading. We’ve been covering some pretty philosophical ground in our conversation. It’s gone a little bit more beyond T-Cells and activation which I’m really enjoying. I hope you’re okay with us getting into those sort of spaces. There’s another issue that’s maybe it’s worth just asking you a quick question about if you don’t mind? Is that again, I’m prompted by the notion that you’ve been describing of finding more and more detail of pushing the boundary of knowledge further and further, and accumulating a deepening understanding of the specifics of the chemicals, the forces of attraction, the interactions. With that notion that our knowledge is becoming more and more precise, more and more complete. One of the other charges that is made against science is that it dismisses God to be the God of the gaps and things that we can’t explain. And it’s eventually we’re going to move him out altogether. What’s your considered response, having brought your faith into this process? What’s your notion of the God of the gaps idea?

Elissa Deenick:
I think it’s important because we’re always making progress, that we have a bigger picture of God than just a God of the gaps. Because you don’t want to just be like oh well, what about this? That must be God because we haven’t found a reason for that. And then you’ve found a reason for that and then are you uncertain? I think it comes back again to that idea that science and kind of Christianity are operating in different spheres. And that even for the things that we understand… even the bits of the immune system that we understand. You still wouldn’t say God has a role in that as well, clearly he created that and clearly, he upholds those interactions as well. Like it’s not as if just because we understand it, he’s not playing a role in it. He’s still… the fact that those molecules still interact in that same way every day, every time and still give the same response, requires that he continues to uphold the way that the universe works. Having said that, I also think it’s going to be a really long time before we fill all the gaps as well. But yeah, I don’t think we should limit God just to the gaps. I think that underestimates how powerful and how ultimate that he is.

Brendan Corr:
I’m reminded of a comment you made earlier in our conversation about the fact that there has to be an acceptance of… by faith, of more than just the mechanical and that the whole notion of reality has to include the mentions that are not prescribed by the firing of neurons or the interactions of chemicals. And I’m reminded that… the story you told of that science teacher who gave that little example of as humans we are so much more than just the accumulation of chemicals and forces and interactions. There’s a person that exists inside of all of that. And that’s part of our reality also.

Elissa Deenick:
Yeah.

Brendan Corr:
What’s next for you? What’s the thing that’s setting up as the next challenge for you?

Elissa Deenick:
Look, I think one of the challenges for medical research going forward and also certainly for what I’m interested in, is to understand… so a lot of what I work at, looking at people who have problems with their immune system that make them susceptible to infection or increase their risk of autoimmunity, is looking at people kind of at the extremes. People who have got these genetic conditions that make them incredibly susceptible to these things. But I think going forward, what we actually need to do is understand well, if you have someone who has lots of little problems in different kind of aspects of their immune system, how does that result in autoimmunity for them? So for people… we know there’s a lot of people who are susceptible. Who are just a bit more sickly or have an autoimmune disease. To really kind of bring together that complexity, which may actually take me back in the end to kind of ideas of modelling and mathematics and physics as well. How do we understand how lots of small changes can make the immune response go wrong and result in my immune system attacking my own body? Or failing to fight off that… off COVID or something like that. Can we understand those things going forward? And can we actually get better, personalised treatment for people with autoimmunity or people suffering from an infection, that kind of thing? Because a lot of medicine is very kind of just hit it with a hammer. There’s not a lot of fine-tuning often in medicine because we just… we don’t have the understanding to actually fine-tune things often. So we’ve just got to come in really hard and hit whatever’s going on really hard. So my hope is that in the next 10 years or so, our understanding of these processes will grow so that we’ll be able to better treat people with… so it’s more effective and has fewer side effects.

Brendan Corr:
Yeah, that’s good. From a summary of our previous comments, not assuming that you’re thinking we’re heading to a utopian, no illness, no disease, everything’s fixed…?

Elissa Deenick:
No.

Brendan Corr:
One single shot and we’re good for life, that’s not likely?

Elissa Deenick:
No. No. I don’t think we’ll get there. And I think COVID shows us that you can think you’ve solved one problem and then something new springs up. I think that’s… yeah, to think that we’ll ever solve all the problems is I think naïve. I think the complexity will keep us guessing for a long time.

Brendan Corr:
And even if we can get all that right, we’ve still got the things that go wrong in other parts right? Our relationships and our emotions and parts.

Elissa Deenick:
Yep, exactly.

Brendan Corr:
Which I guess brings us to the point of where some of your early training happened in your Christian family and your Christian school, about the place of God in being an answer to the questions both of science and of salvation and the way that we can live together.

Elissa Deenick:
Yeah.

Brendan Corr:
Dr Deenick, it’s been a delight to get to know some of your stories a little. Get a little bit of insight into the mysterious… for most of us, the mysterious world of immunology. We are just so thankful that there are people that God has given the gifts to understand and to learn, that can share their insights and the fruit of all that intellectual labour with the rest of us, remind us how we’re going to keep safe and how we can look after one another. I pray that the next 10 years is very productive and fruitful in your sphere, your research. But also in your faith. Thank you for your time.

Elissa Deenick:
Thank you.

About Elissa Deenick

Associate Professor Elissa Deenick is an immunologist with a PhD from the University of Sydney. Following her PhD she moved to Canada to take up a postdoctoral position at the University of Toronto looking at the signalling pathways controlling T cell activation and tolerance. In 2007, Elissa returned to Sydney to work at the Garvan Institute, where she is currently a Lab Head in immunity and inflammation.

Photo of Brendan Corr

About Brendan Corr

Originally a Secondary Science Teacher, Brendan is a graduate of UTS, Deakin and Regent College, Canada. While Deputy Principal at Pacific Hills for 12 years, Brendan also led the NSW Christian Schools Australia registration system. Brendan’s faith is grounded in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and a deep knowledge of God’s Word. Married for over 30 years, Brendan and Kim have 4 adult children. On the weekends, Brendan enjoys cycling (but he enjoys coffee with his mates afterwards slightly more).