“Are there any supplements I can take to help my immune system?” “Will going vegan boost my immune system? Or what about organic food?” These are just some of the questions I get asked when I tell people I am a PhD candidate in immunology.
Those who aren’t yet bored of hearing about my PhD normally ask heavy questions that require technical answers. After all, how do you explain your field of work without throwing in the big fancy words? I myself can barely understand jobs in Finance or IT – cue Chandler Bing failing to explain ‘data-reconfiguration-and-statistical-analysis’ to his Friends for 10 years. Anyway, in these moments it feels pretty awesome to see someone get excited and curious about science instead of Love Island.
Following this, I usually get the remark “but you don’t look like a typical scientist”, and on a few occasions upon glancing at the gold chain around my neck, “And you’re a Christian? How can you believe in God and be a scientist?”
Fair play, this was a paradigm I believed for 23 years of my life. Ironically, sub-specialising after my MSc coincided with my conversion from hardcore atheism to Christianity. Going into greater depth in my field made me appreciate the idea of God and his existence even more when looking at the finer details and complexities of the field of Immunology. Regardless of your faith background, it’s pretty spectacular to see how a group of cells in your body co-ordinate together, to ensure you stay alive.
Let’s describe the immune system as a war movie. Picture your body as a country at war and your immune system as the military base. The enemy breaches the country and invades secretly at night. The soldiers on shift are patrolling up and down the perimeter checking for any breach, or checking that the wellbeing of civilians is okay. Breach! The soldier catches a member of the enemy and alerts and awakens the military base.
This is essentially how the immune system becomes activated. An antigen-presenting cell patrols the body, checking everything is in order and that there is no breach. If they encounter a pathogen (like bacteria, viruses, parasites etc) the cells capture and kill (omitted from my story) the invading pathogen, process it, and present it to cells of the immune system. This wakes up the cells, causing them to multiply and adapt to recognise and find that particular pathogen
The mission of the immune system becomes clear from then on: seek and destroy the invading pathogen. The cells of the immune system each play a different role, such as our patrolling guards (dendritic cells or macrophages), a host of offensive soldiers with different specialties (cytotoxic T cells, helper T cells, B cells, Natural Killer cells, Neutrophils etc) – even get down to the finer details of their chosen weapons to kill or trap the enemy (antibodies, cytokines, perforin/granzyme, NETS, etc). When the enemy has been eliminated and the threat over, the General (Regulatory-T cells) calls off the attack, and some of the army returns back to their base awaiting the next attack, while others keep patrolling. These patrolling guards now have a memory of what to do if the same enemy invades again, being able to attack with more precision, speed and power now. (FYI Regulatory-T cells aren’t really the big boss, but they are the cells I am studying so lets go with it…)
Visualising the immune system in this way, co-ordinating an attack with perfect synchronicity, was one of the ways my faith became solidified. The fact that the immune system is so fine-tuned even down to what “weapons” immune cells use to kill their target – was all down to random ‘accidents’ over millions of years – as some had told me. Evolution explains how we got to be here, but whether it was an accident or not is more of a theological question. In a world where many ask “if God exists, why doesn’t he prove it?”, I feel in these moments this is God revealing himself in the intricacies of cell biology. For me, God shows me something of himself in these microscopic cells and proteins that work together to keep us alive every moment.
Although it moves me to wonder, we know that our immune system is far from perfect. In our story, cancer cells can be seen as rogue soldiers or civilians – normal cells that mutate and become dangerous, maybe too much for our body to handle? Or what about when an enemy breach – such as HIV – is so powerful that our soldiers can’t deal with it? Or what about when our soldiers mistake a friend – say a nutritious peanut, grass pollen, or a transplanted organ – for the enemy? Worse, our soldiers could turn on each other – such as in autoimmune diseases, where our own organs and tissue are seen as dangerous by the immune system.
I feel it is in these moments that God is not absent, but very much present. He is so present, that he commissions some of us to enter the medical field and do our bit to find the cure or treat and help those who are sick, giving us passion and drive, and in some cases ideas to try in the lab. God is so present to me every week when I analyse my data and have an “oh…well, that’s interesting” moment. He reveals himself to me when I go on the confocal microscope and take high-resolution images, with each compartment of the cell glowing in beautiful colours.
God reveals himself every day when I come across new publications in my field of research, challenging what we thought was truth and causing us to re-route our research. I feel this draws parallels with my understanding of God’s existence and his nature, challenging what I thought was religious truth as I get to know him more in my prayer life.
Finally, I feel God reveals himself when we are bed-bound, fighting an illness, patiently waiting and trusting our immune system to clear the infection. It’s the trust we can have that we will be okay because even if our little cells try their hardest not to let us down, we can be sure that fate, destiny – or for me, God – definitely won’t.