Close to the end of elementary school, I decided to make orange my favorite color. Orange was not actually a color that I particularly liked, but I consciously made the effort to try to like it to avoid conforming to what everyone else liked. From a young age, I recognized that just because my friends liked something or did something, it did not mean that I also needed to be just like them. I certainly had a strong sense of appreciating our differences — our unique sets of gifts, talents and abilities — in addition to our similarities.
Paraphrasing from St. Paul’s words from his First Letter to the Corinthians, just as the individual parts of the body are needed for it to function well as a whole entity, so, too, do we need communities filled with people with different strengths and skill sets to contribute to God’s work here on Earth (cf. 1 Cor 12:12-27).
Perhaps it was this appreciation for how God created us each uniquely that in part fueled my desire to study the human genetic code. I spent about a decade carrying out advanced scientific training in undergraduate and graduate school, and now I am teaching human genetics and leading a wonderful group of trainees in computational genetics research projects in a university setting.
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Back in my first year of graduate school, I served as the editor of the monthly newsletter of an on-campus student Catholic chaplaincy group. One of my first articles was on how science and religion support each other. I remember several readers commenting on how brave I was to take this stance on such a controversial topic. For me, however, perhaps naively, I did not understand why there would be a controversy between science and religion. The premise of my field goes hand in hand with key teachings in Catholicism. (It is important to specify that I am speaking only about the premise of genetics itself, and not necessarily the technologies or approaches that have been empowered in part by advances in the field.)
As Catholics, we know we are uniquely created in the image and likeness of God. We are called not just to accept but to celebrate the uniqueness of each human being, and I would like to argue that genetics upholds this fundamental understanding. Each and every human life, no matter of physical characteristics, abilities or disabilities, is special and truly unique in terms of our genetic codes. Each human being is a unique combination of a code made up of four chemical compounds, abbreviated by four letters (A, C, G and T), that collectively make up our deoxyribonucleic acid or DNA. In this code are guidelines that contribute in part to our physical characteristics, even personality traits, alongside non-genetic factors such as lifestyle and environment.
Although we are certainly shaped in part by our genetics, geneticists see firsthand that we are so much more than the 3 billion pairs of letters divided into 23 pairs of chromosomes that are incredibly scrunched up to fit into each nucleus-containing cell in our bodies. Our genetic code is only a starting point and not a step-by-step instruction manual. It’s like a rough outline of a generic plot for a novel where certain chapters are clearly defined, while others have much more room for creativity along the way. For certain characteristics, our environment, such as nutrition or life events, plays a more prominent role than our genetic code, whereas for others, our DNA plays the central role. There is no magic equation, but the majority of our traits are a result of a complex interplay between numerous factors, not only our genetic code.
Each one of us is given the gifts, talents and abilities to carry out our own contributions in bringing Christ’s presence into the world. Each individual role is beautifully hand-crafted by God, and no matter how small or large it may seem, it is significant and necessary. We just need to be open to sharing our unique gifts. As St. Catherine of Siena put it, “Be who you were created to be, and you will set the world on fire.” The uniqueness of each human being and differences between us is something beautiful that is inherent to our belief and supported by our genetic make-up. This uniqueness is something to be embraced, not frowned upon.