What makes a rising star in the world of cell biology research, with a PhD from MIT, turn away from a prestigious laboratory and the promise of a career on the cutting edge of cancer research? The call of Christ.
“I remember walking away from the conference, thinking, is this all there is to my life?” Father Nicanor Austriaco, OP told me about his days just before his life devoted to science took a dramatic change. We were sitting in the cafeteria at Providence College on a balmy day, the last day of September. Fall had arrived, but you wouldn’t have known it.
Providence College is just off I-95, in the middle of Rhode Island’s capital. It was founded in 1917 by the Dominicans with the support of the city’s Archbishop Matthew Harkins.
Today, while the college does get students from states as far as Alaska and Hawaii, most are from the mid-Atlantic states and New England.
Providence also features the Development of Western Civilization program, a key component of the core curriculum for undergraduates that requires intensive study of philosophy, history, literature, and theology.
But Father Nic teaches biology. While he has to lecture like all professors, to get his students hooked on science, he gets them into the lab as soon as he can. “A couple of hours a week, at first,” he says. “They’ll be mentored by my older students, who are here all the time.” But students get to work on real projects, not just exercises to help them pass exams. Father Nic believes getting students to do real science is the best way to get them interested in it as a career.
AN EARLY INTEREST IN SCIENCE
Science was not strange to him growing up. “I was born in the Philippines, but grew up in Thailand,” he said. “Both my parents are engineers. They both just retired this year from Angeles University, a Catholic university in the Philippines. I have a younger brother and a younger sister. By the time I was 10 or 12 I knew I wanted to win the Nobel Prize. I didn’t know how to do that, but because both my parents were engineers, I ended up becoming a bioengineer, going to the University of Pennsylvania, where I got my undergraduate degree.”
At Penn, Father Nic had the opportunity to meet influential scientists, including Peter Nowell, who discovered the Philadelphia Chromosome, the very first chromosomal abnormality associated with leukemia.
“During my junior year, I took an honor’s class with him on cancer,” Father Nic said. “And one of the things he wanted to tell us is that cancer is not one disease, it’s like a 120 different diseases, so there’s no magic bullet.”
“But one of the things I wanted to argue was that, yes, there is actually something in common among all cancers: they don’t get old.”
Most cells in the human body have a lifespan that is measured in days (although some cell types cells can last for years). What makes normal cells “know” when it’s time to die? When it’s time for them to be replaced? And what happens in cancer cells that fail to trigger their own mechanisms to expire, causing them to multiply out of control into tumors and spread throughout the body? That was the question that fi rst interested Nicanor Austriaco.
“I started to look at aging as an undergraduate,” he said. “So when I ended up going to MIT, I was providentially blessed to meet Lenny Guarente, who at that time was working on transcription. But he was willing to give me and my classmate Brian Kennedy a chance to do our work on aging.”
Guarente, a respected researcher who has his own lab, gave the young Austriaco a year, telling him that if in that time he could show some real progress, he could have a position in Guarente’s lab to continue research on aging.
Austriaco succeeded. “God blessed our work,” he told me, “and we identified one of the fi rst series of aging genes ever discovered.”
His first co-authored paper, published in Cell in 1995, was called “Mutation in the Silencing Gene SIR4 Can Delay Aging in S. cerevisiae.” The paper examined the common yeast cell and how a mutation in one of the genes responsible for causing it to cease growing—in essence, to self-destruct—allowed the cell to live much longer. Yeast cells are ideal for researchers because they have shorter lifespans than mammalian cells, allowing scientists to examine more generations in a shorter period.
Austriaco’s colleagues in biology were not the only ones impressed by this fi rst paper. It also drew the att ention of documentary fi lmmaker Robert Kane Pappas, who produced To Age or Not to Age. “They came to MIT and interviewed all of us,” said Father Nic. “[The film] describes the work that we did. My parents have seen it. I haven’t.”
FINDING HIS VOCATION
After earning his PhD at MIT, Austriaco earned a Fellowship at the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research, University College London. And it was there the direction of his life changed.
I asked him how it all started, the path to his vocation. Was he an agnostic, or—more dramatically—an atheist who underwent a major, Damascusstyle conversion? But it was not that dramatic.
Being Filipino, he said, God was in his blood. “I’d been a Catholic all my life. But it wasn’t a priority, God was not a priority. And yet, during my fi veplus years at MIT, there were both difficult times and great times, and it was really through a Catholic fellowship— a group of very dedicated, intelligent, and motivated young people who were also gung-ho about God—that this changed.”
The student group was part of the Catholic chaplaincy at MIT, run by the Paulists. The fellowship planted the seed.
“And their telling me about meeting Christ really catalyzed my desire to meet him,” he explained. “And so, you begin praying, you tell God, ‘I really want to meet you, I’ve got these people telling me that they met you, and I don’t know what that means.’ I think most Catholics don’t know what that means, most human beings don’t know what that means, to say that they’ve encountered the Risen Lord. And I didn’t know what it meant. Until I met him. And when I met him, it changed my life. And once I encountered him—to know that everything I’d heard about and thought about was actually true … to have encountered the person of Christ, and then to have discovered and encountered him through a group of people, the Church—was just life-changing.”
Within a year and a half, he had resigned his position as a fellow at the Ludwig Institute and joined the Dominican novitiate in Cincinnati. The Dominican fathers trained him; he had to get another bachelor’s degree in philosophy, and then received advanced theology degrees, primarily in moral theology.
“And ever since then it’s been an adventure,” he said. “To walk alongside the Lord, often on water. To do things I thought I would never do.”
It’s an expression Father Nic likes to use—walking on water. Not to indicate that he is performing miracles, but rather to show that—like St. Peter, when Christ called to him to get out of the boat and come to him—he realizes it is God doing it all for him. It’s grace.
“It’s a full life,” he said. “And people ask me, what does that mean? Well, it means I go to bed at the end of the day, and I’m exhausted. And I know that I lived that day to the fullest. It’s a life of fullness, to have the Lord walking beside you. Just because there are so many unexpected surprises. Those are what pepper and flavor life.”
“So if you talk about my faith, it’s an encounter,” he explains. “I met the Lord, seventh of May, 1996. At MIT, at 5:30 in the afternoon. And that changed everything.”
He still stays in touch with his friends from the Catholic fellowship at MIT. “I’ve now married some of them to each other, I’ve baptized their kids. We’re just a good group of friends who prayed together, who thought through the faith together; we read the Catechism from cover to cover together, read all the Fathers of the Church and documents of Vatican II. I mean, we were geeks. You put a bunch of geeky, nerdy Catholics together, and we’ll end up reading and arguing about things together. So we argued and talked about faith and reason.”
Those late-night conversations showed him that faith is reasonable. “And once that happens,” he said, “it solidifies your world view. Your belief ceases to be just based on the witness of others, and you encounter the Lord yourself. Not because someone told you about it, but because you know it’s true.”
The lab Father Nic runs for his undergraduates, which his students have playfully named “The Dead Yeast Society,” is more modest than the Guarente lab or the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research.
But it is still ideal for helping his students engage immediately in real research. He and his students already have several papers ready to publish. And next year, they are going to start investigating programmed cell death in choanoflagellates, the most advanced unicellular organisms on earth.
“One of the most interesting questions in biology is: what was it about life that facilitated the conversion between single-celled organisms and multicelled organisms?” he explains. “You have sponges, which are the simplest form of multi-celled organisms, and you have the choanoflagellates, which are the most advanced form of single-celled organisms. So they are on either side of that chasm, and there are scientists who are trying to understand what happened.” In terms of evolution, how was that bridge from single-celled organism to multi-celled organism built?
“There are only seven or eight labs in the world that study choanoflagellates,” Father Nic said. “And I have a small lab. I can’t compete with big labs, so it’s always good to pick a field which is really small; and no one studies programmed cell death in these organisms. So one of the things we want to do is take all the things we learned about programmed cell death in yeast and move it to this organism. And try to figure out that bridge.”
By understanding programmed cell death in choanoflagellates, Father Nic hopes scientists can gain insight into what might have happened to facilitate the change—“Or, even better, what it was about this single-celled organism that [gave it] the potential to become multi-cellular.”
This is an exciting topic, especially for undergraduates. But Father Nic is modest. “Other labs are looking at this. But it’s a question we can do, so I’m going to do it so my students can have fun figuring it out.”
WORKING WI TH STUDENTS
He has 14 students in his lab, all working at different levels of participation. He has freshmen who come in for a few hours of week, just getting introduced to the world of research, and upper-class students who look like they never leave. Father Nic pairs the newcomers with upper-class mentors. “When the senior student graduates, the younger can take over that project. Several projects are ongoing that are keeping us busy,” he explains.
And because his lab recently received a grant from the National Institute for General Medical Sciences, Father Nic will soon have a teaching fellow on board in the coming year as well.
He keeps it all in perspective, and prayer is crucial. “I have to keep praying that whatever I do in science is always in the service of the Lord,” he said. “At MIT they teach you that selfpromotion is really big. And you had to be able to do that very well. It’s very hard to reconcile self-promotion with a desire for holiness. And so it takes a lot of prayer to learn how to do science and to talk about your science [in such a way that] the focus is not on you, but on the science and the God that the science reveals. And we talk about that in my lab all the time.”
It is something he emphasizes time and time again. “The fact is that you just happened to be the person to uncover this treasure. But that treasure was never yours. It belongs to all of us. It’s a gift. And you just happened to be the privileged one, the messenger to deliver the message. But it was never yours.”
It’s easy for many Americans to forget this, given the accolades prominent scientists can garner for work that may or may not be as groundbreaking as they claim.
“Science is a profession of service,” said Father Nic. “Looking for the truth. Uncovering the mysteries of nature. We are putting that truth in the service of our civilization. As John Paul II said, science is a communal activity. Even the scientist working in the lab at 2 a.m. relies on the community of scientists of which he is a part … Unfortunately science is sometimes spoken about to promote the scientist, and that can be a problem. It’s all for the Lord.”
Father Nic sees his pastoral duties as covering everything that he does. In addition to all this work mentoring, teaching and doing research, he says a weekly Mass on Thursday afternoons on campus. “As a Dominican, it’s very hard to separate what we do here [in the lab] from the pastoral dimension. I live in the dorms, so when a student dislocates his shoulder, or his grandmother dies, or his girlfriend dumps him, I’m right there. And we go for a long walk and we have a conversation about it.”
“In the lab, you’re always talking about programmed cell death but very quickly, right there, because you’re a priest, your students bring up God,” he explains. “And so, for me, my apostolate— running a laboratory—is running my parish. My little parish, my little bit of the Lord’s vineyard, is down there in that lab. And the Lord has given me that lab to nurture, to strengthen, and to prune at times to facilitate more work.”
In addition to this, Father Nic also celebrates masses for the Filipino community in Rhode Island, and for other religious communities.
With regard to the hype in the press about the poor quality of American education, and science education in particular, Father Nic brings an interesting perspective.
“Kids are born scientists,” he said. “I think what has happened in this country, in a way that I haven’t seen elsewhere, is that science has become politicized. So you have debates over scientific issues where ideology has entered science and the right answer is based, not upon data, but upon political affiliation.”
“With education in general … there’s a lot of money the federal government has invested in the scientific infrastructure to try and get many of our young people interested in science,” he said. “I think in order to do that, we need to move away from the memorizationtextbook approach … if you want to have someone fall in love with science, you have to have them do science. You can’t just have them read about it.”
“The students come in here and … you give them a project, and within a year most of them think, ‘This is cool.’ They’ve discovered the puzzle-solving nature of science and they’ve discovered the frustration of science, where 99 percent of the time, it doesn’t work. But they see how it’s a hands-on thing. And I’ve had students come to me and say, ‘Doing this is like not doing work, I just love doing this.’”
HIS VIEW OF EVOLUTION
Inevitably, the subject of evolution comes up in class. Father Nic is no stranger to the controversy between intelligent design proponents—some of whom are Catholic—and materialistic Darwinists, who see the universe as the product of blind chance.
“The irony about the intelligent design debate today,” he said, “is that the intelligent design proponents, like the Darwinists, presuppose an opposition between chance and design. They necessitate an opposition between chance and design. If it’s design, it cannot be chance. If it’s chance, it cannot be design … [N]o one thinks about the possibility of talking about God’s design working through chance, through contingency.”
Father Nic pointed out that Aquinas, in his Summa Theologiae, discusses how God governs the universe through necessity and through contingency. “When we talk about evolution, most people think [affirming] that evolution is a contingent process is to necessarily exclude divine providence.”
As part of his own contribution to the religion-and-science debate, Father Nic published a paper in 2003—“In Defense of Double Agency in Evolution”—for Angelicum, the journal of the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, in which he articulated Aquinas’ classic position.
“I wanted to emphasize—in the classical, Thomist tradition—that it is not incoherent to say, as I told my students the other day, that God creates through evolution, and he creates through an evolution that is still radically contingent only with respect to us. It is contingent because God made it contingent. From his perspective, the contingency is an inherent part of the design. And yet, even in Cardinal Schönborn’s book, you get: ‘Is it chance or necessity?’ You never get this sense that design and contingency are not opposed to each other as long as you clearly delineate first causality.”
“So that paper was talking about how, with reference to God—who is more unlike us than like us—there is a great chasm between how he can act as a cause, and how we can,” Father Nic explained. “See, if you made me do something, than I necessarily am not free. But when God makes me do something, and I cooperate with him, I’m actually freer. And that’s counterintuitive, because we experience creaturely causes, and so in all of our language we’ve been conditioned to imagine God as a creature—just a super-big creature using super creature ways to bring about events.”
The brilliance of St. Thomas, according to Father Nic, is his point that God is so different from humans that whenever we say that God is doing something, it is a mistake to say that God is doing something in the way that humans do it. “And in that God-like way of doing things, he can achieve things that are impossible for us. Through contingency.”
For this Dominican biologist, evolution actually reveals the power of God in a profound way. St. Thomas’ explanation of creation “is a much more robust worldview, which can sustain modern science in a way that modern philosophy cannot.”
Father Nic smiled. “Which is why I like being a Dominican.”
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