Derek Chignell, PhD, Biochemist, Global Water Ministries
- Doctorate in Biochemistry, King's College, University of London
- Post-doctorate Research Associate, UCLA, Fulbright Scholar
- University Lectureship, Dundee University, Scotland
- Chemistry Department Professor and Chair, Wheaton College, IL
- Masters of Arts in Communications, Wheaton College, IL
- Provost's Team, University of the Nations (Youth With A Mission), Hawaii
- Founder and Director, Water-For-Life
My middle school science teacher did something outrageous and we all loved it! I was raised in the East End of London, a thoroughly working class area with little interest or curiosity in things scientific, or education beyond high school. Mr Clark came into our classroom with a big TV set (in those days, the kind with vacuum tubes) and asked about our parents’ solemn edict about tampering with the TV -- don’t ever try to get inside it! We all agreed, then Mr Clark said “that is exactly what we are going to do!” Soon the back was off, and we saw the tubes glow when the power was on. Then we got to pull things out, unscrew them, so much fun. That is how I first got interested in things scientific.
At schools in England in those days, at aged 14 you had to make a choice of specialization ready for university. The last three years were going to be preparation for our life’s work. My older brother had already chosen science, and so I decided not to follow him, but to go into literature. I wrote well, I had articles published in magazines, but no matter how I tried I was drawn back to science, so science it was for the last three years of high school. This was the time when we did qualitative analysis of mixtures to determine the metals, and Stage 2 was always hydrogen sulfide, so the lab was drenched in the smell of rotten eggs. My teachers, Mr Amstell and Mr Hayes were masters at getting young teenagers interested in chemistry. When my grades were in, however, physics came out tops, chemistry was second and then pure and applied mathematics were a distant third and fourth. I had a difficult choice, my highest score or my interest. Chemistry won out. But what university to attend? Oxford and Cambridge turned me down based on entrance exams, and University of London had two top colleges, University College and King’s College. My best friend Paul and I, always competing for first place, decided that we should go to different colleges to avoid the competition with each other. We flipped a coin (not very spiritual, my best friend was a Jew) and I got King’s.
University in England is specialized. For three very intense years, I studied Chemistry, Physics and Math, to be able to get a degree in Chemistry. We were told at the beginning of Year 1 that half of us would be gone by the end of the first year, and one third of the remaining students would be gone by the end of the second year. And so it was. Although I had been raised in the church and made my own profession of faith when I was 10 years old, I decided that these college years would be a good time to start from zero and find out how much of what I believed was truly my own and intellectually valid. The Christian Union gave me many opportunities to work through my faith, and I was blessed with three good friends, all of them believers.
Sitting on the embankment of the Thames eating lunch one day, I was reading a book about the chemistry of life. Frankly, chemistry seemed past its prime with few cutting edge topics (that was undergraduate ignorance, I’m afraid), but reading about the structure of proteins and nucleic acids and how these were yielding to physics and chemistry was enthralling. Right there I decided to inquire about doing my graduate degree in biophysics, at the Dept of Biophysics of King’s College. I visited, and was offered a position working on biophysical chemistry, in the group of Dr. Maurice Wilkins, the third and unsung hero of the DNA structure published in 1953, for which he received the Nobel Prize. Wow, I was to be the student of a Nobel prizewinner!
So I began, but I knew nothing about biology except some vague concepts back in elementary school. We had a crash course with lectures every week for a year. What was amazing was being close to not only Wilkins, but also many other distinguished scientists who either worked in the same department or visited from elsewhere. So I met Linus Pauling and his son Peter (the protein alpha helix), Fred Sanger (the structure of insulin), David Phillips (the structure of lysozyme), Max Perutz and John Kendrew (structure of hemoglobin), Jim Watson and Francis Crick (the double helix of DNA), H.G. Khorana (mechanism of transcription), Jacques Monod and Jean-Pierre Changeux (the allosteric theory) and many others. These are the people who became legendary for their discoveries.
Where was my Christian faith during this time? It was there – I regularly went to church, I was a counselor at Billy Graham rallies – but it was neatly packaged away from my science. I was righteous in my laboratory conduct, refusing to drink alcohol and being nice to everyone. I witnessed when I could. But my two worlds never met, I was a perfect example of Stephen Gould’s NOMA (non-overlapping magisteria). I finished my PhD and got a postdoc position at UCLA for three years. I arrive in Los Angeles at the height of the hippy movement and the protests against the Vietnam war (we were regularly chased by the California National Guard on campus, even when we weren’t part of the protests). The Jesus movement was strong, almost as strong as the smell of marijuana in most locations I was in during that time. I joined the Jesus movement and marched with everyone else. Still during this time, my research did not intersect with my Christian faith.
After three years, I was obligated (I was on a Fulbright Scholarship) to return to the USA, but things were different – I had met and married an American (much to my mother’s consternation as to what was wrong with English girls) so we came back to a university lectureship at Dundee, Scotland with a strong mandate to teach well and do research to bring in grants to the Biochemistry Department. Personally, this was a satisfying time, good friends, a weekly prayer group exploring the charismatic gifts, a first baby, and many trips in the rugged beauty of the Scottish highlands. All was not well in the laboratory though. Two of us were hired at the same time and basically put in competition for results and funding. My alter ego was a dynamic young researcher who soon eclipsed me, and I discovered painfully that I did not want to make research the center of my life, but loved teaching. Teaching did not bring the accolades or the funding, research did. The stress built until I received the devastating news at the age of 28 that I had an autoimmune disease that was gradually eroding the vertebrae of my spine, and would result in complete fusing and inability to breathe. In a dark humorous moment, I asked my Scottish doctor what was the alternative to this slow, painful demise. His answer was “Well, you could be run over by a bus instead….”
This was a watershed moment in my experience. It was a wake up call to my Christian walk. I spent my lunch hour each day in prayer, asking God for some kind of answer. In the end, three things came to me: first, I was to quit my job; second I was to ask my charismatic prayer group to pray for my healing; and third, the most difficult, I was to apologize for the increasing lack of civility with my competing scientist in the next laboratory, who was not known for his tact, was arrogant, and considered me to be of no consequence. The first two were accomplished, the third, after much struggle was done with no positive response from the scientist, instead a look of puzzled disdain with my bumbling attempts to reconcile. So came the fateful evening to ask my prayer group to pray. That night, all of the spiritual giants were out of town. Only one elderly man, and two elderly ladies. The looked like frightened rabbits when I asked them to pray for my healing and they prayed a very non-committal, hopeful prayer.
There was no immediate answer, but over the next two months, the pain subsided and movement came back. An x-ray showed that the fuzzy margins of my vertebrae were now clear. God had healed me.
I left Scotland and started a Master’s degree in Communication at Wheaton College in the USA, never intending to return to science. However I taught part time in the Chemistry Department, loved it, and when my degree was finished, joined the department as a chemistry professor. So began a 25 year journey doing all that I loved, teaching, counseling and undergraduate research. Here is where I discovered that I would need to move easily between faith and my scientific career. I was woefully ill equipped, but by necessity, I learned about faith-science issues so that I could teach my students. The ASA was a great help to me during this time.
In 1995, with four children aged from 7 to 21, I finished a sabbatical at Oregon State University, returned to Wheaton, celebrated our 25thwedding anniversary and one month later received the news that my wife’s breast cancer had returned. Within four months, she passed away. Now began the most incredible journey of faith (or lack of it at many times) raising a family on my own. During my sabbatical, I had spent time working with Youth with a Mission in the formation of their missions-oriented university program called University of the Nations. Even during this difficult time of single parenthood, I wondered if there was a place for science and technology in a missions organization. My first experiences had not seen that possibility.
In 2002, with three of my children now grown up and out of the house, I made the step. I quit my wonderfully comfortable and financially stable job with all the kudos of being a professor and moved to Hawaii to help further the work of the University of the Nations, and to be mentored by its Chancellor, who was a distinguished chemistry professor at the University of Illinois before he joined YWAM. His passion was safe water supplies and he had helped develop a filter unit that could take the worst water and through five integrated steps produce safe drinking water. He mentored me for a year before he passed away, and as a result, we were able to form Water for Life Institute, a non-profit dedicated to helping communities find their own answers to their water and sanitation problems.
Now, fifteen years later, we have a thriving science and tech division that is developing appropriate technology in Food, Energy, Water and Shelter (FEWS). Water for Life Institute is small but thriving, and is currently doing projects in Asia, Eastern Europe and both East and West Africa. I have traveled the world, working in villages, cities, communities everywhere. I have had experiences beyond anything I could have dreamed. I have seen tangible changes in communities as the result of water projects, and have friends in over 40 countries. God has been faithful in my finances, and has looked after my family. I am married to a wonderful Korean lady who has a call to missionary counseling.
When I first began to be interested in missions, there was no connection with science and technology. I prayed specifically about this and realized (and I teach about this around the world) that there are three intersections: first, the science-faith interface is poorly explicated to the general public in every nation in the world. Churches in general are suspicious of science, loving the inventions but convinced that science is fundamentally opposed to faith. Consequently, many young people see a choice to be made, either science or the Bible. Which to believe? As a result, hundreds of them make the choice and leave the Christian faith. There is work to be done here! We need informed young people who are passionate about their faith and about their scientific careers.
Second, there is a mission field, the hidden (or not so hidden) people group of scientists in every nation on earth who are curious, critical, and dedicated. They are not easily convinced about anything (that is their job) and they are looking for evidence. Unfortunately, because the inherent suspicion, the church has done a poor job in building bridges to the scientific community. We are quite good at putting up walls instead. Here is a wonderful opportunity for the church to reach into the scientific community, and also to encourage, respect and support young people embarking on a scientific vocation.
Third, there are an almost infinite number of opportunities to discover, develop, and refine technologies that are appropriate to the community where they are applied, and in many cases are already there in the community but have never been recognized. How many technologies are being used but are hidden or overwhelmed by well meaning problem solvers who believe they have the answers to a community’s needs? When these are discovered and applied, truly Shalom is walking into the community, justice is being done, and the Kingdom is being advanced.
I am privileged to have lived my dream both in teaching and now in missions. This truly is kingdom work, and I trust and pray that I can be part of this work for years to come.