By Primal de Lanerolle, '68
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"Who we are is who we were." This phrase, spoken by the actor portraying John Quincy Adams in the movie Amistad, summarizes Adams' defense of former slaves in United States vs. The Amistad, before the Supreme Court. While the movie exercises poetic license with Adams' speech, the basis of this saying is that we share a common genome that makes us individually unique and uniquely human. While there are differences in our genetic structure that make us different, all of us – black, white, Asian, Arabic, short and tall – have certain common genes that identify us as humans.
We are, however, more than our genes. We have learned that epigenetics, the study of changes in gene expression by mechanisms other than mutations in our genetic code, are important as well. Technically, epigenetics refers to how and when the genetic code is read and transcribed into RNA. Epigenetics can be defined more broadly to describe anything other than changes in the DNA sequence that influences the development of an organism.
As with genetics, parents are our most important epigenetic influences. My mother influenced me in subtle ways; my father influenced me more overtly, challenging me in ways that are unique to Asian parents. Your spouse, children and friends will have a big impact on your epigenome. Your education will also have a profound effect, which brings me to Whitworth.
I enrolled at Whitworth partly because there were "big" questions that I hoped a Christian education would help me answer. We all seek an understanding of transcendental truths; this desire is one epigenetic factor that separates us from all other species. But "The Truth" is hard to define, and it is the tension in deciding which is the greater truth that causes some people to do horrible things in the name of religion. The Dalai Lama says, "My religion is kindness." Religions have to be more complex, but one truth I learned at Whitworth is that any religion that does not include kindness and tolerance as cornerstones is doomed to failure.
On a more practical level, I came to Whitworth fully intent on going to medical school. My father wanted to be a doctor, and he pushed me in this direction. But I took an English class taught by Dean Ebner in my freshman year that changed my life. It, and subsequent English classes, made me realize that life cannot be lived by solving a series of equations.
Because of my professors' influences, I decided to double major in English and chemistry. After graduating, I earned a master's degree in English literature at San Francisco State University. To support myself in school and to keep from being sent to Vietnam, I did alternate military service, conducting medical research at a hospital in San Francisco. I discovered I was a creative scientist who loved doing research, and I went on to earn a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology at U.C. San Diego.
People often ask me if going from literature to science was difficult, and the answer is a resounding yes. But in one important way it wasn't difficult, because I possessed a wonderful liberal arts education. My Whitworth professors taught me to analyze data critically, to think creatively and analytically, to make associations and to see relationships, and to present my thoughts in an organized way. My liberal arts education, rather than preparing me for a specific career, gave me the tools to be successful at virtually any career.
My Whitworth professors also introduced me to the wonders of scholarship. They taught me that scholars seek the truth, and that the way you seek the truth is as important as the truth you seek. President Beck Taylor recently wrote "Whitworth summons its students to a crossroads, where the fearless pursuit of truth intersects with a steadfast commitment to the integration of Christian faith and learning . . . It is in the creative tension at these intellectual and spiritual crossroads that students' minds and hearts are forged for great purpose."
A thousand years ago, the principle was that one had to withdraw – become a hermit or sit under a Bo tree – to discover the transcendental truths of life. President Taylor's words espouse a very different approach to seeking truth. Any good liberal arts education should give you the intellectual foundation and emotional security to become part of the world. With a Whitworth education you have the added benefit of a Christian perspective. It is by testing your beliefs and ideas that you grow, that your "hearts and minds are forged for great purpose." What truths you discover will depend on how you challenge yourself.
Primal de Lanerolle is professor of physiology and biophysics at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is the recipient of Whitworth's 2011 Distinguished Alumni Award; his AfterWord essay is adapted from a lecture he gave at Whitworth during Homecoming Weekend. Click here to read his full presentation.