By Primal de Lanerolle, '68
Primal de Lanerolle is professor of physiology and biophysics at the University of Illinois at Chicago. As the recipient of Whitworth's 2011 Distinguished Alumni Award, he gave the following presentation at Whitworth during Homecoming Weekend, on Oct. 6, 2011.
Let me start by thanking President Taylor, the selection committee and the Whitworth community for electing me the recipient of the 2011 Distinguished Alumni Award. Over the last few weeks I have thought long and hard about my Whitworth experience and what transpired on this campus over 40 years ago. Whitworth profoundly affected me. Without doubt, it changed my life. It is not so easy to express why. But, in trying to do so, I hope it will provide some insights into your lives and how, I hope, Whitworth will affect each of you.
"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.
The point is that human beings, Homo sapiens, share a common genome that makes us unique as a species. We are obviously different from birds and crocodiles, but we are also different from the higher primates, our closest relatives. We inherit genes from our parents, who inherited their genes from their parents and so forth, all the way back to a common ancestor.
Parents, without doubt, contribute most to our individual genomes. But so do grandparents, great-grandparents and distant ancestors. We look much more like our parents and siblings, somewhat less like our cousins, nieces and nephews, even less than people of other nationalities and races. With the exception of twins, no two of us have identical genes. Subtle differences in our genes make us different from each other. Still, despite differences in our genetic structure that make us individuals, all of us – black, white, Asian, Arabic, short and tall – have certain common genes identifying us as humans.
We are, however, more than our genes. The Human Genome Project was based on the idea that we could better understand and treat diseases if we sequenced the human genome. Because mutations in individual genes are responsible for specific diseases, it was assumed the genome of a healthy person could be used as a template to predict who might be predisposed to getting a disease. But we have learned it is not so simple – something called epigenetics also affects gene expression.
Epigenetics is the study of changes in gene expression by mechanisms other than mutations in our genes. 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.
This broader definition of epigenetics can and should include environmental factors like climate. One can argue that climate is part of the process of natural selection. Still, the Inuit are different from people who grow up in the tropics. Another obvious epigenetic factor is nutrition. If one twin gets adequate nutrition and the other is malnourished, there is no doubt that there will be substantial differences in their development.
As with genetics, parents are our most important epigenetic influences. My mother influenced me in subtle ways. My father influenced me in more overt ways. My father wrote political satires in the 1940s and 1950s that made the Sri Lankan people laugh at themselves. His plays have an important place in Sri Lankan history, and he was prescient in pointing out that language is more divisive than religion and a common language is the key to a shared, democratic government.
My father was also fearless. How else can you describe a man who moved to this country at the age of 59 with a wife and two children despite not having a guaranteed job? He was also extremely self-confident and my friends and family will tell you that self-confidence is an integral part of my genome and epigenome. But courage and self-confidence are absolutely essential for doing anything important. Willie Mays, the Giants' great centerfielder said, "You can't hit a curveball unless you think you can." You also have to have the courage to try. The best way to ensure failure is to not try.
Anybody with whom you have a long-term relationship will change you. People who have been together for a long time inevitably become more like each other. I am happy to say that I have become more like Sandy, my wife. I am equally depressed to say that she has become more like me! Children will most assuredly change you. My daughter, Reena, taught me about the importance of patience, something I used to consider a great virtue in other people. Friends, especially those at Whitworth, taught me not to take myself too seriously. Through them I learned that a smile and a sense of humor go a long way in life.
The other factor that will have a major impact on your epigenome, who you are as a person, is your education, which brings me to Whitworth. As I have mentioned, my family moved from Sri Lanka to Berkeley in 1958. We came to the U.S. in great part because of an American soldier, Ben Gautier, who my father had met during World War II. In the years since my parents passed away, Ben and I have remained close friends. I was even best man when he remarried at age 83. Ben, who is now 93 years old, is confronting his mortality and I have been impressed at the strength he has drawn from his Christian faith.
Moving to Berkeley was really tough. I recently heard there are more than 100,000 Sri Lankan now living in L.A. alone. We were the first Sri Lankan family to move to California and the adjustment was very hard. One of the things that kept me going was becoming involved with Young Life. My friends in Young Life introduced me to Whitworth and I decided to attend because two friends from Berkeley, Larry Carlson and Bob Fox, were already attending Whitworth and I was impressed with what they said.
Another reason I enrolled at Whitworth was because I realized that there were big questions I hoped a Christian education would help me answer. Eventually we all seek answers to the "big" questions, an understanding of transcendental truths. Not to do so even at a minimal level leaves us morally bankrupt and intellectually and emotionally unsatisfied. We cannot help but be fascinated by the complexity of life or the infinity of the cosmos. Our desire to understand how we relate to the rest of the universe and to give meaning, both to the joys and tragedies we experience, is one of the epigenetic factors that makes us unique as a species.
But Truth is hard to define. Is your Truth the same as my Truth? If not, which is the better Truth? Who decides? It is this tension in deciding which is the greater truth that causes some people to do horrible things in the name of religion. The Dalai Lama said "My religion is kindness." I think religions have to be more complex, but one truth I most assuredly learned at Whitworth is that any religion that does not include kindness and tolerance as cornerstones of its foundation is doomed to failure.
On a more practical note, I enrolled at Whitworth fully intent on going to medical school. But I had an English class during my freshman year taught by Dean Ebner that changed my life. It and subsequent classes in the humanities made me realize life cannot be lived by solving a series of equations. I could not, however, give up my interests in the sciences and I graduated with a double major in English and chemistry. After graduating, I enrolled in a master's program in English literature at San Francisco State University in 1968, a very turbulent year. Both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated in 1968, and students were demonstrating against segregation and the war in Vietnam all across the country. Eventually, classes at San Francisco State were halted because of the students' strike and protests against the Cambodia bombings. Although extremely turbulent and disruptive, I met my wife in 1968 because of the strikes (another story unto itself!) and we got married in 1971.
There were two other important issues in my life at the time: I was about to be drafted into the Army and sent to Vietnam and I needed a job to support myself in graduate school. I resolved both issues by doing alternate service at the Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco. Alternate service was a little known program that allowed draft-eligible men to do service to the country in lieu of military service. I had worked at this hospital during the summer after my sophomore year. That summer was another transforming time in my life because I absolutely loved doing research. When my draft board approved my proposal, I jumped at the opportunity and spent two years doing research. I then got married, went to Europe for a year, came back and completed my master's degree.
Then I was presented with a choice: I loved academics, but what was I going to concentrate on? I could go on for a Ph.D. in literature, but I new that I did not have the creativity, the talent to be a writer. I knew I could only be a critic. In contrast, I knew I was a creative scientist and I really enjoyed working in the lab. That was the route I took. Eventually, I got a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology at UC San Diego, spent five years at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD, and in 1984 I joined the University of Illinois Medical School at Chicago as an assistant professor of physiology and biophysics.
People frequently 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 English professors taught me how to critically analyze data, 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.
Other Whitworth faculty members also made important contributions to my development as a scholar. Glen Erickson, who tragically passed away, was a fabulous physics teacher, and he was an important role model when I became an assistant professor. Howard Stein taught me the importance of being creative in science and the importance of challenging dogma. The problem is that challenging dogma has gotten me intro trouble more than once, but I would not have it any other way. Fenton Duvall and Homer Cunningham were also important influences, although I never had them for formal classes. Dr. Duvall told me that it is as hard to live down a good first impression as a bad first impression. Dr. Cunningham told me there are two kinds of people, those who make a decision and complain that it is the wrong one, and those who work to make every decision the right one. This is sage advice that I pass on to my students.
Professors in the humanities and the sciences also introduced me to the wonders of scholarship. A well-known proverb says "It takes a village to raise a child." In the same way, it takes a community of scholars to truly educate a student. Whitworth provided me with that community. Whitworth's faculty scholars taught me to think deeply but broadly, to be creative but to base my creativity on detailed analysis, and to be rigorous in analyzing my scholarship; they also taught me the importance of demanding the best from myself and maintaining the highest standards. Scholars seek the truth. Above all, they taught me that how 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. . . Whitworth invites tough questions and vigorous debate. . . 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 one withdrew from life – became a hermit or to sat on top of a mountain or under a Bo tree – to discover the transcendental truths of life. President Taylor's words espouse a very different approach to seeking truth. Transcendental truths are found in living life and in challenging ones beliefs. Any good liberal arts education should give you the intellectual foundation and emotional security to become part of the world. This is especially true of a Whitworth education, because you have the added benefit of a Christian perspective. But it is by challenging yourself and your ideas that you grow, that your "hearts and minds are forged for great purpose." I have discovered two truths: Being kind is a good thing and there is an extraordinary satisfaction in touching other peoples' lives in positive ways. What truths you discover will depend how you challenge yourselves.