Quaker scientist? That’s how Kent Thornburg describes himself. He was born into a Quaker family, and his parents recognized and honored his scientific curiosity early in his life by buying him chemistry sets, microscopes, and other scientific paraphernalia. Now, he’s clear that "being a spiritual person, a Quaker, and a scientist are interlinked ways of thinking." For him, "Being a scientist and nurturing my Quaker roots has been an exciting opportunity."
Thornburg is spiritually grounded, yet it’s his nature to ask probing questions, not only in matters of science but also in matters of faith, society, culture, and all other aspects of life. When he decided to become an academic and a researcher, he felt duty-bound to "examine everything from scratch," including his faith. "It was one of the healthiest things I’ve ever done. I learned that the way Quakers view the world was the way I wanted to view it. But I have remained a skeptic—even things that traditional Quakers might hold dear I’m willing to put on the table for examination and discussion. I appreciate that as Quakers, we know and relate to God directly. I wish we would more often put ourselves in the ethically difficult places that are so common in our culture. I think there are many Quaker views that could be helpful for people in our culture, but these are not being heard."
Thornburg’s career in science and teaching has been a pretty straight path—undergraduate work at George Fox College (now University); PhD from Oregon State University in developmental biology and developmental physiology; then to Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU) and Washington University in St. Louis for post-doctoral work. With that completed, he accepted a teaching position in the physiology/pharmacology department at OHSU, during which he served with many national and international scientific organizations. After 25 years he was appointed to the M. Lowell Edwards chair for cardiovascular research, endowed by a Quaker family in honor of the co-inventor of the Starr-Edwards artificial heart valve. Recently, Thornburg joined Cardiovascular Medicine to teach and to head the research program for the division. He also has joint appointments in several departments: Physiology and Pharmacology, Obstetrics and Gynecology, bioengineering, and Medical Informatics and Clinical Epidemiology. "In the latter, we are using modern computer methods to generate dynamic models of the heart during development. The models allow us to ‘see’ the heart in three dimensions as it beats. We also use the computer to keep track of which genes are expressed or ‘turned on’ at any given stage of development. Without the computer, we could keep track of only a few genes at a time. But the computer doesn’t care how many genes it has to remember—there are 30,000 or so! Our computer models allow us to follow the expressed genes in many combinations. We can see the heart in three dimensions, turning it, cutting it, looking at it from any angle. When we get it perfected, it will help us understand those genes that are defective or are expressed at the wrong time and lead to heart defects. Many of these early genes appear to underlie later heart disease in adults who never had a heart defect. I’m interested in determining how we might use gene therapy to rectify heart problems when the heart is not working properly."
The question of ethics arises whenever gene therapy is mentioned. "I get a lot of questions about tampering with nature," Thornburg says, "the ‘if God had wanted us to fly we’d have wings’ questions. Let me tell you a story to illustrate. One time I was visiting a wonderful relative of mine who always wanted to know what I was working on. At the time, we were trying to understand what initiates breathing at birth. Why do you start breathing? Most people breathe continuously from their first breath for the rest of their life. Why do you take your first breath? What are the mechanisms that might cause it to stumble in immature babies who don’t breathe regularly? We were in the process of testing some ideas about these questions. So I explained the work to him with my usual enthusiasm. He looked at me almost dumbfounded and said, ‘Why would you want to know that?’ And I said, ‘So we can find some ways to help babies who don’t breathe well.’ And he said, ‘Well, God will fix that.’
"His views were so different from mine. I feel that we humans have a responsibility to understand the universe because we have the mental capability and the tools to do so. It’s a requirement. But in so doing, we must remember that every step of medical progress comes with added ethical responsibilities. The more we know, the more we are required to be humble and careful about how we use our knowledge. The ethical dilemmas that accompany new knowledge and technology need to be debated and understood across the fabric of society. We cannot leave ethical decisions to politicians or even scientists alone!"
Thornburg notes that James Childress, a Quaker who is professor of Ethics and of Medical Education at University of Virginia, "has been an important, influential voice in the medical community because of his interest in developing ways to think about and teach ethics within the medical school curriculum. I’ve read his work, but I’ve never met him personally. I hope to some day."
Being in a profession that takes health seriously, and knowing that he is a "driven" person, Thornburg tries to balance his life by eating well and exercising regularly. He keeps his mind active not only with his work and research, but in reading widely, and having spirited intellectual exchanges with a variety of people. He also believes that spiritual exercise is important—understanding the Bible, praying, and wrestling with spiritual issues—whether in the shower, walking to class, in the car, over lunch, or during meetings. He cherishes his many friends of other faiths and viewpoints—agnostics as well as people of faith, including Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, and Christian fundamentalists; and he enjoys talking to them individually to hear their views of how God works in the universe.
Thornburg could talk about science, research, academia, and ethics for hours in terms anyone could understand. Yet he is far from one-dimensional. He is married to Jeanie, a sixth grade schoolteacher (who he wishes with admiration had been his sixth grade teacher!). Together, they enjoy their children, an adult daughter and son; their grandson; hiking; and just having time together. He has served on the board of George Fox University and has done a five-year stint as clerk of the board. He has loved photography for a long time, reads both junk novels and good ones, and has a deep, clever sense of humor. He says, "In truth, I see the world on a very light-hearted note."
Yes, he’s a scientist, and a Quaker.