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Notre Dame honors Brown cell biologist with Laetare Medal

| Friday, May 16, 2014

Dr. Kenneth Miller, a professor of biology at Brown University, will join the prestigious lineage of Laetare Medal winners at Notre Dame’s 169th Commencement ceremony Sunday. dr_kenneth_miller_300

Miller, who works as a cell biologist with a research focus on “the structure and function of biological membranes and membrane proteins,” said he was humbled to receive the award, which has honored American Catholics since 1883. He joins the company of past winners that include actor Martin Sheen, Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement Dorothy Day and President John F. Kennedy.

“When you look at the list of people who have received this award … there are very few scientists on that list,” Miller said. “Most of the people on that list are national political figures, individuals who have been involved in social action … and when I initially got a phone call from one of the deans at Notre Dame, I … just couldn’t believe it. I still pinch myself.”

Miller said in thinking about what he will say in his acceptance speech at the commencement ceremony, he continuously returned to the idea of humility. 

“The one line I keep coming to again and again is a line from the old Latin Mass: ‘Domine non sum dignus,’ … ‘Lord I am not worthy,’” he said. 

Though Miller’s primary research concentration has led him to explore the structure of chloroplasts in plant cells and the connections between plant cells, he said he has also worked in evolutionary biology, specifically in defense of evolution from a religious perspective. He said this aspect of his career began in 1981, when he was challenged to debate against a “scientific creationist” in his first year as a professor at Brown. 

“As I did research on [creationist] points of view, there are two things that motivated me,” he said. “The first one was the number of distortions and outright falsehoods that these critics were saying about biology and about science in general, and as a scientist that really bothered me. 

“And then the second thing that really bothered me was their contention that science itself … [was] inherently anti-religious and that evolution was anti-Christian and that any person who wanted to remain true to the Christian faith had to reject evolution. I was raised a Catholic and I am a practicing Catholic, and I think Catholics are Christians, and I was very insulted by that, and that motivated me quite strongly.”

Miller said his positions on evolution are evident in the textbook he and former student Joseph Levine wrote together, entitled “Biology.” Originally published in 1990, the book and its subsequent editions have become “the most widely-used biology textbook in high schools all across the United States,” Miller said.

“Our book has a very strong treatment of evolution,” he said. “I would argue that it’s the best one available at the high school level, and that has made our book the target of critics of evolution.”

Miller’s defense of evolution also drew him to testify in several federal court cases regarding the teaching of evolution and creationism in public schools, including the highly-publicized Kitzmiller v. Dover case that banned the teaching of intelligent design in public schools. 

Miller said his attitude through the trials and his career has been that religion and science are not irreconcilable. 

“Throughout this, what I have maintained is that evolution is not inherently anti-religious, that one can indeed be a person of faith and defend evolution, and I’ve tried to do this from a very general point of view, but of course I have also done it specifically from a Catholic point of view, as well,” he said. 

Miller said he typically teaches two classes per year at Brown, an upper-level cell biology course in the fall and an introductory biology course of 300 to 400 students in the spring. After 34 years at Brown, Miller estimated he has taught over 15,000 students, some of whom have continued to esteemed careers in science. In 2006, one of Miller’s former students, Dr. Craig Mello, shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of RNA interference.  

Andrew Varone, a 2012 Brown graduate and current first-year medical student at Brown Medical School, took Miller’s introductory class and worked as a teaching assistant for Miller. He said Miller did not bring his religious beliefs into the classroom, but was always open to discuss his views outside of class.

“In the lecture hall, it is not his job to be commenting on religion or his own personal beliefs but rather teaching scientific facts supported by data,” Varone said. “Outside of class, he was very approachable and always willing to discuss and explain his own beliefs and exchange ideas.”

Varone said Miller’s books on evolution, including “Finding Darwin’s God” and “Only a Theory,” carry a message of the compatibility of religion and science.

“In his books, the main message he is trying to convey is that evolution and the existence of a higher power are not mutually exclusive at this point in our existence,” Varone said. “… To have someone step forward in his position in the scientific community and come out with this message and say that he is a devout Catholic is remarkable, and it seems fit that he is being honored with this prestigious award.”

Miller said he ultimately hopes his work has led to a greater appreciation of science and a realization that science and faith can complement one other.

“What I hope I’ve done throughout my life, because I’ve been a researcher and a teacher and a writer, is to spread an appreciation and an affection and an embrace of science and for science among my students and among those that I worked with, and certainly among the people who’ve read my books,” he said. 

“To the extent possible, I think I’ve also worked to try to fit the scientific view of life into my faith in a way that makes it very clear that science and faith are not opposites … that religious faith can inform and can validate the practice of science,” he said. “If I’ve done that well, then I’m very grateful for all the people who have helped me to do it.”

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About Jack Rooney

Jack is a 2016 graduate of Notre Dame, and The Observer's former managing editor. He is currently spending a year living and working for the University in Ireland, and writing columns to keep him busy. For more random thoughts and plenty of news links, follow Jack on Twitter @RooneyReports.

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