Working in Small Infinities

Recent graduates Quinlan Morrow and Brittany Smith seek and serve God in the microscopic territory of human cancer cells

Quinlan Morrow, who works as a research assistant in the Knight Cancer Institute’s Tyner Lab, plans to attend medical school in the near future and is considering the field of pediatric oncology.

Recent graduates Quinlan Morrow and Brittany Smith seek and serve God in the microscopic territory of human cancer cells

By Kimberly Felton

It hasn’t gotten old. Not yet.

Every day is different. Same goal, different virus. Always hope.

And if she tires, if she begins to forget why, Quinlan Morrow (G19) remembers when she steps onto the tram at Oregon Health & Science University. Because as she rides, it isn’t the grand vista of God’s work – the Willamette River and a snowy Mt. Hood rising in the distance – nor the work of man evidenced in the sleek buildings below that reminds her. It’s what she sees in the faces of patients wheeled into the tram with her. She sees weariness reflected there, sometimes hope, always God. In their faces she sees evidence of the Creator, and this reminds her.

“These are people with lives and families,” Morrow says. “I eventually work with the blood of those patients. It’s a reminder that there’s a bigger purpose. We’re here to love them, however we can, through creating drugs to help save their lives.”

Mad Scientist at Work

Morrow, who graduated with a biology degree, has plans to attend medical school. First, she’s taking a year or two to work as a research assistant in the Knight Cancer Institute’s Tyner Lab at OHSU, fighting leukemia every day.

“There’s not really an average day in the lab. Every day is different,” Morrow says. “A lot of the protocols you do are the same, but what happens with them is different each time. In science, nothing works correctly, so mistakes happen a lot. Troubleshooting in science is actually really fun.”

Research in the Tyner Lab identifies how leukemia cells develop resistance to drugs. “One of the things I do a lot in the lab is make viruses,” she says. “I feel like a mad scientist.”

Morrow uses viruses to create mutations that knock out specific genes and cause drug resistance. Every time they figure out which mutations occur and resist leukemia drugs, they move a step closer to discovering drug combinations that prevent resistance – and they prolong or save lives.

Far from being a mad scientist, Morrow remembers losing both grandmas to cancer when she was a little girl, and seeing what that did to her parents. “Then in high school, my step-grandma died of cancer,” she says. “That time I was old enough to really remember her and watch the process of cancer. It’s a terrible, terrible thing to see.”

God in the Microscopic

Recent graduates Quinlan Morrow and Brittany Smith seek and serve God in the microscopic territory of human cancer cells

Brittany Smith is a research assistant in the Druker Lab at the Knight Cancer Institute. The author of two published papers, she hopes to someday become a surgical oncologist.

Fellow George Fox alumna Brittany (Curtiss) Smith (G19) is a research assistant in the Druker Lab at the Knight Cancer Institute, close to the Tyner Lab in vicinity as well as purpose: fighting leukemia. She didn’t always plan to work in cancer research. During school, Smith researched neurodevelopment. “I found that fascinating,” she says, “but it wasn’t directly helping people.”

Then George Fox biology professor John Schmitt connected Smith with doctors at the Druker Lab. “I realized it’s really exciting being in a field where there’s so much innovation, so much happening and a real push to make discoveries to help treat people – to not just stand by and say we have some treatments that work, but really try to improve things,” Smith says. “I wasn’t expecting to be in cancer research, but I am here now and I really enjoy it.”

Schmitt’s breast cancer research at George Fox set the foundation for Morrow’s approach to science. “John has three main goals for working in his lab,” she says. “The first one is to make discoveries about God’s creation. The second is to make advances for human healthcare. And the third is to discover about yourself.

“I definitely did all three of those things working in his lab, and I discovered I really like raw science. I love molecular biology. I think it’s so amazing to see how God works in these small infinities that are cells.”

Every cell, Morrow explains, contains the complete human genome (over 3 billion base pairs). Each cell chooses which genes to express, creating different types of cells and sometimes causing diseases. “Cellular pathways and intercellular signaling is so complex that the more we learn, the more questions scientists have,” she says. “Cells are a vast, albeit microscopic, territory of discovery.” For Morrow, there’s no better reflection of God.

Smith couldn’t agree more. “I’m in wonder of God’s creation,” she says. “That’s a big reason why I wanted to go into research and science – because I’m so fascinated by the intricacy and detail that we are created with and the endless mysteries. Even when we think we have something figured out, 10 years later, they’re like, ‘Oh, that’s not how it works.’ I don’t always understand, but it speaks to the mystery and the magnitude of God’s person.”

A Christian, a Scientist

Morrow has always known – from when she was too young to understand the battle, but old enough to absorb the pain of loss – that she would grow up to fight cancer. She is considering pediatric oncology.

Smith is now an established author, with data she collected used in two published papers. She plans to submit her own project for review later this year; all of the papers relate specifically to battling leukemia.

Yet while Smith is fully engaged in research, she is interested in becoming a surgical oncologist. “I’m fascinated with surgery, and I like the physical aspect of being able to bring healing to people,” she says. “And not just giving them drugs, but being able to physically go in and remove something.”

Morrow and Smith know they’re an anomaly: scientists who believe in God.

“A coworker asked me how I can be a Christian and a scientist,” Morrow says. “It was kind of fun to be able to answer that with training from my science professors at Fox, who are very open about their faith in class and talk about what they believe about subjects like evolution.

“By studying creation, you’re ultimately studying the creator of that thing. And so science is a really beautiful way to get insight into God, to look at the things he made, and from understanding those, understanding God better. So, at a basic level, my faith connects with my cancer research. By studying these cancer cells and learning how cells work and how signaling works inside of cells, I’m learning about God.”

With faith as their shared baseline, Smith and Morrow meet every Monday morning before researchers fill the lab, to talk, pray, support and encourage each other.

“As a person in the sciences, it’s really easy to forget everything else and not really think about anything other than getting your work done,” Morrow says. “It gets very competitive, especially among premeds. At Fox I was continually reminded not to do that, and to look around. You’re in a field of study because you feel called to do it. And so your goal and the ultimate purpose of what you’re doing isn’t for yourself. It’s for God. It’s not a competition; it’s supporting each other for one common goal, and that’s to see the glory of God on earth.”

Visit georgefox.edu/ohsu to see Morrow at work in the lab.