Frontlines / Christians at Work : The Scientist

Dr Kyle Matchett doesn’t want to be known just for his work as a leading researcher into Leukaemia, but also for his faith in Jesus Christ, and how that shapes his life. He told Solas’s Gavin Matthews more about his faith and his work in Molecular Immunology.

Solas: Hi Kyle – tell us a little about your job!

KM: I am a Lecturer in Molecular Immunology, and there are three main aspects to my work.

The first is research, which accounts for about 60% of my time. I did my PhD in cancer research and have done a lot of work on breast cancer. I am currently working in leukaemia research, specifically studying Acute Myeloid Leukaemia (AML) which is an especially aggressive type of the disease, mostly occurring in the elderly and children. It is not the most common childhood Leukaemia (which is Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia), but is responsible for more childhood deaths. So I have a lot of contact with childhood cancer charities, parents, and doctors seeking to treat the disease. I work closely with the children’s hospital in Dublin which is the centre for the whole of Ireland for this. Our research lab has five full-time staff and students, all doing their particular research for projects, some for PhDs. One of them is working on a drug for a different type of blood cancer, and we are looking to see if we can make it work for AML. We’re also looking to see if statins improve outcomes for patients too. We are also studying in detail the alterations in DNA which drive the disease, cataloguing them and building models to understand the disease process better. I am currently looking at a gene called NRAS, and we’re working with a Californian company to build cell models of the mutations we observe. As the leader of the research project I have responsibility for leading the research and securing funding grants to enable it to happen, so this week we managed to win a grant with Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre in New York, who are world leaders in the field. I’m also involved in the leadership of the All-Ireland Cancer Research Centre, which potentially involves around £60million of funding, which is a huge privilege and responsibility for me as someone reasonably young.

The second part of my work is teaching undergraduates. I teach on a number of modules, including a new Biochemistry module that I’ve written. I am also Course Director for two Master’s courses where the students are based in the US for one year. Then there is a pastoral role too as Study Advisor for a group of students.

The third aspect of my work is administration, of labs, staff, funds, grants, conferences, grant reviewing for UKRI, and sitting on various committees such as the All Ireland Cancer Research Council, and I get asked to speak at cancer charity events too.

Solas: So with that varied work of research, teaching and administration what gives you the most job satisfaction?

KM: I really enjoy the variety of my work, it’s important and demanding and hugely worthwhile. The research we are doing has the possibility of completely changing people’s lives. I feel called to this area of work, and to see new breakthroughs in the treatment of cancer. That’s what motivates me.

I also enjoy my working environment at the C-TRIC Research Institute at the Altnagelvin Hospital in Derry/Londonderry. There are all kinds of research projects and trials going on and the hospital is growing too. I love working with students too; it’s great when they really grasp something complex about cancer for the first time, and then ask how they could maybe do a placement in my research group. Then recently I’ve taken on more leadership and management roles and I’ve enjoyed learning how to do that well too, both caring for staff and delivering our goals. I’ve also travelled all around the world with my work – which has been really interesting. So, I really do enjoy my work!

Solas: Tell us something about the challenges you face in your job – and about how your faith in Christ helps you to navigate them.

KM: The biggest challenge these days is balancing the competing claims on my time and energy to make sure that priorities are met. Every morning my inbox is full of messages from people who want my attention; students, grant bodies, papers, results, PhD students. So prioritising what is important is a major challenge. I’d love to say that I’ve cracked that completely, but I haven’t! But one of the things that has really helped me with this is that I don’t turn on my phone in the morning and see all the messages and demands until I have done two things. One is to spend time with God, reading the Bible and praying – including asking for wisdom for day ahead, and the other is spending time with my kids.

Obviously chasing big grants is important, but so too is helping an individual student who is struggling, so I start the day, not with busyness but with trying to listen and discern. The other thing is that in the gospel of Christ there is forgiveness for all my faults too. I know, and God knows that I am not perfect, but God can help me to be faithful with the day that he gives me, and help me to use it well, to achieve a lot and show people love too. I believe God wants me to be a good husband and dad, all of which require investments of time and energy as well.

Tithing has been important for me too. I don’t just mean giving money to the church. I’ve been tithing my time recently too. So, God gets the first part of my day, as I’ve said. But typically I clear my schedule on the first day of every month to pray and sometimes pray and fast too. I am nothing without God, and won’t achieve anything unless God is in it, so I give that time to Him. I pray for the people I work with, and the people I am responsible for too.

Solas: You refer to your work as a calling from God, not just a career choice. Tell us more!

KM: Well initially I wanted to be a teacher and started at teacher training college. But then when I got there I realised it wasn’t’ for me and left. Soon after that I became a Christian, and then went back to university to study Biology. In my final year, I hoped to do a project around sports – but my grades weren’t great and so I didn’t get my first choice. Instead I was allotted a project on bladder cancer research. So I went to do the project rather reluctantly. However, I remember one day in the first week or so there, coming down to my office and it was like my soul was on fire and there was a deep calling – I just loved what I was doing, and knew that this is what I would do for the rest of my life. It was something I don’t think I chose, but was more of a calling. So although I do enjoy my work, it’s not why I do it. It’s more that here is something that God has placed in my hands, and given me the responsibility to do. I genuinely believe that when I die I will give an account of my life to God about what I have done with the talents he has given me. I been very blessed by Him in this work. He’s been very good to me in it. I’ve been awarded over £700,000 of research funding over the last two years, and that is both a blessing from God – and a big responsibility too.  Then I’ve won my faculty and University research prizes this year, then two all-Ireland awards. God is using me in this area of work that He’s called me into. Academically I’m good – but I’m not brilliant, so I’m an ideal person for God to use and show what can be done when we commit ourselves to Him.

Solas: So people at work know you are a Christian, how do they respond to that? Have you had opportunities to share anything of your faith there?

KM: Yes – people are aware that I have a faith, or at least that I go to church! However, a lot of people don’t really know what ‘being a Christian’ actually means. Most people smile and say ‘that’s good’, some ask the odd question such as ‘what church do you go to?’ Some people question why as I scientist I have faith – assuming that two are opposed to each other, and I enjoy talking about that.

I think that as Christians we don’t have to dominate the conversation and control the narrative; it’s so important to listen to people to find out what they believe and why – even if they think what I believe is nonsense. Listening disarms conversations and also reveals people’s hearts and minds. Why they believe what they do is so significant too.

A lot of people are disinterested in my faith, some oppose it, but a few are actively interested in it and that’s where I have had some really good conversations with people at work. A lot of people have had experiences of church or Christians – not all of which have been good experiences, that they want to discuss.

The gospel of Jesus is one of grace – so it’s not that I have to report back to God with an excel sheet, with every person ticked off when they hear about my faith! We’re not called to live like that – but to love our neighbours and speak for God  where he gives us opportunities. I was much quieter about my faith when I first started out. However having been relatively successful when still quite young, people are interested in me. There have been natural conversations, such as opportunities to speak about grace, faith and hope after a recent family bereavement too.

There have also been more planned opportunities as well. When I was asked to speak at my old school’s prize-giving, I agreed to do so. However, I told the school that I’d speak not only about science and cancer research – but also my faith. I told them despite all the various accolades I’ve had; the best decision I ever made was to give my life to Jesus. I was able to tell my story of faith and being led into my career. I said perhaps only three or four sentences about that but that was what people wanted to talk to me about afterwards!

Solas: Why do you want to share Jesus with people?

KM: I find the life of Jesus absolutely captivating – it’s really out of a love for Him. Jesus had the right to be worshipped, but when he came he was an absolute servant. That struck me again last night reading a kids picture Bible storybook with my son. We got to the Garden of Gethsemane and the crucifixion. Jesus loves us so much that he was willing to be mocked, humiliated and suffer for us. The gospel has changed my life, and changed my heart, it’s been incredible and I love talking about that. I want people to be able to experience that and know the freedom of the unconditional love of God the Father. Being a Christian is not about performance, it’s about being loved by God as a son! People today are under so many pressures, and in Matthew 11, Jesus says, “come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest” – such an important message for modern life.

Solas: So what advice would you give to a young Christian, entering your field of work – who wants to remains faithful to Christ there?

KM: I’d say identify in your life what is non-negotiable and build all your priorities around those things. You think when you start your career that your life is busy, but it gets busier! For me, prayer and Bible study in the morning before work are non-negotiables. Secondly identify someone who will be a really good mentor for you – someone in a similar professional environment to yourself, managing similar challenges. Thirdly, read leadership books and study for professional development in that area. Then finally don’t neglect prayer and solitude in the middle of an exceptionally busy life. If you really desire to make a difference in this world, then I think this is an important starting point. You can see this in the life of Jesus where he would retreat into the desert. I’m concerned that people thrown into the workplace are bombarded with responsibilities they haven’t been trained to deal with. That shows up professionally, but also spiritually because too many young Christians haven’t experienced good mentoring or discipleship. “Your character should never be playing catch-up with your calling” is a quote that challenges me deeply. Working in science, law, politics, building, teaching – are all callings from God –all of which come at a cost if you do it in a Christlike way, and that is our calling.

Solas: Thanks Kyle – really helpful!

KM: Thanks Gavin