Conservation Geneticist, Author, Full-time Mother
Tell us about your educational and professional background.
By the time I was in fifth grade, I knew I wanted to be a biologist. I asked for a microscope for Christmas and spent hours in my bedroom “lab” observing and drawing the microscopic structures of onion cells, honey bee wings, and water fleas. Then, in eighth grade, I fell madly in love with genetics. Accordingly, when I attended BYU, I majored in both Molecular Biology and Conservation Biology, and I later received an M.S. in Wildlife Resources from the University of Idaho. Between degrees, I worked for several years at Myriad Genetics in Salt Lake City, first as part of their diagnostics team and later in their gene discovery research group. I also was fortunate to be able to teach at The Waterford School, a private liberal arts school in Sandy, Utah, for one year.
For my graduate work, I pursued my long-term goal of using genetics to address important questions in wildlife conservation. Following my master’s degree, I worked for another year in conservation genetics before the birth of my first child, at which time I became a full-time mother. While raising my three children (and, alas, not being able to set up a genetics lab in my basement), I have shifted my focus to researching and writing about the science-religion interface, including religion and conservation. I was pleased to be able to contribute to the book Stewardship and the Creation: LDS Perspectives on the Environment, as well as to serve as a board member for the Religion and Conservation Biology working group of the Society for Conservation Biology. As part of my effort to promote positive relations between science and religion, I have written a novel, Emergence: A Journey of Friendship, Science, and Faith (available at alissemetge.com), and I have a blog about science and religion at faithscienceharmony.blogspot.com.
How did you become interested in studying conservation biology?
The short answer is: parents and teachers.
First, my inborn love for the natural world was encouraged by my parents. One of my earliest memories is of my father helping me identify the call of a chickadee, as we sat together in a quiet wooded spot when I was three years old. My family spent time together camping, planting our garden, and enjoying the outdoors. I remember seeing my mother weep at the beauty of the trees as we drove up Provo Canyon for Family Home Evening to observe the autumn colors. I also recall the time she heard on the news of the need for small sweaters to be put on penguins that had been caught in an oil spill, to keep them from ingesting oil as they preened. She sat right down and knitted a penguin sweater and mailed it off. How could I not end up with a love for nature, with parents like that? Additionally, my testimony of the Creator developed early in childhood, as I observed the beauties of nature and felt the presence of God in his creations.
Second, I was blessed to have wonderful teachers, particularly during my middle school years, whose enthusiasm for biology further fueled my own. I still remember the absolute awe I felt when I first grasped the cellular process of transcription and translation, as my teacher diagramed them on the board with brightly-colored chalk, and the joy of identifying a new bird, as that same teacher took us on field trips. As I moved into high school and became more aware of biodiversity loss and the plight of endangered species, I plastered my bedroom walls with pictures of African animals and dreamed of becoming the next Jane Goodall. I burned with a desire to save the cheetahs, halt habitat destruction, and help relieve the suffering of impoverished peoples most affected by ecological damage. As I took my first Conservation Biology class at BYU, even as I sometimes came home from class crying about the environmental problems I was learning about, I also felt the thrill of discovering that Conservation Biology was the field that could encompass all the things I wanted to do, from genetics to poverty relief. Throughout my undergraduate and graduate studies, I continued to encounter exceptional teachers whose passion for conserving the natural world was infectious.
Now, during this season of my life, I am grateful that a love for God’s creations and a sense of stewardship is so naturally and easily passed to my children as my husband and I spend time with them, as my parents and teachers did with me, appreciating nature. Imagine my gratification when I found some lady bug pupae on our back patio carefully circled with chalk and a message left by my young daughter: “Kerfl” (careful). My passion has come full circle.
Do you feel like there is a conflict between how conservation biologists and church members view our relationship with the earth?
There is no fundamental conflict between the idea of conservation, or careful and prudent use of the earth’s resources in a manner that minimizes waste and ensures continuity into the future, and the LDS view of stewardship. If anything, stewardship encompasses conservation but goes much deeper, giving us an eternal perspective on the purposes of the earth, a sense of gratitude and accountability to the loving Father who lends us his creation, the hope of a renewed and redeemed creation when the earth has run its course, and a promise to the faithful of an inheritance within it.
Unfortunately, the ways in which conservation has been politicized over the decades has alienated some Church members. Additionally, while many environmentally-friendly practices are in great harmony with Church teachings about prudent resource use, other conservationists have proposed solutions (e.g. human population control) which do not square with LDS doctrine. Consequently, whether because of ideology or frustrating experience with specific land use issues, some members of the Church have rejected the environmental movement as a whole. It is unfortunate that sometimes the baby has been thrown out with the bathwater, but I believe this can be rectified if we will continue to teach diligently the LDS doctrines related to the earth and stewardship.
While scientists and people of faith may approach the natural world from very different frames of reference, I believe there is great hope and opportunity to be found in the values shared by both groups. Conservation Biology is the marriage of a science (biology) and a value system (conservation). At the core of that value system is something that can resonate with LDS people, namely, an appreciation for the natural world and a desire to help it flourish, along with a sense of responsibility to present and future generations. A love and respect for nature and a responsibility to our fellowmen are things that should come naturally to LDS people, as we love and respect the Creator.
What is a message you would want Church members to hear about stewardship for the earth?
I want to share my testimony of the reality of God and that he, through his Son, created this glorious earth, full of the living souls of plants and animals, the water and soil, things “to please the eye and to gladden the heart,” and all things necessary for the functioning and perpetuation of a beautiful home that sustains and enlivens our bodies and spirits (see D&C 59:16-20). When I contemplate the greatness of his Creation, and the great love he has shown in entrusting us with its care, I am in awe. “I cannot say the smallest part which I feel (Alma 26:16).” Any thought that I would selfishly abuse or willfully destroy his creations becomes unthinkable to me. Yet I know that in order to sustain my own life, other life on this earth must daily be sacrificed for me, and that, amazingly, God provided these things for that very purpose. In this way, the earth and its creatures have become for me very tangible symbols of the atonement, and I feel to treat them as sacred.
I think if each of us will study and comprehend in our hearts the rich doctrines related to the earth and our stewardship in it, we will develop deep reverence and gratitude for the Lord’s handiwork and strive to become the careful stewards he expects us to be. I am so grateful to have these truths, to feel them in the depths of my soul, and to know that a merciful Father will look with patience on my imperfect efforts to honor them.
This is the twelfth of a series of profiles of Church members that exemplify stewardship in some aspect of their lives. We hope to show the diverse and wonderful ways that Church members show respect and wise use of the earth’s resources. If you would like to suggest someone to highlight in the future, let us know!