My Journey as an LDS Scholar
Physiology and Developmental Biology
Jeff Barrow, Associate Professor of developmental biology at BYU, shares key moments from his journey as an LDS scholar.
Questions about evolution and religion
You know, even though my dad was a scientist, we never really talked about evolution in my home, and I didn’t really know how to form an opinion.
When I was on my mission, there were several tapes that would float around the missionary apartments, and one was from Bruce R. McConkie: ‘The Seven Deadly Heresies,’ where, basically, he spelled out that evolution was against—or at least I felt—the doctrines of the Church. So I felt that coming to BYU, my professors would probably feel the same way. I just assumed that that was Church doctrine. And so when my professors started to talk about evolution as though, you know—they very matter-of-factly talked about it—I had no other choice than to think that my professors were out on the fringe of the Church, and it really troubled me.
Fortunately, I had the opportunity to work in the lab of Scott Woodward (he’s no longer here). One Sunday night, there was a CES fireside where an Apostle had basically, again, kind of told why evolution really is against the doctrines of the Church. So I was troubled about that, and my professor brought it up the next day and opened up our conversation. And then I just kind of let it all out: ‘I’m really struggling with this; I don’t know what to think.’ He took me into his office, and he opened up the scriptures. He talked to me about the temple, you know, as best you can outside of the temple. And then he showed me some documents where the Church has no official stance on evolution.
I remember just being so relieved, and I could see that he was a spiritual guy—he had the Holy Ghost with him as he went over all the doctrines of the Church and how the two didn’t have to be incompatible. I hate to think what might have happened had I left BYU with this difficult idea in my mind that I had to make a choice, either between the Church or evolution. I’m just really grateful—I mean, of course I’d had many spiritual experiences; I knew that God lived—but I’m thankful that he showed his spiritual side and opened up the scriptures and showed his spiritual side.
Seeing his professors’ spiritual side
I was taking a genetics class, and Ralph Andersen—who’s no longer living—was my professor. He got up and he started teaching, and was kind of stammering around—was having a real difficulty with his lecture. Then he just stopped, and he said, ‘Can we sing a hymn together?’ And we’re just thinking, ‘This is a science class, but yeah.” We stood up and he led us in ‘Come Ye Children of the Lord.’ Then as we sat down—you know, and it brought the Spirit into the room—when we sat down, he said, ‘Thanks, I really needed that.’ Then he proceeded to give his lecture. But reflecting on that, I really needed that too. I needed to see that my professor wasn’t some professor out on the fringe but was a deeply spiritual person and had that side to him.
Becoming a professor at BYU
Since you asked why—or how—I came to BYU, I was just getting ready to send my applications off. I was actually a primary teacher in my ward, and the bishop asked that all the primary teachers take a teacher development class. In the first class, the teacher said, ‘I want you do think back on a teacher that’s really influenced you.’ I started thinking about a professor that I had at BYU. I thought, ‘I really should just tell him how much he’s influenced me.’
So I sent him an email outlining a few things that he had done that really changed my life. He emailed back and said, ‘Thank you very much; that means a lot. You know, we teach a lot of kids and you wonder if you’re ever getting through with those sorts of things.’ And he said, ‘You know, we have a job search going on, and I just want to invite you to apply.’ I thought, ‘Well, I’m applying for jobs right now; maybe this would be a good opportunity,’ but still not really thinking of coming to BYU, because I really loved research.
I came out to BYU for an interview, and I met with Kent Crookston, who is the dean of our college. I should mention that prior to this point I’d been in school for a long time. It was really hard on my wife and on my kids, and there were plenty of times where I just—mainly due to the encouragement of my wife—started looking for other things to do. But every time I did, it was like something would bring me back.
When I was meeting with Kent Crookston, he started telling me about a talk that President Eyring—who was then Elder Eyring—had given about his vision of BYU. I can’t even really remember what President Eyring’s vision of BYU really was; all I can tell you was that I was so overcome by the Holy Ghost that I felt like this is where—that the Lord had been preparing me to come here. So that was, I guess, why I came here.
We actually came to two interviews—two different departments. The second time we came out—had the same interview with Kent Crookston—and this time my wife was with me, and this time she was totally overcome with the Holy Ghost. So we felt like that was the Lord telling us that this is where we should be—and I’ve never regretted coming here. It’s just been a great opportunity.
Integrating spiritual and secular knowledge
I think it’s possible to interpret Brigham Young’s statement that ‘don’t teach the alphabet without the spirit of God’—the first time I heard that statement I felt like somehow I needed to be squeezing gospel principles into everything that I’m teaching. But I don’t think that that’s exactly what he meant. I think that it’s possible to teach secular subjects while having the Holy Ghost in you. I don’t see much of a difference teaching a Sunday School lesson versus teaching a lesson in developmental biology. I feel like I can receive inspiration on how to teach something just like I would teaching the Restoration to twelve-year-olds—I mean, I have to teach that differently than maybe I would to a Gospel Doctrine class.
I feel like I have received inspiration on how to teach certain principles. Even when I’m up on my feet, something might come to me. So, I feel like teaching secular subjects can be done with the Holy Ghost.
President Eyring said that he once saw his father give a seminar on kinetics in chemistry, and as he was listening to his father, he said, ‘My dad’s bearing his testimony.’ He talked to his dad afterwards–he said, ‘You were bearing your testimony.’ His dad said, ‘You know, I guess I was.’ But I’m positive he wasn’t saying, ‘I know that the Lord lives or that the gospel has been restored or that President so-and-so is a prophet of the Church.’ I’m sure that he just had the Holy Ghost with him as he was talking about his scientific principles. So, that’s kind of the way I approach it.
Sharing testimony with students
I have two or three lectures on evolutionary development biology. When you think about the different forms on our planet, most of these changes occur during embryonic development. What are the sorts of the changes that have occurred?
Before giving that lecture, I tell them my story that I essentially just told you—that I really felt like my professors were out on the fringe and that they weren’t spiritual people. I just tell them, ‘In the event that you might think that I’m one of those professors out on the edge, I want to bear you my testimony that I know that God lives. And that I don’t necessarily feel that the principles of evolution and God are two separate thing—that we don’t have to make a choice; that they can be compatible. So if any of you are struggling, I’d be happy to talk with you about this. Occasionally, I do get people that come and talk to me. More often I receive an email: ‘Thank you for sharing your testimony with us today. I needed to hear that.'
Praying in the classroom
Another thing—that was really a suggestion from my wife—was that I start every class with prayer. I remember thinking, ‘Well, I never prayed in my classes—my science classes—when I was at BYU. I wonder what my students will think about that.’ That has been the biggest piece of inspiration, I think, for my wife. My students always pray for me, that I’ll give a lecture that they’ll understand. [smiles] I never know quite how to take that, you know—like maybe I’m not making any sense. But I’ve decided not to be offended by that, but that they’re really praying for me that I’ll be able to give a lecture that they’ll be able to understand.
So they pray for me. They pray for themselves that they’ll also understand. I think it just starts the class on a great note. And now I feel very uncomfortable if I ever start anything without prayer. I feel like that’s just been a great experience.
It also gives me the opportunity to pray in front of my students—I take my turn along with them. I have seen student comments that ‘You know, I really like to hear him pray for our class.'
Showing love to students
Our students somehow have to understand that we love them. If that doesn’t come through, I just feel like a lot of the things that I want to happen aren’t going to happen. So, I think every professor has to probably come up with their own way on how they’re going to do that.
What I do—one of the things I do—is that I learn every student’s name before the first day of class. Of course, I feel like for the Socratic Method, that is just absolutely essential. If they know that you know their name, it goes so much more differently than if I were just pointing to him or to her.
There’s something just kind of magical that happens when students know that you’ve taken some time to learn their name. All of a sudden they feel a sense of belonging. Instead of being a little shadow out in the sidelight that just shows up every day, they know that I know who they are.
Purpose of showing love to students
[Laughs] I think it is test scores, and I think it is something else. I’ve had several students that have written and have said, ‘I usually just come to class and just kind of sit there and then I leave, and I might daydream or whatever—but because I knew that you knew my name, I knew that I needed to be prepared. I knew that you might call on me; I knew that I existed in your frame of mind; I knew that I needed to be prepared.’
I think that you’re also more approachable to come and get help. I definitely feel like because they like coming to class, and because they sense the love that I have for them and the subject that I’m teaching, that it does help.
I think it helps in so many other ways too. You never know what these students are encountering in their lives. Again, this is something that Kent Crookston taught me: always look out for those—in every class there are students that have struggles—and you never know exactly what background these students came from; what kind of support system that they have.
I think that showing them that kind of love helps those kinds of students to succeed, whereas, they might not have otherwise.”