• Annette Kim, assistant professor, urban studies and planning, left, Elliot Hui, postdoc, Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology, and Troy van Voorhis, assistant professor, chemistry, discussed faith and development.

    Photo / Stephanie Schorow

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Panel explores links among faith, academia and aid in the developing world

A forum on the links between faith and development in the Third World became a frank discussion on whether MIT students and faculty could--or should--link their faith to their careers as scientists and educators.

Students and others attending "Faith, Academia and the Developing World: Finding Linkages," held Saturday as part of the March 1-3 Veritas Forum at MIT, pressed the three presenters for answers on topics like the meaning of altruism, how to balance belief with science and even if aspects of MIT life were "evil." Others wondered if those who seek to help the poor should use their status as MIT professionals to press for policy change.

The free-wheeling discussion pleased presenters Troy Van Voorhis, assistant chemistry professor, Annette Kim, assistant professor in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, and Elliot Hui, a postdoctoral fellow in the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology, who had hoped for an informal exchange. All three also talked personally and openly about the religious faith that informs their career choices.

"God has a special concern for the poor and oppressed,'' said Van Voorhis, whose research focuses on modeling electron dynamics, but who also volunteers with Habitat for Humanity and other organizations. "If God cares about that, I care about that."

Kim said that development research should not disregard faith issues, noting that religion may be a factor in why some development programs succeed and others fail.

A community's beliefs are "key to their economic action," she said.

Hui, who got his B.S. in physics and electrical engineering at MIT and his Ph.D. in electrical engineering at the University of California at Berkeley, said he chose to forego research that focused on military applications to concentrate on biomedicine. He also sees a trend in research away from health problems of wealthy nations (like obesity) to problems of poorer nations.

"Suddenly it's really cool to do work in the developing world," he said. Maybe, he admitted, his own choice might be perceived as opportunistic; yet he wanted a career that had more of a social impact. "I think it's something you actively try to explore," he said.

One audience member had a more direct question: "Do you think there are fields of study that are at odds with your faith?"

"I asked these questions as an undergraduate," Kim said. "I think the answer is: 'It depends.'" She suggests looking at the overall "system" to see if an area is a morally acceptable choice. In school it's not immoral to study a particular field, Van Voorhis said; the question is whether once in the field, you feel you are "swimming against the stream."

The presenters were asked if they acted out of a sense of guilt over their well-off lives. "There's no way to work in international justice and have guilt continue to be your motivation," Kim noted. Asked "What is your definition of altruism and is it possible," Van Voorhis said his definition was "doing something of absolutely no benefit to you at all."

For many in the audience, the question was not whether MIT had an obligation to help developing nations, but how to help.

"It is important for people in the developed countries to actually have contact with the people they think they are helping," Hui said. Added Kim, "Instead of just thinking of technology, have an in-depth knowledge of what's happening on the ground."

That knowledge should include, the presenters insisted, a sense of the spiritual--as well as material--needs of a community.

The Veritas Forum at MIT, veritas.org, seeks to explore the practical connections among science, faith and technology. Other forums explored theological issues raised by the Human Genome project and by intelligent robots, whether science and Christianity were at odds and questions of truth-telling in the business world.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 7, 2007 (download PDF).

Topics: Humanities, Faculty, Global, Students


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