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Sisters, Science, and Salvation

by Georgeann Halburian Ikuma

Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men.” Sisters Mercy Prabhu Das ’82, Ph.D. (photo, left), a program
officer for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, and Irene Prabhu Das ’86, Ph.D., M.P.H. (photo, right), an NIH health scientist, exemplify the power of a balanced approach that unites the efforts of science and theology and increases the impact of both.

Their mother, a high school biology teacher, and father, a Methodist minister, fostered their daughters’ love for the sciences and commitment to Christ. “Our dad would say, ‘We may not have houses or land or money to leave you, but
we give you Jesus, and He is all you need,’” said Irene.

The family’s unwavering faith led them from their native India when Mercy was 4 and Irene just 1 to Malaysia, where their father pastored an Indian church. Raised in both Malaysia and Singapore, and surrounded by the more culturally dominant religions of Buddhism, Islam, and Hinduism, the young girls remained steadfast in their faith in Christ. “Our parents emphasized the importance of trusting and serving Jesus above all else,” said Irene.

In Singapore, the girls received a highly advanced education that prepared them for the rigors of college life. Although the sisters had never been
 to the United States, when Mercy investigated colleges, one option stood out among the rest—Azusa Pacific University, where Irene joined her
 four years later.

“The accessibility of professors motivated me as a student new in the United States,” said Mercy. “Generally, teachers in the Asian cultures did not encourage students to ask questions.” Both girls praise late APU biology professor David Cherney, Ph.D., for his openness and support that inspired a way of learning that contributed
to success in their graduate studies. Cherney took a personal interest in his students, which created a stimulating atmosphere and a desire to learn.

After graduation, the sisters’ paths diverged as each set out to earn doctoral degrees, garner prestigious awards, 
and author numerous papers in their respective fields. Their familial bond, faith in God, and chosen careers in science and public health, reunited them six years ago at the NIH, one of the world’s foremost medical research centers and the primary U.S. government agency responsible for biomedical and health-related research.

Managing a portfolio of grants linked to the study of basic immunology for the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, 
Mercy deals with increasing funding constraints for critical scientific research due to the current budget crisis. “Three to four million children die from vaccine-preventable infections each year, and it’s important to know how their immune systems develop and respond to infections and vaccines
so that appropriate therapies can be administered,” said Mercy, who cautions that people do not really understand the development of the infant immune system or the importance of vaccinations.

Another area of focus includes
 the influence of the aging process on immune function in the elderly and why infectious diseases in this age group increasingly lead to morbidity, disability, and mortality. “The number of people in the world age 60 and older is expected to increase to nearly 1 billion by 2020,” said Mercy, explaining that the ability 
of the immune system to correct cell defects declines with age, resulting 
in different types of cancers and
 other chronic diseases. “Obtaining
 an understanding of the immune response in the elderly may lead to new treatments, allowing people to maintain their immune function as they age.”

As a health scientist at the National Cancer Institute (NCI), within the NIH’s Division of Cancer Control
 and Population Sciences, Irene seeks to understand the organization of health care delivery to improve the quality of care to cancer patients. Specifically, she leads the evaluation of the NCI Community Cancer Centers Program, an initiative engaging community oncologists and hospitals to bring state-of-the-art and evidence-based cancer care into community settings where patients reside. “Prior to this program, cancer patients had limited options for quality cancer care and potentially ones far away from where they lived,” said Irene. “Making evidence-based cancer care more accessible and available within these targeted communities provides options for better, equitable care.”

The sisters call upon their education, experience, and faith to break down barriers and bring healing with the intent of fulfilling God’s calling on their lives. “I am a very small piece in the larger puzzle of improving human health,” said Mercy. “My responsibility is to do everything that is placed into my hands to the best of my ability as an offering to God, no matter how small or insignificant.”

Irene mirrors her sister’s sentiments. “The Lord is my Boss, and He sets the standard of excellence for my work. My purpose where He’s placed me is to be His witness,” she said. “We aspire to live by Colossians 3:23: ‘Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters’ [NIV].”

Georgeann Halburian Ikuma is a freelance writer living in the San Francisco Bay area. ghikuma@yahoo.com

"I am a very small piece in the larger puzzle of improving human health."
- Mercy Prabhu Das '82

Originally published in the Summer '13 issue of APU Life. Download the full issue (PDF).