December 20, 2020

A Scientist After God’s Own Heart

David Burt’s energy is infectious. As he speaks, a smile breaks across his face. Eyes twinkling, he employs his arms, grappling with the words he would like to impart. “So, you say you don’t know anything about me? I was born in the U.K. 

“My parents were from Montserrat and Saint Kitts, part of the Windrush generation who arrived in England from the Caribbean in the 1950s. My mother is an Adventist, and as they say, I was born in the church, the eldest of five children, four boys and one girl.”

No Potential

“I vividly remember the time when one of my high school teachers said to my parents, ‘Mr. and Mrs. Burt, your son will not become anything in life.’ ”

David was one of only two Black students in his school of 400 boys.

“I guess the teacher didn’t see any potential in me,” David continues. “I was an average student and was more interested in sports than anything else.” 

Although hard working, David’s parents had no academic or professional training; however, they understood the importance of education and encouraged David and his siblings to take advantage of its opportunities.

Despite his teacher’s assessment, David made it to the sixth form in high school, where he took the university entrance exams. The path was not a smooth one.

“I failed my math exams twice,” David admits, “but I was determined and eventually passed. Being interested in science, I pursued biochemistry at university but had no great aspirations for myself. I’d read about famous scientists and thought you needed to be special to achieve what they had.”

More Than I Asked or Expected

“While at university, I undertook a successful research project and began to realize, ‘Hey, I can do this!’ Looking back, it seems that God was giving me challenges at every stage of my schooling that appeared difficult at first sight, but with His help, I was able to meet every obstacle.

“I remember the university scheduled one critical exam on a [Saturday] Sabbath and refused to change my exam date. Fortunately, a professor in the arts faculty of this secular university was a Seventh-day Adventist who volunteered and was permitted to invigilate the exam for me on Friday [a day before the official exam date]. Once I was through, he and his wife whisked me away to their home, where I was quarantined until Saturday evening so that I had no contact with other students [who had yet to write the same exam].

“Well, that was the worst exam I ever took,” David continues. “I said, ‘God, what’s going on? I’ve stood up for you, I’ve kept the Sabbath.’ How could you do this to me? But later in my third and final year, I received one of the highest grades in that graduating class. It taught me that God doesn’t always give you a straight course to where you want to go. His path can take many twists and turns.

“After my Bachelor of Sciences, I applied to the University of Birmingham to do a Master of Science in immunology. The school responded by asking me if I wanted to do a PhD!” 

There is a heavy pause. Then, breaking the silence, Burt laughs as he recalls, “I said, ‘Lord, I just wanted to do my master’s!’ I went straight into the PhD program and completed it. And this has been the pattern throughout my life. God seems to give me more than I ask, and even more than I expect.”

Research to Save Lives

Following a few years of academic research studying how the influenza virus evades recognition by the immune system, David wanted to apply his experience to developing life-saving vaccines. This desire led to a research scientist position with a vaccine company in Toronto. But moving to Canada was not easy.

“Ahead of me was a great career opportunity, but for Paulette, my wife, it meant putting her work in scientific publishing and her pursuit of a degree in political science on hold,” Burt says. “However, she fully supported our move to Canada for my opportunity at the expense of delaying her own. Still, thankfully, she was able to transfer her credits to York University, where she later graduated. Eight years passed, and while in Toronto, I received an offer in Montreal as vice-president of research for a new company.”

Burt seems at a loss at this point, struggling to put into words what he felt that day. “For me, this was huge. I didn’t expect this to be my career path. Here I was, relocating my family on a three-year contract with a start-up company in Montreal. Most start-up companies rarely survive more than three years, so we thought this would be a short assignment, and then I would come back with an impressive resumé. But the company ended up being so successful that we stayed in Montreal for 17 years! The company's chief scientific officer, an orthodox Jew, would say that the company’s success was because two people in management kept the Sabbath!

“After several mergers and acquisitions, I became director of vaccine R&D for GSK North America, responsible for teams in Montreal as well as in the [U.S.] state of Montana, developing vaccines for infectious diseases, allergy, and cancer.” 

And that has been David Burt’s life trajectory — from someone who “wasn’t destined to become anything” to a publisher of more than 40 scientific research manuscripts, inventor/co-inventor on seven patents, and the recipient of the Harry Jerome Award in Health Sciences.

“Since 2015, I have been a semi-retired consultant, but when COVID-19 surfaced, I expressed to my wife that I would have loved to be part of the search for a vaccine against this new coronavirus,” Burt says. It was a plausible wish since, in the early 2000s, Burt’s team had worked on an intranasal vaccine for SARS. “My wife said that God must have heard me ‘complaining’ because subsequently I was invited to be the immunology consultant on a Canadian COVID-19 intranasal vaccine,” he adds.

Fullness of Joy in God’s Presence

“While I have always been associated with the Adventist Church, as a youth, I struggled with trying to be a perfect Christian. It was during a lecture series by a visiting preacher from Australia that, as a young man, I learned about righteousness by faith. The fact is that God loves us just as we are. It was the ‘aha’ moment that transformed my whole philosophy of what it means to be a Christian. It gave me the freedom to focus on my relationship with Jesus, spending time with God, studying the Bible, and trying to get to know God rather than focusing on my performance. This led me to write a song about the experience, titled ‘By His Life.’

“God has a path for all of us. Due to COVID-19, young people are especially uncertain about their short-term and long-term plans, but I want to encourage them to put God first. Irrespective of the circumstances they find themselves in, He will take them to places they could never imagine.”

Concluding his story, Burt says, “In Psalm 16:11, the psalmist David writes, ‘You will show me the path of life; in Your presence is fullness of joy; at Your right hand are pleasures forevermore’ [NKJV]. This is my mantra, and this has been my life experience.”

The original version of this story appeared in the December 2020 issue of Canadian Adventist Messenger.