Magazine Article


Why do it?

Tom Goodwin
Photo by Kaleidico on Unsplash

My great joy as a biology professor at Andrews University is helping students reach that moment the light comes on and they say, “Oh! I see now!” I’m grateful to do this at a Seventh-day Adventist university, where I freely share with my students how the complexity of creation points me to our Creator.

I also gain satisfaction in my research—mostly on fossil squirrels from the Ice Age. Really! I do this work surrounded by good colleagues with their own research programs. They’re investigating the function of unique enzymes, anticancer properties of Chinese herbs, molecular pathways implicated in bipolar disorder, organic alternatives for weed control, neural circuits that control insect behavior, and the conservation status of threatened aquatic mammals. Although their research has more practical significance than mine, all of us invest countless hours seeking to better understand one very narrow slice of creation.

This begs the question: Why do we do research? Our primary calling at Seventh-day Adventist teaching universities is to teach—to prepare students to be knowledgeable, competent, God-fearing persons and professionals. Why spend time on research? Let me summarize three good reasons.

Research Is Good Educational Practice

I think that biologists are just inquisitive kids who never grow up! We love to discover how, why, when, and where living things go about their lives. Thus, research helps keep us inquisitive and our teaching sharp. Research also helps keep us humble.

Much of our research is done because we are teachers—we actively incorporate undergraduate and graduate students into our research programs. At Andrews we have a formalized undergraduate research program that encourages students to apply for a research position in one of our labs. Opportunities for faculty-mentored student research in biology are likewise available at sister institutions.

Students often comment on the impact that undergraduate research has on their growth—as whole people. A few weeks ago several research students shared what they had gained from this experience in our departmental seminar. One student shared, “I learned that details are really very important.” Another said, “You can’t be narrow-minded: maybe I’m asking the wrong question!” Other students highlighted how research taught them the importance of “time management” and the need for “patience, to see a project through.” Several highlighted the value of presenting their work at regional or national conferences. One student recalled, “It was so satisfying to put up our poster at the Society for Neuroscience and have people come to our poster because they were interested in our work!” These comments fit a pattern: students who engage in meaningful research, from start to finish, gain competence as future professionals and skills important to all domains of life.

Sometimes students who “catch the bug” of discovery as undergraduate or master’s students go on to complete graduate studies and become the next generation of Adventist biologists. Here’s an example. More than 20 years ago I mentored an undergraduate research student through a two-year project that resulted in two publications. That student went on to graduate studies and is now my colleague, Daniel Gonzalez, a specialist on the ecology and conservation of manatees. Reflecting on his undergraduate research experience, Gonzalez shared, “I always knew I enjoyed biology, but it was the ability to conduct research during my undergraduate program that really solidified in me the idea that I could make this a lifelong pursuit.” Many colleagues across our teaching universities can tell similar stories.

Our Research, in Small Ways, Contributes to the Greater Good

Research is not finished until it is shared; thus many of us commit to presenting our findings at regional or national meetings and ultimately in publications. In each of these ways, we’re making small contributions to the fund of scientific discovery and providing rich experience for students who are coauthors. Some of what we publish has obvious practical implications. Some of it may not. But all our investigations, when done ethically and with care, contribute to our understanding of the highly complex creation that is life.

I have benefited from research done by biologists from other Seventh-day Adventist teaching universities. Recently I revised one of my course lectures on contributions that Seventh-day Adventist scientists have made to paleobiology and decided to incorporate a recent study that documented in detail more than 13,000 bones from a dinosaur bonebed.1 This long-term study has been led by faculty at Southwestern Adventist University and Southern Adventist University,2 with support from the Faith and Science Council. I was impressed with their study, scientific contributions, and faith-informed understanding of fossils.

Another example is a guest lecture that biologist Kirt Onthank from Walla Walla University presented to our department. Based on work done with a student, this excellent seminar investigated how much energy it takes for an octopus to change colors. Our knowledge of God’s creation was enriched.

Our Research Is Witness

Consider Christ’s command: “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). What does that mean for biology professors at Seventh-day Adventist teaching universities? I’m sure the answer has many dimensions, but certainly one of those is to strive for excellence in our profession—including as researchers. From my observations, when we strive for excellence in research, we gain opportunities to interact with secular colleagues who may have little other positive experience with Christians. For example, I’ve had several invitations to be the “squirrel expert” on multithemed projects. Other Adventist biologists that I know, both at Andrews and elsewhere, have active collaborations with researchers at secular institutions, serve as editors of research journals, or have received significant scholarships or grants to support their research. In short, well-done research provides opportunity for engagement with and witness to a segment of society that is highly secular.

Let me summarize. I love to teach. I love to do research, in part because I want to teach well. And I’m grateful to do both at a Seventh-day Adventist teaching university, where we openly thank our Creator for the wonder of the living world.

1 K. Snyder, M. McLain, J. Wood, and A. Chadwick, “Over 13,000 Elements From a Single Bonebed Help Elucidate Disarticulation and Transport of an Edmontosaurus thanatocoenosis,”  PLoS One 15, no. 5 (2020).

2 To learn more about their research, visit

Tom Goodwin

Tom Goodwin is a biology professor at Andrews University who specializes in vertebrate paleontology.