Associate Professor, Center for Computational Chemistry
Dept. of Chemistry, Franklin College of Arts and Sciences
Dr. Allen’s faith story – Does life make any sense? What significance is one human being among over 7 billion people living in the 21st century on a small, fragile planet that is a mere speck of dust in an immense and hostile universe? Will there be any positive, lasting effect of my life 100 years from now? When severe illness is encountered, who can rescue me from this body of death? Who will care when I am gone? If tragic events in our lives are merely cosmic accidents, how do we avert being consumed by bitterness when we have been dealt a bad hand? Are there any universal truths to guide our lives, or are we left to stumble through life on the basis of subjective human choices? These and other questions led me to ask, “Where can we get the power to triumph in life regardless of the circumstances? What can give us lasting joy?” As a follower of Jesus, I found my faith provides answers to all these unavoidable questions through experiencing the veracity of these answers in the trials of life.
On Easter Sunday in 1973, at the age of 12, I professed Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. Thus began my up-and-down journey toward spiritual maturity, which is far from complete! Myriad Christian sources explain the full meaning of salvation. My succinct summary here is that through a personal relationship with Christ and a humble reliance on him, one is no longer separated from God by selfishness and sin, is given the hope and power to lead a new spiritual life, and is ensured to not perish, but rather to have an eternal life in communion with God.
In 1979 I went to Vanderbilt University on a full, four-year academic scholarship, after having a good deal of success in science and math competitions in high school. Although I had earned numerous letters in athletics during high school, it was in science and mathematics that I excelled most. Hard science seemed to be my calling, and at Vanderbilt academics quickly became all-consuming to me. Those were years of brazen questioning of authority. While the usual party atmosphere of college was not appealing to me, my interpersonal behavior certainly demonstrated a lack of maturity. The biggest mistake I made during my undergraduate years of college was not getting involved in an on-campus Christian student group that could have helped me in terms of emotional support and spiritual growth.
In 1983 I entered the Ph.D. program in theoretical chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley. Eager to sort out who I really was, I returned to regular church attendance in the nearby city of Walnut Creek, where I was influenced heavily by Christian role models who were also respected in their professions. However, what influenced me most was not their intellect, rather their sense of peace and purpose and unconditional love for me. I found Christ in a new and fresh way. During the years of 1985-87, I had a joyous and keen sense of God’s providence in bringing me from Tennessee to California, which unexpectedly made my faith more vibrant. I had no idea what hardships were ahead of me.
In February 1987 an unusual set of circumstances led me to interview and get an offer of an Assistant Professor position at Stanford University in the Department of Chemistry. My immediate reaction to this unexpected job offer was an overwhelming sense of joy and of God’s calling in my life. But then reality set in. In the summer of 1987, the pressure on me from all fronts got out of control: trying to finish my dissertation and several publications while already being employed in a one-year stint as a postdoctoral fellow at Sandia National Laboratories; trying to set up my laboratory in anticipation of going to Stanford the next year; deaths in my greater family; and other professional upheavals. What I did not foresee in my professional fog was the most crippling event, the sudden departure of my first wife (of 5 years) from our suburban church environment into the cultural scene of San Francisco.
The two-year period from September 1987 until 1989 was both the hardest period in my life and the period of greatest spiritual blessing. Isolated from my family, in the midst of an unwanted divorce, and trying to start a new life in Palo Alto, California, I found necessary support each day from a heavy dose of Bible study, Christian radio, or books on spiritual growth. I can say with certainty that without the suffering there would have been no blessing.
I did participate heavily in campus ministries while at Stanford, and I was blessed to see fruits from my efforts. In the meantime, I was having difficulty trying to establish a new research program at Stanford. It took two years before I was able to attract graduate students to join my laboratory rather than one of the established, eminent professors in that department. Moreover, in those years Stanford only gave tenure to Assistant Professors in about one-third of the cases. While years 3-5 at Stanford were productive ones, it was certainly not enough. To summarize my years at Stanford in hindsight, God appointed me there for five years and then rescued me from it.
In the summer of 1994, I left California, disillusioned with academic life and in search of some new direction. I spent several weeks on a tour of the Pacific Basin: Tahiti, Moorea, Rarotonga, New Zealand, Australia, and Hong Kong. I landed in Hong Kong on a hot, sticky August afternoon. Walking the streets there, I marveled at row after row of 30-story apartment buildings where masses of humanity were packed tight. The question that screamed out at me was this: In a world of 7 billion people, what significance is there to any one of us? An old hymn gave me encouragement: “Why should I feel discouraged? Why should the shadows come? Why should my heart be lonely, And long for heav’n and home? When Jesus is my portion, My constant friend is He; His eye is on the sparrow, And I know He watches me. I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free; For His eye is on the sparrow, And I know He watches me.”
After a year of building houses back in Tennessee, I moved to Athens, Georgia in November 1995 to join the Center for Computational Quantum Chemistry at the University of Georgia (UGA) as a research scientist. Over the next decade, I was greatly blessed while living in Athens. The mix of world-class scientific research with the benefits of Southern culture in a non-urban environment was nonpareil for me. I remarried in February 1997, after almost a decade of searching for the right partner. My wife Anne and I fell in love riding bikes out over the area countryside. After enjoying four years of married life, we started a family in 2001. We are now proud parents of Ashley (2001) and Andrew (2003).
In 2008 I accepted an Associate Professor position in the Department of Chemistry at UGA, migrating from my Senior Research Scientist position back to a traditional faculty appointment. In that sense, I have come full circle since my time in California. One of my greatest joys was receiving the Russell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching in 2011. The dossier for the award contained exceptionally strong and heartfelt narratives of support from eight recent students. These letters were among the most gratifying rewards I have ever received in my academic career, because they attested to young lives that were significantly changed as a consequence of my teaching efforts. Without Christ in my life, I would not have had the motivation to exert such effort toward my students beyond the call of duty.
The past decade has not been without difficulties. Both my wife and I have had brushes with cancer (thyroid and melanoma), but we are just fine now. The chronic pain after a neck injury a few years ago sent me into a deep hole of depression. With a combination of good medical care and a focus on Christ, I was healed. My mother suffered a massive and debilitating stroke in May 2011, and the family is still dealing with the aftermath. When Mom hums old hymns, despite being unable to talk fluently, we know that God is at work in her heart. As many professors can attest, professional life in academia can be overwhelming. Trusting in God has given me a basis for inner peace.
To close, it is my experience that Christ offers us freedom from the anxieties and ignoble passions of this world. Often this is achieved through consistent Christian love and fellowship among believers. In my life, when I have applied Biblical principles consistently to a situation, I have never had any regrets, only fulfillment. When I have followed my selfish desires or trusted in my own wisdom, I have obtained emptiness, although many times this emptiness does not become apparent until many months or years later. A personal relationship with Christ is necessary to have the power to make the right choices. In this world, our possessions, our social positions, our friends, and our health may not be ours tomorrow, but the one thing that nothing can take away from us as Christians is Jesus Christ and His love.