Big Interview - April 2010 - scientist Ros Picard

ALISON HULL talks to US scientist and Christian Rosalind Picard about her work and faith journey

Rosalind Picard is one of the 20 scientists interviewed for the Test of Faith project, which set out to show how there need be no conflict between holding a robust Christian faith and being a scientist.

Professor of Media Arts and Sciences at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), director of the Affective Computing Research group at the MIT Media Lab, and a co-director of Things that think Consortium, Rosalind’s research seeks to find ways of helping those on the autistic spectrum to communicate better.

Her path to faith was an unusual one. As a child, she says, “I was a proud atheist. I thought that rational scientific thinking was the only way an intelligent person would operate, and I assumed it was sufficient for all truth.”

Challenged to read the Bible by some neighbours, Rosalind agreed, “figuring then I’d be better at shooting it down ... I thought it would just be fantastical stories of beings appearing in the middle of air but I actually found it profoundly wise. I went on to read the whole Bible. 

“I just wanted to make sure that I knew what Christianity was about, but things started to change in me as I read it.”

Gradually, Rosalind became prepared to admit to her faith. Science was not an immediate passion for her, either: at first, she found the way it was taught in school off-putting. However, seizing the chance to spend a couple of afternoons a week at the local science centre marked a turning point.

“My curiosity to learn about how things worked just exploded.”

And it was this new found interest in how things worked that led Rosalind to be involved in learning more about how the brain works.

“I went on to join the faculty at the MIT Media Lab, where we develop all kinds of new technologies to invent a better future: advancing human learning, expression, and ability.”

Initially reluctant to consider the role of emotion in learning about the brain, eventually Rosalind realised how crucial it is.

"The latest findings in neuroscience were showing that emotion played critical roles in rational behaviours: perception, memory, language, decision-making, and other vital aspects of intelligent life. I began to pursue work in what was to become a new field.”

That new field, affective computing, involves working with and for those on the autistic spectrum. 

“I find myself in a unique position to develop technology to help an amazing group of people: people who have been marginalised and yet have a ton to offer not only to scientists, but to the whole world. It feels like an extremely special opportunity that would have been difficult to craft in a deliberate fashion.”

And she has absolutely no problems reconciling her Christian faith with her scientific career:

“Science and faith are more than compatible – they are complementary, like two wings to lift us off the ground and help us see more than we can down here.  

“In science, we tend to not speak of faith – but we speak of experience, intuition, hunches, ideas, imagination, and inklings, all of which can be informed by science's experiments, but never is all of our action and decision based entirely on the latter or entirely upon proven truths. All scientists practice faith of some kind.”   

Test of Faith resources are published by Paternoster can be ordered from www.testoffaith.com

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