Raymond Romand: Dialogue with an Adventist neurobiologist in France

Born in an Adventist farmer’s family, Raymond Romand grew up amidst the beauties of nature.

His home in a small remote farm in the Jura Mountains on the French-Swiss border gave him the opportunity to smell the earth, see the glory of wild flowers, gaze into the beautiful wooded mountains, grow the family’s own food, and at night watch the magnificent lanterns flickering in the French sky. He loved being the child of nature, and he expected his destiny would be just that: gardens, forests, and farms.

As Raymond grew, the contentment with the small plot turned to a challenge to discover the mysteries behind nature’s order and beauty. He wanted to study. With the help of a supportive father, he joined fourth grade, at the age of 18, in an Adventist school. Optimist that he is, he did not feel worried or shy that his classmates were much younger. In fact he saw in his age an advantage. His maturity and eagerness to master whatever came his way helped him soon finish secondary school, and he entered the University of Montpellier in France. That act propelled him toward a scientific career that included study and research at Harvard Medical School.

Dr. Romand has two doctoral degrees. While his primary interest is neurobiology (the study of the brain), he continues to maintain a close touch with tropical ecology and speciation of tropical fish. He has published extensively and currently teaches at the University of Clermont-Ferrand. He was also a consultant to the World Health Organization.

Dr. Romand is married to Marie Rose, who holds a Ph.D. in physiology, and the couple have two children: Cyril, 18, and Ariane, 16.

Dr. Romand, as a boy you thought the farm and the garden were your destiny. Now you are a world-renowned neurobiologist. That is quite a jump, isn’t it?

Yes, one might say so. For me it is not just a jump; it is a long journey. As a boy I was so fascinated with growing flowers and working the fields that I did not even bother going to school. But this very love of nature drove me in my teen years to wonder at the marvel of God’s creation. Then it was only a matter of time to go to school and then university to study the order and wonder found in creation—from plants to the human brain.

How and when did you decide to become a scientist?

I did not wake up one fine morning and said to myself, “Well, I am going to be an ecologist or a neurobiologist.” Life doesn’t work that way. Before I began formal secondary schooling, I moved from my farm to an Adventist hospital, La Lignière, in Switzerland. I spent three years there as a gardener apprentice. Then I moved to the Institut Adventist du Salève where the academic environment and what I saw happening to young people quickly challenged me to go beyond the garden. Soon I completed secondary school, and when the opportunity opened for university studies, I immediately grabbed it. As one who entered formal studies rather late in life, I was attracted by so many disciplines: ecology, biology, physiology, neuroscience, history, and so on. But my curiosity led me to concentrate on physiology and neuroscience.

Was the Adventist environment helpful in leading you to these decisions in your intellectual and professional life?

My mother’s spirituality as an Adventist influenced me a lot in my childhood. From her and my father I learned the value of work, the meaning of faith, and the need to press on. My experience as a gardener first at the Adventist hospital at La Lignière and later at the Adventist Institute provided opportunities to meet different people—simple, professional, deeply spiritual, and at times struggling people—and from this environment I learned how much faith and work or lack of them can affect life. I might say that it is the intellectually and spiritually stimulating atmosphere of the Adventist environment that propelled me up the education ladder. I wanted to do something with my life, and I owe that decision to a great extent to Adventism.

You were a student in public universities for almost 10 years. What was the challenge you faced most?

As with most such cases, Sabbath examinations were a real problem. At the end of my first year at the University of Montpellier came the test. Along with 400 students I had to sit for two weeks of examinations, with one lasting three days and ending on Sabbath. I contacted my professor for a change. “How can we change the examination schedule for the sake of one student?” he said, and went on: “Out of the question! Why not ask for an indulgence from your church authorities?” Then I discussed the problem with the local church pastor, who in turn contacted the person in charge of religious freedom in the Franco-Belgian Adventist Union in Paris. After some discussions with the French ministry of education, there came a miracle. The university received an official notice to reschedule the examinations so that no part fell on Saturday! When we stand for a principle, God always takes care of our needs. And even if that does not happen immediately, that’s no excuse to give up or compromise our principles.

How did you choose your specialty in the field of science?

I never dreamed of becoming a scientist. I just chose what was a reasonable challenge. I felt that challenge lay in biology. I wanted to investigate the real world, not an artificial one, such as electronics. I have nothing against electronics. I use electronic instruments and gadgets every day. I am fully aware that electronics has affected our lives in so many ways. But to me, real life was challenging and exciting. It opens up great possibilities of learning how life functions. The study of life, its wonders and its mysteries, is exciting to me and to my faith in the God who created life. It has provided many areas to explore, discover, and investigate. After completing a master’s degree in physiology in 1968, I moved to complete a master’s degree in biology in 1971, and then a doctoral degree in physiology in 1971, and six years later I finished a doctoral program in neurophysiology. There I arrived at the possibility of exploring this great wonder we all have—the brain. It was a step by step process—a journey of exploration. And I never cease to marvel at what our brain is all about. I am still studying and researching the magnificently complex way in which the brain functions.

You have two doctorate degrees, spent two years at Harvard

University, published many articles in such renowned journals as Science, gave lectures in Europe and America, and received recognition as an expert in neurobiology. How do you see yourself as a scientist and a Bible-believing Christian?

Being a scientist and being a Christian need not come in conflict. It’s true that some scientific claims may seem to challenge one’s faith. But one need not abandon one’s faith. For example, take the issue of origins. Although my scientific investigation on the nervous system is not directly related to the question of origins, I am aware that the theory of evolution does not provide all the answers. It is a theory and, as I explore that, I must keep in mind that it is a theory. It is true that there is no possible synthesis between evolution and Creation, the two conceptions on the origin of life and the meaning of universe. After almost 30 years of research on the brain and the genetics of tropical fish, I am more and more convinced that the evolution theory does not correspond to what I observe. This does not mean there is a strict fixisme (fixity) in the plant and animal kingdoms. I think that evolution as is taught in textbooks and elsewhere is a convenient theory accepted by most scientists without questioning it.

However, it is very difficult to give scientific counter-arguments to the theory of evolution because there are thousands of researchers explaining all their findings through the evolution theory. Unfortunately, there are too few people who dare to challenge scientifically this theory. Meanwhile, some well-meaning Christians advance loose arguments for Creation and against evolution that discredit their claims in the scientific community.

As for me, my research shows both wonder and mystery. These elements lead me to affirm my faith in a personal Creator God.

You have been involved in the activities of the local congregation as Sabbath school director and elder. Do you have any comments about church life?

Perhaps one of the crucial problems I detect in our church is that it has become too much of an establishment. Institutionalized church is not the same as confessing and believing church. The life of the local congregation is dependent on the commitment of its members to the study and practice of God’s Word. For example, look at our Sabbath schools whose primary function ought to be the study of the Bible. Out of that study the message and the mission emerge to challenge the life of the church. Do our Sabbath schools still retain that primary focus? Many church members do not even come to Sabbath school anymore. How many church goers are studying their Bible lessons? I think we as church members have a responsibility to rekindle our commitment to God’s saving message and mission as revealed in the Bible. There lies our current challenge.

What are your plans for the future?

Scientific research at a high level is time consuming. It requires sacrifice of so many other things one would like to do. Moreover, with some recognition one is asked to do so many things that have nothing to do with scientific research. So as I approach in a few years a turning point in my life, one big question looms ahead: Do I have to keep investing my energy in science for the rest of my life, or should I become more involved in church activity? God will show the way.

Finally, Dr. Romand, what advice would you like to give to Adventist students in public universities?

Perhaps four thoughts. Affirm your faith continually. Evaluate realistically your possibilities. Look for challenges both in your studies and in your professional life. Keep growing both intellectually and spiritually.Interview by

John Graz. John Graz (Ph. D., University of Paris-Sorbonne) serves as director of the Public Affairs and Religious Liberty Department of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. Dr. Romand’s address: 22, rue Jean-Philippe Rameau, 63700 Aubière, France. His e-mail address: romand.@cicsun.univ.-bpclermontr.fr.