Alumni Spring 2023

A Journey of Faith and Science

For OBU alumnus Dr. Derek Royer, ’14, reaching the highest levels of scientific research only strengthened his belief that faith guides all.

The last thing most of us would ever expect to hear from a scientist is that science, in fact, does not hold all of life’s answers.

This may be especially true if that scientist had spent time working at the highest levels of research in microbiology and immunology at elite institutions with names like Duke University and the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

But that’s exactly what you’ll hear from OBU alum Dr. Derek Royer. It’s an insight that has been shaped throughout an inspiring educational and life journey characterized by selflessness, determination, community, and above all, faith.

“It was a God thing.”

Growing up in the community of Bartlesville, Oklahoma, Royer came from humble beginnings and what he describes as a “disadvantaged” background. He was a child of adoption, and when he was a freshman in high school his adoptive mother passed away from pancreatic cancer.

At the age of 15, he was taken in by another family, also in Bartlesville, who were OBU alums. It was here that Royer first became aware of the University and the transformative potential at Bison Hill.

He attended Super Summer and Falls Creek, where he met and was inspired by OBU students. From there, he visited the OBU campus and engaged with the community of students and faculty. And when it was time to choose the best college path for him, the answer was clear.

“It was a God thing,” Royer said. “Seeing love in action through the body of Christ, being able to move in with a family that I hardly knew who happened to be OBU alumni. That’s really where my faith journey began. Seeing how much people cared, it doesn’t have to be just about family. When the body of Christ is working, lives can be changed. That’s what I saw at OBU.”

Same Passion, Different Path

Royer always had a passion for science. It was, he felt, a calling. And it was a calling that he initially planned to answer by spending his undergraduate years at OBU preparing to attend medical school.

He was excelling academically, and well on his way along that path. But eventually, while taking upper-level courses that introduced him to the rich array of other career possibilities offered by the sciences, Royer came to the realization that he wanted something different out of learning, and life.

“Often I think what happens is young people go to college and they aren’t aware of all the professions that are out there,” Royer said. “Especially if you’re from a smaller town, you see accountants, nurses, doctors, it’s kind of a limited world view. So for me, when I was participating in lab activities and learning about all the other possibilities, that’s when I realized I wasn’t happy just knowing the answer. I wanted to actually figure things out.”

This realization led Royer to change his path from medical school to a Ph.D. program at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center to prepare for a career in research.

“Science Cannot Explain Everything.”

It was the faculty at OBU, Royer said, who supported and guided his decision to pursue a career in research and inquiry-based science.

“We were very blessed to have the faculty we had,” he said. “And many of them are still there.”

Additionally, it was OBU’s immersive faith-based learning experience. But it wasn’t just the integration of faith and learning, he said. What he saw from his professors was the integration of faith and learning. And while, to some, faith has no place in scientific pursuits, Royer disagrees.

“Science cannot explain everything,” he said. “One thing OBU really tackles is the idea of ‘what does it mean to be fully human?’ We can approach things with a scientific study, but everything has to be inside the box. From a Christian perspective, and particularly a Baptist theology, a God that loves us and is intimately involved in our lives and has a plan for us, how do you measure that experimentally?”

During his time in his Ph.D. program, Royer was involved with significant research in microbiology and immuno-logy, which opened the doors to a prestigious opportunity at Duke University, where he spent two years researching infectious diseases of the eye. From there, he moved on to the NIH where he spent a year advancing his research in the same field.

“I really loved the topic. I never thought I would go in that direction, but the opportunities came before me, and as a believer it was my thinking that whatever you do, you do it for the glory of God,” he said.

A Calling to Community

As fulfilling as his work at Duke and the NIH had been, it got to a point where something, again, was missing in his life.

“Through that journey, I realized that I really loved science and research, but as I got deeper and deeper into the actual science I realized that I was spending less and less time with people,” Royer said. “And one of the things I always loved about Oklahoma Baptist was the community that I had as a student.”

Royer missed being part of that kind of community, with people from all walks of life who brought different interests and passions. OBU is where he met his wife, on move-in day, although they wouldn’t start dating until their senior year.

“I didn’t know then that she was going to be my wife. She was way out of my league,” he said. “She doesn’t remember meeting me, if that tells you anything.”

Royer’s time at OBU instilled in him a belief in the transformative power a campus community can have on anyone’s life. So he made the decision to change career paths again, and accepted a position as a biology professor and department chair at East Texas Baptist University.

“That’s one thing I did struggle with a little in my time at Duke was that idea that everybody was supposed to have faith compartmentalized outside of work,” he said. “As a believer, that type of environment can be difficult. We had to keep it bottled up, and I really appreciate the freedom I have now in my current role to be able to share that openly with students and encourage them to think about those issues and embrace faith as a part of who they are fully, not in a compartmentalized way.”

And now, being able to share his faith and his passion for the sciences with students every day, Royer said it truly feels like home.

“I feel it’s a distinct calling, though it’s probably not for everybody,” he said. “There can be this impression that if you’re going to be a scientist then you have to put your faith somewhere else, but I don’t think it has to be true. Being able to teach science and bring the enthusiasm I have for it and share that with others while integrating faith, that’s just what fuels me every day.”