Denise Keen has found a new calling in life combining her two great passions - science and faith. She is the new - very part-time - coordinator for House of Science Horowhenua and, as Horowhenua Chronicle editor Janine Baalbergen discovers, bubbles over with enthusiasm for the opportunity to help others explore life as they know it.
Faith and science go hand-in-hand for Denise Keen. In fact, she says living on the knife edge between science and faith helps her thrive.
Keen's career in science began as a technician at the Wallaceville Animal Research Centre. She later worked for MAF in its various forms, including AgResearch as well as the Ministry for Primary Industries.
"I started at Wallaceville straight out of school, came up from Christchurch where I was born for it. It was the time when training on the job was still appreciated. We studied for three years and worked in a lab at the same time," she said.
At the end of the three years she received a New Zealand Certificate in Science. She had specialised in biology.
She did research into serology, the study of blood and antibodies in the serum.
Studying leptospirosis followed and brucella ovis, both in relation to cattle and she worked in a team that developed an ELISA (enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay), that measures antibodies. When she graduated she moved to a different department and worked in virology and ovine pneumonia.
She took a break from work to raise a family and when she returned to Wallaceville the research landscape had changed.
She was now busy studying bovine Tb and helped develop a vaccine and assays to measure the immune responses to Tb in both cattle and possums. In 2006-7 the research centre moved to Massey University in Palmerston North and she found herself unable to follow.
Instead she went to work at the National Centre for Disease Investigation, which became Biosecurity NZ and is now part of MPI. That enabled her to stay in Wallaceville and continue work in virology.
"I have had a classical training and found myself at the leading edge of research," she said. Some of her work touched on molecular biology, for example.
At the same time she returned to work, she said, she became more involved in church activities. At some stage her vicar encouraged her to take some papers in theology and her naturally curious mind relished in that.
"I am inquisitive by nature, curious about many things." Her studies led her to a Licentiate in theology and ordination.
"I think you need to meet the 'other' where they are at." She sees science as a gift from God and to her science is much more than just cold hard facts.
"Science allows for great creativity. It is about uncovering the mystery of how something works and about how you go about discovering that."
As a science person with faith she said she's comfortable with not knowing or understanding everything.
"I kind of straddle two worlds and sometimes there is a bit of tension."
As a person of faith and a minister she loves to help people.
"This role with House of Science is a good fit for me. It enables me to serve the teaching community and through them the children."
She says for her the big question in life is 'What if?' rather than 'Why not?' For her faith and science go hand-in-hand.
"The world is not black and white as some religious people would like us to believe. Nothing is truly separate. Science shows one thing affects another things. There are some many connections, many so close they are most dovetailed to one another. We need to be open to the possibilities."
She's still involved with the church of St Margaret at Te Horo, where she lives. Both Ōtaki and Levin Anglican churches are in transition, she said, with vicars retiring and membership shrinking.
"They are looking at a different model of being a church as a way forward for both communities."
That will include the pain of closing churches, something she knows too much about. She served three parishes in Whanganui a few years ago, at the request of the Bishop of Wellington. During her six years there a few of these parishes had to close, causing much pain for parishioners who had called these places home for a long time.
"Having gone through redundancy from a job I loved at Wallaceville, I understand those emotions and I have experienced the resulting loss of identity. For a church it is much the same.
"People have gone to 'their' church for years and that particular church community and building epitomise everything they know and love about church. Having to go somewhere else is very traumatic for many."
Keen is very excited about the opportunities the House of Science offers, both to her and the wider community. House of Science Horowhenua is a linchpin and plans are to ultimately move into both the Kāpiti Coast and Manawatū from Horowhenua.
House of Science New Zealand is a charitable trust providing science resources to schools and professional learning for teachers to promote positive engagement with science in all its forms.
House of Science Horowhenua services schools in Levin and Foxton and is based at Shannon School.
"There is tension between faith and science," Keen freely admits. "I think we all struggle with judging other people. Above all, all religions seem to have as a golden rule: Treat others as you yourself want to be treated. We need to have respect for others.
"Those that see the world as black and white want everything to fit their world, but the world, including the natural world, doesn't work like that."
"We all struggle and I think it is easy to have an ego, and high profile people seem to encounter that issue especially. But we are all more than the labels people put on us. I think we do not need unity, we need more diversity. We are more richer with more diversity."
She said she enjoys journeying alongside people, finding out what is important to them, just like a scientist tries to find out how the world works.
And living on the knife edge between science and faith helps her thrive, despite the tension. That tension ensures this minister of religion is, by her own admission, 'no saint'.
Schools interested in joining House of Science Horowhenua can ring 0508 HOU SCI.