The following is a conversation between Greg Epstein, Humanist Chaplain at Harvard & MIT and A. J. Kumar, the newly elected president of the Board of Directors of the humanist chaplaincy.
A. J. Kumar
Greg: A.J. Congratulations on becoming president of our Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard and MIT board of directors! Or, as I like to say to anyone who joins any nonprofit board anywhere: thank you for your service!
A.J.:Thank you, Greg! It’s been a wonderful experience to serve on the board and I am honored to take on the role of president.
Greg: I've known you for about a decade now, including visiting your childhood home in South Dakota, hearing many stories of your time leading your service fraternity at Stanford, your work in the Peace Corps in South Africa, and traveling with you to a few very different parts of this country to do community service among various communities while you were busy completing your physics PhD at Harvard with disturbing rapidity. I had the huge honor of officiating at your wedding and I've spent some time with your amazing family. I can say that in my 17+ years now as a humanist chaplain, I've never seen a student do more to express the dual commitments I see you as having built your life around - to academic excellence and compassionate service to others. It is hard to summarize your story, but what would you like to briefly share with those who don't know you well, about how you became a humanist and how you decided to spend some of your precious time and energy serving a humanist community like ours?
A.J.: My family was a mixing ground of religions. I grew up with influences from Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity and found myself identifying the common themes across them, such as compassion and service. Though I challenged each doctrine, I didn’t really challenge my belief in a god. It wasn’t until my time in the Peace Corps that I began to really wrestle deeply with my beliefs. There was a funeral in the small village I lived in almost every weekend and when confronted with death in such a visceral way, I realized that I did not believe in any kind of after life and in fact, believing that this one life we have is our only life, compelled me to take greater action to try and do what I could to make a positive impact.
My time in the Peace Corps also gave me the drive to combine my interest and skills in science with social impact. As I’ve gone from academia into entrepreneurship and from global health to agriculture and climate change, a mission to harness science for good has been critical to me and that mission is deeply linked to humanism. Recognizing how important humanism has been for me as a guiding light in my career, I was excited by the opportunity to get involved with all the amazing people on the board to support the Chaplaincy.
Greg: What would you like to share with our organization's followers about your current work as a scientist? And what does science mean to you, as a humanist? I am thinking that particularly over the past couple of pandemic years, a lot of nonreligious people have had cause to think about their relationship with the idea of science - we don't believe in divine beings or supernatural solutions to human problems, but the scientific endeavor itself can feel almost like a sacred calling to some.
A.J.: I’m currently the Director of Carbon Experimentation at Indigo Ag. Indigo is an agriculture technology company that builds products to help farmers harness nature to sustainably feed the planet. I work to advance the science behind our program to quantify the benefits of regenerative agriculture and to pay farmers for adopting them.
Before Indigo, I worked in global health developing low-cost rapid diagnostic tests. So when you mention the pandemic being like a calling - it really rang true to me. At the time, although I wasn’t actively building diagnostics, I felt a necessity to use my scientific and technical training to try and help educate people about what was real and what was fake when there was so much chaos and misinformation flying around. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that science can save lives if we start listening to the scientists.
Climate change is the even bigger global threat that looms large. With the recent IPCC report, we are at (maybe past) the red-alert stage with climate change. We need to not only decarbonize the world economy, but also actively start drawing down carbon dioxide. With agriculture we have the opportunity to do both - reduce emissions from conventional agricultural practices, and harness photosynthesis and the living soil to pull carbon out of the air. That’s what motivates me at work every day.
Greg: I've spent about half of the past couple of years on a paid sabbatical that was originally meant to run from July 2019 to July 2020, but because of the pandemic was interrupted a number of times as it became important to have a humanist chaplain actively (if virtually) serving during the height of the Covid crisis. And in fact you took over as president this summer, while I was finally completing the sabbatical (I just returned earlier this month). What have you and the board been up to in my absence, that you want to share? Specifically, I know you are excited about our new fellowship program which is about to launch.
A.J.: Yes, I’m very excited about the fellowship program! Thanks to the work of many board members and input from students and alumni, we are launching a fellowship program to train the next generation of Humanist leaders from Harvard and MIT. We have our inaugural fellows selected and they represent Harvard and MIT, undergraduates and graduate students. They are an amazing bunch and I’m excited to share more details as we fully launch the program this fall.
In terms of other priorities, I’m very fortunate to be taking over the presidency from Dr. Erik Gregory, who left a really solid foundation for the Chaplaincy and the Board. I’m excited to build on that foundation with the rest of the board members. Two particular efforts I’d like to highlight are the work we are doing at MIT- now that we’re officially expanded to represent Humanists at both Harvard and MIT - and the work we are exploring around technology and ethics. We should have some new events and announcements coming throughout this academic year on those two fronts - led by several of our board members.
Greg: That’s wonderful, thank you for all of this great work you’re already doing! And yes, Erik demonstrated tremendous wisdom and dedication during his term as our organization’s president. The clients and thought leaders he helps are truly lucky to have him.
Finally, for readers who are connected with the Harvard and/or MIT communities, - perhaps alumni or faculty or staff who can't get involved directly with student activities but who are feeling particularly inspired to serve this community in particular - what would you suggest? We are a small organization that unfortunately doesn't have room for everyone to participate, but what sort of person or people would you most strongly encourage to reach out, and how would you want them to do so?
A.J.: If you have ideas about how the Chaplaincy can better serve students, staff, faculty, and alumni, we want to hear from you. If you find Humanism grounding as you confront messy challenges - whether in the sciences, arts, politics, social services, or anything else - and you want to mentor or help others who may be looking for a way to ground their work in secular ethics, reach out. You can send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.