Location: Nashville, TN

Job Title: PhD candidate

Education: Vanderbilt University

Degree: PhD (in process)

Kathryn Brewer, GIVEN ’21

Please share a little about yourself – feel free to include a fun fact!

Hi there! I’m Kathryn. I’m currently a PhD candidate in biochemistry at Vanderbilt University. When I’m not in the lab, I can usually be found baking a batch of sourdough bread, singing with my church choir, or catching up with my sweet friends over a cup of coffee. I also write a blog on the intersection of mental health and the spiritual life, which can be found here.

Describe your professional work. How were you led to this? What are you passionate about?

Professionally, I study the molecules of life and how mutations in our genetic code lead to disease by altering how those molecules look and function in the body. Specifically, I study a protein using biochemistry to piece apart how different mutations disrupt its structural stability, and how that disruption impacts the protein’s behavior in the body and leads to this disease. You can think about it like a clock. If you change one element of the clock by, say, putting a screw where a cog should be, or putting a 4 where a 2 should be, the clock doesn’t work correctly. But, the reason why it doesn’t work is different in each case. My job is to figure out what that difference is to get a clearer picture of what sorts of changes can break the clock (or rather, the protein).

I’ve been interested in science since I was little. The science fair was a big deal in my house, and I was always encouraged to be creative and take ownership of my projects. My interest was solidified in high school, where I was encouraged by my biology teacher to consider doing research in college. I followed his advice, fell in love with biochemistry and decided to pursue a PhD. This led me to Vanderbilt, where I’ve been for the past four years.

What are the personal strengths that you’ve been given and how do you utilize them?

I feel like I could go in so many directions with this question, but one of the strengths I have come to appreciate more recently is an ability to make people feel safe, like they are allowed to feel vulnerable with me and share what’s going on in their lives. Even in my secular work environment, there have been several instances where God gave me the grace to minister to someone and provide counsel and love when they needed it. I try to stay open to those moments wherever I can.

Some of my other personal strengths are in the realms of knowledge and communication, which I use daily in my job both in conducting science and in discussions with colleagues as well as non-scientists. These strengths are also pivotal in my writing projects, particularly my blog, where I try to synthesize the complexity of my interior life to make it fruitful for readers. I hope to go into science communication after I graduate, and to continue to use these gifts in some form of ministry throughout my life, whether it be through writing, speaking, or organizing small groups. Who knows? We’ll see how the Lord wants to use them!

What women inspire you, and why?

I continue to be inspired by the incredible women that surround me and that I’m happy to call my friends. There’s fellow 2021 cohort member, Mindy Edgington, a prayer warrior who’s always mission driven and never one to back down, even when it’s uncomfortable. There are all of my girlfriends in Nashville, some who are Catholic and some who are not, but who all genuinely striving after God, faithful, and steadfast friends, particularly my best friend Jennie Shuman, who once drove an hour and a half out of town to come pick me up after a break up. These women are my living examples of faith, and I am so grateful to be in their lives.

When it comes to the saints, I have recently been feeling a draw towards wives and mothers, women who lived their faith in the quiet of everyday lives and lived their vocations to the full. Our Mother, Mary, and St. Zelie Martin, mother to my confirmation saint Therese of Lisieux, immediately come to mind. I hope to live out my own vocation and calling as faithfully as they did theirs.

Are there friends and mentors that you depend upon? How do they support you?

I’m so glad I get another question to talk about my friends! I can always count on Mindy to invigorate me and inspire me to do big things. She’s someone I talk to about big dreams and commiserate with about the challenges of living a Christian life. Jennie is my confidant and wise counsel, who is always ready and willing to encourage and correct thought patterns that don’t align with God. And there are so many others with whom I find encouragement just in living life together and in sharing a common faith.

My GIVEN mentor Dr. Myma Albayda has been such a blessing over this past year. She has walked with me through a season of big changes and clarification, providing wisdom, guidance, and unceasing prayer that has been invaluable to me.

And finally, there is my boyfriend Randy. He has been steadfastly supportive, always insisting that I am good, that what I do is good, and that I’m worthy of love even when I’m being cranky (usually at him for saying something silly). He loves me so well, and encourages me in everything I do. I couldn’t ask for a better man than him.

What is the best advice/encouragement you’ve received about vocational discernment?

The first thing I would say is that discernment, no matter what kind it is, is never a test. Discerning our vocation or deciding on a critical next step isn’t something we’re expected to figure out on our own. The Lord desires to reveal His will to us, primarily according to what brings us joy and what brings us peace. As long as we’re praying and trying our best to pay attention to that, we can’t really go wrong!

The second thing I would say is that God typically reveals His will to us in the reality of our lives. What is going on in our lives now? What are the things, the people, or the experiences that bring us joy and peace? Where is God’s grace actively being poured out in our lives, and what might that have to say about where He’s calling us next? Letting the Lord ground us in reality while we work with Him to make our next step is really helpful for avoiding confusion.

Prayer is essential for everyone, but especially for women who are active in the life and mission of the Church. Do you have any favorite devotions or prayers?

Honestly, at this moment I’m focusing on spending time in Scripture. I carve out the first hour of my morning for prayer, which consists mainly of Lectio Divina and talking with God about what’s on my heart. I’m currently working my way through the gospels and we’ll see where the Lord has me go after that!

My relationship with specific devotions and prayers is complicated, due to previous struggles with anxiety and scrupulosity. I am slowly working on building those habits back into my life in a healthy way, which for now means using the decades of the rosary as an intercessory tool rather than a meditative one. After coming back to the simplicity of honest, heartfelt prayer, I’m finding the addition distinct devotions, like the rosary, into my spiritual life to be more peaceful and fruitful than before. For me it’s always important to focus on what’s working for me and what isn’t, and to keep the things that help foster a good relationship with the Lord. In the end, that’s really what matters.

Do you have a favorite inspirational quote?

Right now I have a little quote taped onto my wall in my office that says, “By the grace of God, darling girl, you can do hard things.” I didn’t hear it anywhere; this was something I came up with on my own. But, as someone who struggles with perfectionism and feeling like I have to do everything on my own, remembering that it is by God’s grace that anything is accomplished, and that He is there with me to give me that grace, has been helpful in periods of stress and anxiety.

What were your key takeaways from the GIVEN Forum?

My biggest takeaway from the Forum was definitely the reclaiming of my identity. I felt like it was spoken to me so clearly that I am a daughter of God and that I am good. It has taken a while to begin integrating that truth more fully into the way I see myself, but I feel the Lord slowly chipping away at my doubts and placing that truth in its place.

My other takeaway is just how beautiful God made the women in the Church. He has put different desires and dreams into each of our hearts in a way that covers the needs of the whole world. I loved meeting all the women at the Forum and I’m excited to see what God does with their lives!

What was your GIVEN action plan? Describe its mission, audience, and impact.

My GIVEN action plan was a reflections series for Christian PhD students on discerning the next step in their post-PhD careers. Working in a small group of four women, we met monthly for six months to discuss different topics around prayer and discernment. In between sessions, they prayed through the topics and questions presented during our gatherings, and then together we talked about what we were learning, what we were struggling with, and provided mutual love and support. I served as the small group facilitator and wrote the reflections for each session. Going through this series with my small group certainly helped to clarify my own career aspirations post-PhD, and I know for the others it provided some helpful tools for better understanding what personal prayer and discernment looks like, especially when asking big questions about the future. I’m currently discerning what to do with this reflection series, and if the Lord is calling me to use it in another way. We’ll see where He ends up taking this!