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In The Book Episode 4: "By (Very) Small and Simple Things: Paul Alan Cox"

Episode Transcript

“By (Very) Small and Simple Things” with Dr. Paul Alan Cox

[00:00:00] Rebecca: We're in Samoa. It's 1973. We're on a remote island and we enter a hut. We see a young missionary unable to move, in pain.

[00:00:16] Paul: Before I went on my mission, I had a congenital health issue which was very serious and I spent time in the hospital with probing and the internists and on, so I was surprised I even got sent out of the country; I went to Samoa. Well, they took one look at me in Samoa and sent me to the most remote archipelago, the most remote island. I was out there not very long, and I became desperately ill.

[00:00:40] Rebecca: That was Paul Alan Cox, the missionary we saw in that hut.

I met Mr. Cox years ago in high school. I don't recall exactly when or in what circumstance, but he was Jane's dad and Jane was my friend. Little did I know that one day I would be interviewing him and would [00:01:00] hear what became of that missionary and what he went on to.

I'm Rebecca Devons and you're listening to In The Book.

This is a podcast where we flood the earth with testimonies of the Book of Mormon.

Our guest today is renowned ethnobotanist, Dr. Paul Alan Cox, who has lived for years in remote island villages searching for new medicines. He was named one of Time Magazine's 11 “Heroes of Medicine” for his discovery of a new HIV/AIDSi drug candidate.

He was also awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize. Seacology, the island conservation not-for-profit he founded, has set aside over 1.5 million acres of rainforest and coral reef in 67 countries around the world. He is the executive director of the Brain Chemistry Labs in Jackson, Wyoming, [00:02:00] where he and his colleagues are searching for new treatments for degenerative diseases like ALS and Alzheimer’s disease.

We're going to walk back in time to a few different scenes of Paul's life, and each one is connected to a scripture in the Book of Mormon that he chose.

Without further ado, let's get back to Samoa, our first stop.


[00:02:21] Rebecca: You're probably wondering what happened to that missionary. Did the congenital health issue go away and the missionary serve an uninterrupted and healthy mission on the island? Well, Paul stayed on his mission, but he didn't magically get better right away. He did, however, become the recipient of unexpected service.

[00:02:40] Paul: Our branch present was a man named Al Malosi. This guy had walked eight miles one way to come down almost every day. Occasionally he missed a few, but very few to teach me Samoan. His pedagogical technique was basically saying syllables that to my ears sound like booga booga booga. I [00:03:00] mean, I didn't know what he was saying. And then he'd make me repeat them. And sometimes he'd bring some of his chiefly friends along and they'd get great amusement from hearing me parrot these words, but I became extremely ill and he came down one day and by this time I'd learned enough Samoan that I could say, “I'm sorry. I can't have our lesson today. I'm sick.” And he said, “That’s not why I'm here.” He took this coconut basket and he spilled it out on the mat next to me. And out fall these little cans pears from New Zealand and ginger snaps and condensed milk. And I realized that this man had taken all the money he had in the world and gone over to the trader over in Sasina village and bought this imported stuff.

And then he said to me, he says, “Look, we don't know why you're sick. Maybe it’s because you're not used to our food. These [00:04:00] things came from where you came from; eat them instead.”

Well, I was totally shattered because I'd never had anybody do that for me before. Give me every scent they had in the world just to try and help me.

[00:04:18] Paul: Ether 12:27, " And if men come unto me, I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble. And my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me for if they humble themselves before me and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them. It doesn't say he'll remove the weakness.

What happened was by the people caring for me because of my weakness; my congenital illness, I decided that I wanted to care for them when I got in a [00:05:00] position to do so. And so I decided the best way I could do that would be to study the rainforest that they love so much and try to find a way to help them.

[00:05:08] Rebecca: Not only did it direct his career, it became a default setting for Paul, as we see years later when he found himself back in Samoa and a rainforest was about to collapse.

[00:05:21] Paul: We were in this little village with just the kids’ school books and my research gear living in a hut without electricity or running water. The loggers came to cut the forest down. The people were just heartbroken. I asked for a chance to meet with the chiefs. I asked them why they let the loggers in. They said, “Well, we're poor village. We have to come up with $85,000 to build this school. If we don't build it, the government will take the teachers away.”And I said, “Well, what if we could raise the money to build your school?” Boom. They sent some chiefs up with machetes - think of that - to chase away the loggers and the bulldozers.[00:06:00]

I came back to Barbara, and said, “Good news. We've saved a 30,000 acre rainforest. Maybe one of the biggest in the Island Pacific. Bad news is we're gonna have to sell our house, our car.” And you know if your marriage is working in a moment like that. Barbara looked into my eyes, took my hands, and said, “What a great opportunity, Paul. How many times in our life are we gonna get a chance to do something like this? Let's go for it.” So we started cashing out and our friends and family found out and made large gifts and within six weeks I had $85,000 and we didn't even lose our house.

We built the schools and that started the Seacology Foundation. And now in 67 countries, I think we've built 375 schools, hospitals, and medical clinics in return for the people protecting their coral reef for us. We've set aside 1.5 million acres.

I didn't have my illness removed, but it instilled in me a commitment to do whatever I could to help the Polynesian people.[00:07:00]

[00:07:08] Rebecca: Another group of people in humble circumstances were those who fled from the tyranny of the ancient king Noah in the Book of Mormon.

Mosiah 18 tells of a group of exiles persecuted for their beliefs, who retreat to a secluded location to practice their sacred rights. When I think of Mormon, I picture lush vegetation growing effortlessly and springs and waterfalls of freshwater unnoticed by an outside world; a paradise of sorts. Maybe a sort of Samoan rainforest.

While I don't know if it looked like the paradise I've painted in my mind, the account does say that it was on the borders of the land and in it was a fountain of pure water; a sustaining force for the inhabitants who were hiding there from the searches of the king.

They were living in constant peril, but it was the price they were willing to pay because

Mormon was a place where they heard the word of God.

Mormon was a place where they gained [00:08:00] or reinforced their spiritual convictions.

Mormon was a place of bounding in baptisms.

The record says that, “…all this was done in Mormon, yea, by the waters of Mormon in the forest that was near the waters of Mormon … How beautiful are they to the eyes of them who there came to the knowledge of their Redeemer. Yea, and how blessed are they for they shall sing to his praise forever.”

[00:08:22] Paul: I like this because they're saying, can you remember where you got your testimony? Can you remember where your first felt the Spirit of the Lord?

[00:08:29] Rebecca: For Paul, it was a particular place of rugged beauty where jagged peaks rise over rolling green meadows and carpets of pine trees.

[00:08:38] Paul: My dad was a park ranger in Grand Teton National Park running a trail crew. I noticed one of his workers kept getting up at six in the morning, and disappearing into the forest. Finally I asked him, “Why are you going out there?” He said, “I like to start my day right. I go out and read the good book,” and I thought, “Well, I'll do what Red Rope’s doing.” I started reading the New Testament. [00:09:00]

I live in Jackson Hole. I have a window in our cabin. We look out on the Tetons. I like to try and visit the spot where I really first felt the Spirit of the Lord sometimes. And so I totally get this verse here that these little people are hiding from oppressors trying to, you know, practice their faith, and that that was a precious place to them.

If there's a geography of faith; if you've have a place where you really felt touched by Heavenly Father, maybe it's not such a bad thing to go back to that place and see if there's an echo.

[00:09:33] Rebecca: Where is that place for you, if there is a place?

Where on the map of planet Earth are your waters of Mormon, and have you gone back to hear the echo?

Some years before Alma and his followers would find refuge at the waters of Mormon, King Benjamin gave a speech to his kingdom that has become revered scripture detailing [00:10:00] the essence of Christianity.

[00:10:01] Paul: and just for people that don't know the Book of Mormon well, King Benjamin gave a speech which was transformational for an entire generation of people.

Here's King Benjamin: “…and behold, I tell you these things that you may learn wisdom. That you may learn that when you are in the service of your fellow beings, you're only in the service of your God.

"And also ye yourselves will sucker those that stand in need of your sucker. You will administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need and you will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain and turn him out to perish."

And I bootlegged in a little verse, a little piece of verse 19: "Are we not all beggars?"

[00:10:46] Rebecca: That rhetorical question came to the forefront of Paul's mind one evening when he was a student at Harvard University on his way to a seafood dinner with a prominent evolutionary biologist.

[00:10:56] Paul: Imagine, you know, you're a thriving graduate [00:11:00] student and then the top guy in your field invites you to dinner. So I ran home, grabbed some cash. I'm running down Massachusetts Avenue there in Cambridge trying to get into this dinner on time.

As I'm running down, I see a guy, an old guy, and he sort of has his hand out a little bit and he's talking and I'm running so fast, this guy's like Doppler shifted; he's redshifted, and I made it about three blocks because my conscience just got to me. I remembered this verse; it just came back to me: “…will you suffer the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain?” So I stopped. I ran back to this guy and I said, “Excuse me, sir, you were trying to say something to me when I was running past you. What were you trying to say?”

And he said to me, “I'm hungry. Can you help?” And I looked at him and I mean, this guy's old enough to be my dad and he was gaunt, [00:12:00] and I realized he wasn't lying to me. This poor man hadn't eaten. He had holes in his shoes that he put newspaper into to try to keep warm. And I just thought, “Oh my,” you know, so I took him into a restaurant and I gave the waitress - it was a lot of money for me as a graduate student; I can't remember what it was, $25 or $30, whatever it was. She looked at him as scant when he came in and I said, “Look, would you please give my friend whatever he wants to eat and then keep the rest for a tip for yourself?” “Yes,” she said. “Sure,” and I ran to my meeting and I thought, you know, if I hadn't stopped for this man, he might have died. It was a cold November day in Cambridge, Mass. He didn't have a coat.

 That changed the way I look at people in trouble.

I think the Book of Mormon is a manual more than a theological treatise. [00:13:00] I think about Christ, what he did, and then if we all obeyed what he told us to do: to love one another, to be forgiving, to be kind, to deescalate, to treat others as His children. To me, the Book of Mormon really is a testament; a new testament of Jesus Christ.

[00:13:23] Rebecca: Back in the summer of this year after this interview with Paul Cox, I hopped in my car to run an errand, heading straight for the freeway. As I pulled up to the light, ahead on the sidewalk in front of me was a man selling roses. My thoughts flew back to the interview with Paul. I thought of the young graduate student running along a cold Cambridge road and seeing a man near death call out to him. I thought of King Benjamin's rhetorical question, “Are we not all beggars?” And though I didn't know the situation of this man selling the roses, I rolled down my window.

I stuck my arm out of the window and waved him down. I told him I didn't have any cash, but that I would [00:14:00] go get some and come back. Would he be there? I asked, hopeful. He said that for a few minutes, he would.

I got on the freeway and got off the next exit. I pulled into a gas station and ran inside. I bought a banana and asked for cash back.

I jumped in the car, praying all the way back that he would be at that same freeway entrance. To my relief, the man with the roses had not left. I rolled down my window a second time, asked for one rose, and handed him the banana and cash.

Would I have done that as eagerly had I not heard Paul's interview that day?

[00:14:33] Paul: The other thing I'd say is that I've found that service is seldom convenient. Just like me running past that poor man who hadn't eaten for several days, and I was so anxious to get on with my career. I mean, service opportunities leap out. And I think, “Okay, God brought this person into my orbit. How can I help them?” I think a lot of times people are brought [00:15:00] into our orbits and God brings 'em there.

And I really believe that in so many ways, I think President Kimble said something like this, that we can pray for miracles, but it's actually the hands and hearts of human beings that make those miracles happen. We're here to care for each other. And that's why it's seldom convenient to do service. But boy, when that opportunity knocks, you think, “I'm not just helping this guy; that could have been Jesus standing there.”

[00:15:34] Rebecca: Running to the aid of other people has remained a guiding principle throughout Dr. Cox's career. Paul is constantly working to find cures and treatments for some of today's most dreaded diseases, and this is where we get into cyanobacteria.

You might have heard of it and maybe not, I hadn't before this interview.

Cyanobacteria are single-celled organisms found in all types of water. Also, they happen to be the earth's oldest [00:16:00] organism. Much of Dr. Cox's research has focused on the link between cyanobacteria and degenerative neural diseases like Alzheimer's or ALS or Parkinson's disease.

But before they were helping scientists like Dr. Cox unravel medical mysteries, they had another job to do.

[00:16:18] Paul: Over billions of years, all that these little cyanobacteria do is they get the light and they split water; split the same thing every day. Let's split this into hydrogen and oxygen and I'll take the electrons, thank you, boom. I mean over three and a half billion years they built the oxygen atmosphere of the earth and then it was actually suitable for people to live on it. So, uh, small means. The Lord uses small means to bring about great things.

[00:16:40] Rebecca: Paul noted that nature is full of tiny details that add up to testify of the existence of God.

[00:16:46] Paul: and Alma said, “…the scriptures lay before the and all things do denote there is a God. Even the earth, all things upon the face of it and its motion and all the planets which move in the irregular form [00:17:00] do witness that there is a Supreme Creator.”

When I walk through the rain forest and I look up at the canopy of leaves and see the light filtering through it, I feel as if I were in a cathedral. I feel as if I'm seeing the face of God.

[00:17:23] Rebecca: I asked Paul what he would say to someone who doesn't have any sort of belief in God.

[00:17:28] Paul: Read the Book of Mormon.

Read the Book of Mormon.

Read the Book of Mormon.

That will do more to change your life than any other book.

[00:17:40] Rebecca: And as the scientist that he is, Dr. Cox added,

[00:17:43] Paul: You can pray and ask Heavenly Father if it’s true. That's called an experiment in science. Here are the materials and methods. Here's what you do. You pray about it. You read it. Here are the results. And millions of people have done that. Millions of people. [00:18:00] I know some people don't feel they've been touched by God and God touches all of us in very different ways.

Faith is like a small flame. We make an experiment. We see that the flame grows brighter and we take the next experiment. We continue to move on. This is what we're taught. So again, my view is if you really want to believe in God or you're curious, read the Book of Mormon.

[00:18:25] Rebecca: going back to cyanobacteria, I think of how powerful something so tiny and microscopic and unassuming can be.

I think of how one person could completely alter the trajectory of their entire career because of a Samoan chief's act of kindness in an hour of grave illness.

I think of how an entire rainforest and now many, many more have been saved because a couple cared enough to do something about it when they saw the trees falling.

I think of how [00:19:00] one person could have a profound experience with God walking in the Tetons.

I think of how one line of scripture from a king who lived thousands of years ago spurred the small gesture of Paul running back on a Cambridge road to buy a dinner for a man near his deathbed on a cold fall.

I think about how the tiniest details in nature point to God, and I think of how really, like Nephi says, “…out of small things are great things brought to pass.”

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This is a Scripture Central podcast directed by James Dalrymoke and I produced this episode with script contributions by Ryan Kunz. I'm Rebecca Devonas, and this is In The Book.