Dr. James M. Tour, a synthetic organic chemist, joined the Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology at Rice University in 1999, where he is presently the T. T. and W. F. Chao Professor of Chemistry, Professor of Computer Science, and Professor of Materials Science and NanoEngineering.
Tour’s scientific research areas are broad, including medical, mechanical and bioengineering solutions. He has published myriad research articles, developed many patents, and formed several businesses. Tour has received numerous awards for his research, and for his work as a professor. He has served on many boards, consultancy groups, committees and panels, bringing his expertise to each arena. Dr. Tour is married to Shireen; they have four children. A weekly gathering that the Tours host has become a place of discipleship for college students and fellow church members.
Rice University’s Dr. James Tour sweeps over complex terminology adroitly, explaining the microscopic processes that he has come to know so well. The scientist is especially known for his development of nanocars, a molecule which has garnered attention worldwide.
“A nanocar is a single molecule,” he explained. “It has a chassis, axles, wheels and motor. You can park about 50,000 of them across the diameter of a human hair. We make a billion, billion of them at a time.” Tour’s team recently won a nanocar race in Toulouse, France, beating competition by a longshot. They finished in 90 minutes, while the next team finished five hours later. The rest of the teams did not finish within the 30-hour time limit.
But Dr. Tour’s goal is far beyond accomplishing things of mere scientific interest. His research areas include carbon nanovectors for medical applications, green carbon study for environmentally friendly oil and gas extraction, water purification, hydrogen storage and more. He has even developed science curriculum for K-12 students.
One of his most promising studies involves fusion of a separated spinal cord. “We’ve developed a material where we can take a split spinal cord of a rodent, put one drop of the material on it, and then put it back together,” he said. “In that one drop, there is one percent of graphene nanoribbons. The nanoribbons will align longitudinally with the spinal cord. And then what happens is that the neurons grow from top to bottom, and then from bottom to top. Without the graphene nanoribbons, they just miss each other. So, two weeks after the surgery, the rodent can walk just fine. It scored an 18 out of 21 in mobility, with 21 being perfect mobility. In three weeks, it scored a 19, able to run and do most everything that it was doing. This particular rodent had still a little bit of a curl in one of its paws. But hopefully we’ll get better at that.”
In John 14:12, Jesus says, “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things that these, because I am going to the Father.” Tour aims to do just that. “We’re working on restoring optic nerves where we could do whole eye transplants – something that’s never been done. We already have in our group where we’ve developed a system that can restore hearing. We want to restore walking. We want to restore seeing. We want to make the lame walk, the blind see and the deaf hear. We want to do the works of Jesus Christ.”
With the nanocars specifically, Tour envisions them being utilized in biotechnology. “We have motorized versions, too, where you shine a light on them and they will propel across the surfaces. The motor spins at three million rotations per second. We’ve now translated these and taken the wheels off them and are using them in solution to drill into cells,” he said. “We’re using it as a new way to do therapy. We put a peptide on them, which is a small protein. And that will target a specific cell type, and then it goes and it binds to that cell. Then we turn them on, and the motor goes on and drills a hole into the cell. It kills it in about one minute. And so now we’re targeting things like pre-melanoma and seeing if we can use it to target specific cancer cells and very rapidly kill them. So, we’re moving it more into a medical scenario.”
The possibilities of the natural world are only beginning to be tapped into, he said. For Tour, his passion for science is not surpassed by his love of the Maker of it all. Before he became a researcher and professor, Tour was a young man who knew very little about the God of the Bible.
COMING TO FAITH
“I grew up in a very secular Jewish family in the suburbs of New York City. I didn’t know the difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament. I had picked up a Bible a few times and tried to read it. It never made any sense as a child. We never talked about God in my home. We went to the synagogue a few times a year. And I think the difference between my home and many other Jewish homes is that we were never taught against Jesus Christ. Most Jewish homes speak poorly of Jesus. And because of that, it’s harder to speak to people about Jesus,” he said. “So, when somebody told me that he would like to share with me an illustration of the Gospel, and Jesus was then presented, I didn’t immediately discount him, because I had never been told anything negative about Jesus. And then when I was deeply convicted by the Scriptures that I was reading, it just really hit me. And I was exposed to my sin for the first time. Modern secular Judaism does not look at sin; it does not consider sin. When I was confronted with my sin, my first realization I had, when I was 18 years old, is that I was a sinner. It really hit me. Then, a few months after realizing that I was a sinner, I prayed and invited Jesus into my life. He lifted that burden of sin from me. It really affected me. Jesus stood in my presence, though I couldn’t see Him. I was on my knees. And His presence is so delightful. I wasn’t scared. I just couldn’t stop weeping. It was so overwhelming. To this day, I remember it very clearly. And He’s given His life for me. And He continues to lead me.”
While faith must be accepted with an element of trust, it is not so different from many scientific tenets that are taken by faith, Tour said. “A lot of science is inference based upon facts,” he said. Tour is truly a student of the Bible. The Scripture God has revealed is precious to him; he has studied it as diligently as he has studied science and molecules.
His typical mornings begin at 3 a.m. “Actually, the first thing I do is I just fall on my knees and I spend 45 minutes in prayer. There are a few things on my prayer list that I pray specifically for every day. I just look through the list and offer those up to the Lord. Jesus says in John chapter 17, ’I glorified You on Earth by accomplishing the work that You have given me to do.’ I say, ’Lord, let me glorify you by accomplishing this day the work that you’ve given me to do.’ And I’ll repeat that each morning. And then I pray. I pray for conversions – that I would see people come to the Lord. I say, ’Lord, don’t let this week go by without a conversion. Let me see somebody brought to Christ.’ And then I pray that He gives me the wisdom like Bezalel had, who constructed the tabernacle across many disciplines. He was skilled in all sorts of matter of bronze, gold, silver, wood and fabrics – very unusual. And he had the ability to teach it. Bezalel creativity: creativity comes from God. Something that is really different – something that someone else in the world doesn’t see that you see. And I’ll wash up and then read the Bible, spending time and meditation on the Word of God. I pick up where I left off the day before and then also prepare for the Bible study that I teach each week, and read the Scriptures and just say, ’Lord, speak to me through this passage. What do you want me to say?’ There’s so much that could be said. Our biggest problem in the Scriptures is that we have an embarrassment of riches. ’What shall I say Lord? What shall I bring out? Lord speak to me.’”
Tour’s meditation time on the Word of God is precious, and has borne fruit in his life, as the Holy Spirit brings to the forefront the Scriptures that apply to his situation. When he and his wife, Shireen, had been married for only a few years and Tour was in graduate school, they started a Bible study in their home. Some of their student guests were very casual, putting their shoes on furniture and letting food drop off their plates. A few days after one of the studies, their toddler daughter found a lingering chicken bone behind a couch cushion and put it in her mouth, leading to a scare for her parents.
“The students would come in and they were messy. The chicken bone – that’s what really set me off. But the Lord spoke to me. I was praying about this. And God spoke to me through the Scriptures, through Proverbs 14:4. It says, ’Where no oxen are, the manger is clean, but much increase comes by the strength of the ox.’ I knew, ’If you want to see the power of God in these people’s lives, these student’s lives, the manger is going to get dirty.’ And so that changed. And I said, ’Forever our home would be open.’ So now we have a lot of students in it. But we just paint a lot and replace furniture and shampoo the furniture and things like that.”
Also as a young man, Tour made it a priority to invest in his family. Each morning he would wake his children at 5:30 so they could have family devotions together. “I would read through the story of the Bible. We would have portions that we would be memorizing together. Then we would get on our knees and each of us would pray. I’m not a trained Bible teacher, but I taught them. I read to them the Word of God. I did the best I knew how. I wasn’t always perfect. A lot of times, I was tired myself.”
Tour explains the deep relevance of Scripture in his daily life. “Moses said in Deuteronomy 32, ’This word that I’ve spoken to you, you are to command your sons carefully to observe. It is not an idle word for you. Indeed, it is your life.’ I believe the Scriptures. Every word of God in that book, every word is true. It is never contested. There’s never been a contest between the Bible and any scientific fact. There has been controversy between what the Bible says and scientific speculation. But the speculations constantly are changing. There has never been a problem between what the Bible says and a scientific fact. This is my life – the Scriptures. The Scriptures are my life. They speak to me. God speaks to me primarily through the Scriptures. I read them from Genesis chapter 1 to Revelation chapter 22. And then when I’m done, I start again. And I leave off just where I left off the day before every day for the past 40 years. It is my life.”
Being a devout believer and a leading scientist isn’t unheard of, but it’s rare. Tour stands strong in the origin of life debate. “When I look at biological systems, and the amazing functionality of a biological system, even if we just take a cell – just a single cell – and you look at the mechanisms within that cell, it is utterly amazing. How can you look at that and just say, ’Oh well, 3.8 billion years ago, under a rock, it just got started up’ – that’s idiocy. It is amazing to look at that. You don’t even have to look at a human being with all of this. You just look at a single cell – a simple cell and the mechanisms within that cell are huge in complexity,” he said.
Part of being a good scientist is realizing what is still unknown. And the more Tour has learned and studied, the more he is in wonder of creation. “Take any chemist, any biochemist, any evolutionary biologist, and say, ’I will give you all the components of a cell. I’ll give you all the nucleic acids, all the proteins, all the lipids and all the carbohydrates. Could you hook them up in the orders that they need to be hooked up?’ The answer is ’no.’ ’But even if I gave them to you in whatever order hooked up that you wanted, could you then put them together in the cell and have the cell operate?’ And the answer is ’no.’ Anybody who would claim otherwise is a rookie. They really don’t know what they’re talking about. We have no idea how to get this thing working. And when you put it all together, what is the spark of life that gets the thing running? How do you start this thing? Nobody knows. When something dies, it’s very hard to even explain what it is you’ve lost when the cell has stopped functioning. Try to restart that thing – very hard. You don’t even know.”
The discrimination against people of faith within the scientific community is an ongoing issue, Tour said. “They make it so hard for people to speak up. You take a young assistant professor who is going to speak up boldly about his or her faith – and then you threaten that person, that if you don’t follow the party line, you’re not going to get into the societies. I mean, it’s a frightening thing. You wanted conformity? Okay, you’ve got it. This is part of why I’m here. We have to fill universities with people who love the Lord and are not afraid to talk about Him. I even understand and I see myself what’s happened in the last 20 years with my being here at Rice. Students used to come to me to say, ’Biology professor so-and-so is mocking Christians all the time.’ Mocking Christians? Why would they want to do that? Have they not enough biology to teach? Why don’t they come and mock me? We’ll go toe-to-toe. Would you like to put your credentials against mine and tell me how stupid I am? And they can mock me and tell me how silly I am. And we’ll put my credentials against theirs. Students don’t come and tell me this anymore. I think it’s shut the mouths of people.”
Although he hasn’t been welcomed into all circles, Tour’s love of God, people and science has remained intact. “So many mornings, I wake up and feel defeated. I spend time in Scriptures and in prayer, and I come out a roaring lion. Jesus Christ changes lives. He’s the Creator of the universe. He was in the beginning before anything was and anything that’s been created – He did it. Then He lived this perfect life – this perfect life before us – teaching us what it is to walk with God, to have a relationship with the Father. I shudder to think of what my life would be like without Him. If I had to come to work every day and I were just a regular scientist, it would be terribly boring. I know Jesus Christ is with me. I know the God of the universe who created the heavens and the earth guides me. And the only thing that holds me back is my insufficiency of faith. He does great things and He has great things planned for me. By His grace, we swerve into things. I just trust Him. And I want to glorify Him on earth by accomplishing the work that He’s given me to do.”
Visit JMTour.com to learn more.