Interview by Andrea Midgett
David Mery graduated from Cornell in December 2014, never expecting he would return to Chesterton House to live. But when his longstanding goal of being accepted into a PhD program in Pharmaceutical Sciences was delayed, and he needed a place to live within easy access of the CU lab where he was working, the doors that had swung open for him as an undergraduate opened again.
The following comments are edited from a conversation with Mery that took place this past February. Articulate, sincere, and focused, Mery discussed his unusual journey to Cornell, his experience as a Chesterton House resident, and what led to his incessant passion to make a difference in medicine. He begins graduate school this summer at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.
Tell me about your early life. Was it a given you would one day attend Cornell?
I grew up in a blue-collar family in Poughkeepsie, NY, the third of eight children. My father is a railroad mechanic with a high school diploma. He likes what he does and admires men who can work with their hands. My mother has a degree in early childhood education. She homeschooled all of us, all the way through high school. She struggled to keep us in line. I thwarted her every chance I got. I didn’t like school, didn’t think math made any sense, and didn’t like writing.
By the time I was in the 11th grade, I was working in a paint shop. I would come home at night and spit up paint particulates that came through the mask I wore. It was frustrating, and I knew I was crafted for something else. But I couldn’t even add fractions well enough to mix paint. Other kids my age thought – and told me – I was stupid.
How did you go from being an academically struggling teenager to being a Cornell undergrad?
We had a next-door neighbor I could talk to. I told him everything. One day he asked me, “What is the one thing I could do for you that would give you enough confidence to convince you to go to college?” I told him I needed to learn how to do math. So he set me up with a math tutor. I was eventually able to pay the tutor through my paint job. That was the first time a job like that had a purpose for me, to throw me onto a college trajectory.
I became completely devoted to learning math. I started with Algebra I, which I couldn’t really do. Every lesson, my tutor would have to go back and teach me lots of background material. It took us a long time to get through each lesson. We did this for two years. I always had a lot of homework, but I kept at it. I remember the day I completed the Algebra I book. After that, I had confidence I could maybe actually go to college.
Why were you focused on math, a subject you had an inherent dislike for, and not something in the humanities, like history?
When I was 10 years old, one of my best neighborhood friends was a six-year-old girl. She was vivacious and beautiful. We all ran around together until one day she just disappeared. When she eventually showed up again, she was very different from before – a pale, almost death-like image. She had lost all her hair. She was bloated. She only left her house to go to the doctor. It was terrifying.
I asked everyone I could find what had happened to her. They told me she had contracted acute lymphocytic leukemia. They said the doctors were tying to help her, but to me they were killing her. When I got sick I got to take some great-tasting medicine to get well! She was receiving chemotherapy, and it was making her so sick. Ever since then I have wanted to study leukemia, cancer cells and cancer treatment. But I had to learn how to do math and chemistry first.
You learned enough with your tutor to apply to Cornell?
No. (Laughing.) I didn’t even know what Cornell was until I heard John Travolta’s character say he went to Cornell Law in the movie “A Civil Action.” Before that, I started taking classes at the local community college. I took all the math and chemistry I could. (I had started teaching myself chemistry on the side once I learned math fundamentals.)
I graduated from the community college in three years, with no direction other than I needed to learn a lot more about chemistry. I applied to a few universities and was accepted at Cornell, though it was not my top choice. My father mistakenly threw away my letter of acceptance to the school that was my first choice because I had already been accepted at Cornell, and he didn’t know I would want to – and was waiting – to hear from another school. I never saw the letter! I now believe the Lord was directing me here.
How did you come in contact with Chesterton House?
I called a local (Ithaca) Assemblies of God church, the denomination I grew up in, and asked where I might find some Christian community. They told me about Chesterton House. I came up to interview with Karl, who asked me in his very intense way why I wanted to live at Chesterton House. Was it my decision or my parents?
And what has living at Chesterton House been like for you? Was it easier or harder than you expected? Has living in the House conflicted with your life as a student?
A lot of my thinking changed in the two and half years it took me to finish my bachelor’s degree in Biology. (I concentrated in molecular biology.) I grew up in a church where people thought there were missionaries and pastors – and then there was everyone else. People who missed hearing the voice of God or who rebelled in some way found themselves in secular work. Living at Chesterton House, I was able to marry my intense passion for cancer treatment research with my faith. I eventually realized cancer research is, for me, a kind of worship.
Were there particular conversations or influences that led you to such an understanding?
A really significant book for me was one we read as a House, Andy Crouch’s Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power. I was so burned out and overwhelmed when I first came to Cornell. I didn’t know how to balance everything. I had never lived away from home before, and my home life had been very different from that of a lot of Cornell undergraduates. I had a lot of fears, and I was in a wrong relationship with a young woman from home. Crouch’s book taught me even Jesus needed to rest. And He was interruptible. We think of power as something evil because it is so often wrongly used. But Jesus had power. He was able to able to minister to and heal people because He had power. And Jesus could be interrupted. He wasn’t so busy he forgot people’s needs.
That helped me. I was walking far from God, but I could never walk too far, because the guys in the House would always pull me back. I realized that though they lived and worked and were students at the same elite institution I was, they allowed themselves to be interrupted for my sake. In those interruptions some of the best conversations and changes could happen.
It all began to make sense to me. People spend time with you because they think you are valuable.
When you think of Chesterton House, what do you think of? Anyone or anything is particular?
I think of living in the community, sharing rooms and meals and chores. One RA, Derek Plotkowski, who was also in Biology, was a great help to me. I grew up around people who didn’t know a lot about science or cancer or any of those kinds of things. The atmosphere at Cornell was so competitive, and I was realizing that though I had a 4.0 from my community college, everyone here had those kinds of grades. My community college classes had been pretty sub par; they just weren’t at the same level of rigor. I needed to be putting more and more work in, but even when I did I kept falling further behind.
Derek saw I was struggling and took me out for a burger and ice cream – and it changed my life. Just having this guy invest in me and buy me ice cream. I needed to feel like a kid, to feel taken care of because my life was just so tough at that point.
I skipped a lot of House dinners that first semester. I wasn’t really a part of the community. I was taking a lot without giving back. I was also quite angry about some of the House rules. But God changed me. He changed my diligence, my academics, what I thought about Scripture. But first He changed my heart.
Did you ever feel everyone at Chesterton House was on the same page except for you?
Life at the House is all about learning to live with tension and learning to compromise. There are Christians of all persuasions: Catholics, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, Orthodox. You clash in some unexpected ways. But you get to know the people you live with, and you realize you can’t just write them off. You can’t just go hide in your little spiritual corner and talk about how “these people” don’t know what they are talking about. You have to engage. You have to learn to ask yourself, “What are the things that really matter to me? What might I not be ‘right’ on?”
I’ve had a lot of setbacks. I worked in construction for a while after I graduated and almost gave up going for my PhD. Returning to Cornell and Chesterton House gave me the intellectual, psychological, and spiritual impetus I needed to keep pushing for what I am most passionate about.
I am not giving up this time.