Moving Mountains
one stone at a time

This address is inspired by an address by an American Unitarian, the Rev.Elizabeth Nguyen from the summer of 2019 and I’ve borrowed her title too “Moving mountains, one stone at a time”. Elizabeth prefaces her address with the following:

As Unitarian Universalists, our journey is to transform the big and the small, to transform ourselves, and to transform the world.

Lao Tzu said "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step".

And the title of this address also echoes Confucius’ words:
“The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.”

Today I’m exploring what taking that first step can do to transform ourselves and the world

The concept of changing yourself to change the world is one embraced by many philosophies and belief systems.

The Persian mystic Rumi said
“Yesterday I was clever so I wanted to change the world,
Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”

The Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt has written, “The truth is this: If there is no justice, there will be no peace . . . if we cannot bring justice to the small circle of our own individual lives, we cannot hope to bring justice to the world. And if we do not bring justice to the world, none of us is safe and none of us will survive”
          And you don’t have to look too hard for examples of people who have achieved great things after taking a first, small step.
          Small steps like a 15 year old Swedish girl standing all alone with her sign outside her school protesting about climate change and now that first small step by Greta Thunberg has inspired millions of other young people globally to strike for global climate change and forced this area of concern to be higher up on the agenda of many reluctant politicians.
          Small steps like when, in 1984, a 21-year-old cashier in Dunnes Stores, Henry St, Mary Manning, refused to put some South Africa oranges through her till in a protest against the South African apartheid regime. She was suspended and nine of her colleagues walked out the door with her and this small step led to a wide-spread boycott of South African goods and eventually resulted in the Irish government being the first in the western world to ban the importation of South African goods. The impact of this small act, this single step, can be measured by the fact that Nelson Mandela said it gave him “great hope and inspiration” whilst he was still in prison.
          Ruth Bader Ginsburg said: “Real change, enduring change happens one step at a time” and instinctively we know this is to be true.
          Anyone who has tried to change anything, be it something with a global impact or just a change we want to see in ourselves, knows it’s that first small step that is key, it’s that getting up and deciding to start and then to take the next small step and the next one and sometimes to go back to the beginning again and start all over again with another small step.
          Marci Shimoff, an American author sums up this approach nicely:
          “To make the quickest progress, you don’t have to take huge leaps. You just have to take baby steps - and keep on taking them. In Japan, they call this approach kaizen, which literally translates as ‘continual improvement.’ Using kaizen, great and lasting success is achieved through small, consistent steps. It turns out that slow and steady is the best way to overcome your resistance to change.”
          As I spoken of here before, I’m a chemist and have worked at the bench, in industry and lecturing for over a quarter of a century and progress in my field is almost always through incremental steps, thousands of tiny steps each of which moves our knowledge and skill along centimetre by centimetre until the sum of the knowledge acquired leads to new drugs or vaccines or technologies.
          Normally the path to the development of a drug or vaccine takes over a decade from identifying what we call the druggable target, though in vitro/ in-vivo pre-clinical development, to early stage clinical trials looking at if a drug is safe in a handful of volunteers, to large scale clinical trials involving thousands of volunteers, to look at how efficacious the therapeutic is. This process is necessarily very time consuming and expensive and the typical chance of success from identifying the first potential drug target through to producing a tablet or a vial that you get in the pharmacy is estimated to be 1 in 10,000 – that means for every 10,000 initial possible druggable targets identified by a scientist in a research lab, only one ends up being manufactured. In the industry we call this the “leaky sieve” and lots of people, including me are trying to reduce these timelines and increase the odds of success for developing drugs. But progress has been very slow.
          A stunning example of a change in the way we produce new therapeutics is in the development of a COVID 19 vaccine. You may have seen the very positive news reported this week of interim Phase III clinical trials of a vaccine being developed in collaboration by Pfizer and BioNTech. The progress of this vaccine through pre-clinical and clinical trials is extraordinary and truly is an example of thousands and thousands of scientists, clinicians and clinical trial volunteers moving a mountain one stone at a time.
          By the time that the first cases of COVID19 were being diagnosed outside of China in early January 2020, scientists worldwide were already working on developing therapeutics and vaccines to combat it. All across the world in academic and commercial R&D labs, scientists were working on isolating the genetic component of the virus. Normally this happens in isolation in individual labs or with a very limited number of collaborators, but this time there was an understanding that this approach wasn’t going to work, a fundamental change in the way research happens needed to occur. Many research groups began to published their results as open source – making them available for everyone else working in the field and this had the effect of significantly decreasing the time taken for the pre-clinical phase of the work on developing a new vaccine. Many prestigious journals expedited publishing articles containing this data and in some cases made it available for free. On March the 16th , the National Institute of Health in America announced the start of the first clinical trial for a potential Covid19 vaccine. To put this in context - this was 3 days after our government announced the first lockdown, just over 2 weeks since the first diagnosed case in Ireland and less than two months since the first COVID-19 case appeared in the United States.
          In effect almost all R&D in the pharma industry pivoted and focussed on development of new vaccines for COVID19. By May companies, like Moderna and Pfizer were announcing that they were ready to enter into Phase 1 clinical trials for their vaccine candidates.
          To ensure that a vaccine or a drug is both safe and efficacious you need to trial it in thousands of people – this is a process that typically take up to 5 years or more, and involves engaging clinics to take part, enrolling volunteers, dosing and monitoring the volunteers, but this year in the fight against a global pandemic, many people taking many small steps at the same time did the heavy lifting here. Hundreds of thousands of volunteers who wanted to be involved in the clinical trials were recruited, clinics and doctors rapidly enrolled them and scientists and clinicians and statisticians world-wide rapidly prepared for analysis of the trial data.
          Many of the bodies that regulate the approval of drugs worldwide collaborated and agreed a broadly common approach for assessment of these new vaccines (this was really significant as it is something we’ve tried and failed achieve in the industry for decades). Interim trail data, that is the data from the trials while they are still happening, was released publically, allowing other groups to benefit immediately from those learnings.
          At the same time companies and governments were collaborating in ways not seen before – plans were being made to produce commercial batches of the vaccines that were currently in clinical trials, even before it was clear if they were going to work or not. Telescoping of these steps that normally take place sequentially meant that the development timelines for the vaccine have been reduced from years to months and not only does it look very likely that there will be a number of viable vaccines available either later this year or early next year, but there will also be a sufficient supply to vaccinate billions of people.
          I’ve found myself reflecting on the arc of this work and although it’s a million miles away from most of our daily lives, it is amazing to think of the progress being brought about by millions of tiny incremental steps by hundreds and thousands of volunteers and scientists and clinicians in labs and hospitals and manufacturing plants all over the world and that some day soon all this effort will hopefully mean that you and I can be back in our church in Stephen’s Green in person, enjoying singing our hymns and sharing our time of community prayer and reflection.
          But for now we’re are all stuck at home, watching this service on zoom and our world has shrunk to a physical radius of 5km. This has been a very challenging time for everyone, even if we have been lucky and our loved ones have not contracted COVID19, we have been physically separated from those we love, we’ve missed graduations and birthdays and weddings and funerals, some of us have lost our employment or our businesses and everyone is struggling with the limitations these restrictions have imposed.
          Our world is smaller and more isolated and it can be easy to feel that this leaves us unable to engage and contribute in ways that we might have before. But maybe, just maybe there is an opportunity in this enforced pause, maybe there are new, tiny, tentative first steps we can take – maybe it’s to try something we’ve always wanted to do, maybe it’s to write a note to reach out to someone we’ve lost touch with, maybe it’s to write a card to a prisoner of conscience, I’m sure each of you can come up with many more meaningful examples that have resonance in your lives, something that speaks to you and moves you. And maybe now is the time for that teeny tiny step, one you don’t have to announce from the rooftops, one you don’t have to tell anyone else about. Maybe it’s time for that one step that suggests itself if you listen to that quiet voice that speaks when you give yourself the time and place to hear it, one that might just make your soul sing – and who knows it might just be that first step on a precious road to moving a mountain!

Elaine Harris
Dublin Unitarian Church