Archives

Brett Blaauw ’05

Brett co-authored a paper that appeared in the Journal of Applied Ecology. According to paper’s other co-author, Rufus Isaacs, theirs is the first paper that demonstrates an economic advantage for farmers when they create wild bee habitat next to cultivated fields. The two entomologists planted marginal land surrounding blueberry fields with a mix of native perennial wildflowers. Even though the fields were pollinated by honey bees trucked in for the purpose, Brett discovered that, after a period of two years, the rising population of wild bees increased blueberry yields by 10 to 20 percent. That increase more than offset the costs of making the marginal land attractive to wild bee populations. Brett was the lead author on the paper. The K biology major completed his Ph.D. at Michigan State University under Isaacs and is now working at Rutgers University.

Nancy Huntly ’77

Nancy is the Scientist in Residency Fellow for the month of September at the Sitka Sound Science Center. Nancy is a professor in the biology department and the director of the ecology center at Utah State University (Logan). She also chairs the committee that administers Science Unwrapped, the USU College of Science public engagement program. She earned her B.A. in biology at K and her Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology from the University of Arizona. Since 2004 she has studied the human ecology of the northern Gulf of Alaska region. Her interests in Alaska are particularly in landscape legacies, food webs, and sustainable resource use.

Dan Babbitt ’96

Biologist, educator, and “bug geek,” Dan manages the O. Orkin Insect Zoo and Butterfly Pavilion (part of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History). He contributed his expertise to a recent NPR report (the delightfully titled “How Animals Hacked the Rainbow and Got Stumped on Blue”) about the evolution of the uses of color by animals. Turns out that living and reproducing depended occasionally on an organism’s ability to make itself a certain color. And it further turns out that the color blue was difficult for animals to make by ingesting dietary pigments (many animals get their color from their food). According to Dan, if you can’t make blue, then make the optical technology to appear blue. The entomologist then provides a beautiful example–the blue morpho butterfly, some of which he keeps at his insect zoo. They have tiny transparent structures on their wing surface that reflect light in a way that makes the wings appear so blue it hurts your eyes. But ground up wings, robbed of the reflective prism structures, look gray or brown. At K Dan majored in biology, and his study abroad in Ecuador gave him ample opportunity to pursue his love of insects, a passion he traces back to his freshman year aquatic ecology class. Dan has never forgotten the influence of K on the trajectory of his career. Not long ago he sponsored a K externship at the insect zoo.

J. Peter Coppinger ’99

Peter is an associate professor of biology at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Indiana. Peter’s research interests include plant-microbe interactions and identification of phytoplasma in wildflowers. He teaches courses in cell and molecular biology, genetics, industrial microbiology, and plant biology. Peter earned his bachelor’s degree in biology and studied abroad in Aberdeen Scotland. After he graduated from K he was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship and studied rainforest ecophysiology at Macquarie Univeristy in Sydney, Australia. He earned his Ph.D. in plant biology at the University of California at Berkeley.

Dan Blustein ’06

Dan is the subject of “Member Spotlight” for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The article (by Laura Petersen) is titled “Dan Blustein journeys from marine biology to Hollywood and back again,” and it’s a good read, chronicling his interesting forays in the saga explicit in the title–though “back again” might more accurately refer to “marine robotics” rather than marine biology. Of particular note is the reference to Dan’s opportunities in K’s externship program. Those two experiences, one with octopi at the Seattle Aquarium and the other job-shadowing a physician, helped clarify what he wanted to do. Of course the article showcases that Dan’s path has been more spiral than straight line. How cool (and liberal arts!) is that.

Jacob Meyers ’08

Jacob recently completed his Ph.D. at Colorado State University. He has been conducting research on new approaches to control disease-carrying mosquitoes. His research was described in a paper–”Mosquitocidal properties of IgG targeting the glutamate-gated chloride channel in three mosquito disease vectors (Diptera: Culicidae)”–that was published in the May issue of Journal for Experimental Biology. And his paper was highlighted as the “Editor’s Choice” for that issue of the journal. Despite the fact that malaria mortality rates have fallen steadily since 2000, the disease threatens half the human population and kills one child every minute. Moreover, resistance in mosquitoes to the primary pesticide used to control them is increasing. A new mosquitocidal candidate has arisen in an old drug, ivermectin, which has been successfully used against parasitic worms that cause diseases such as onchocerciasis (River Blindness). However, little was known about the process by which ivermectin worked against mosquitoes. Jacob’s research elucidated the site (called the glutamate-gated chloride channel, part of the insect’s nervous system) and the mechanism of action at that site which were responsible for ivermectin’s effectiveness. Based on what was learned from that discovery, Jacob tested a new strategy, essentially substituting for ivermectin an antibody to the glutamate gated chloride channel. His preliminary tests confirmed the antibody insecticide’s effectiveness against the mosquito that transmits malaria. In two other disease-carrying mosquitoes (yellow fever and West Nile virus) the antibody did not pass across the gut, which prevented any insecticidal effect. The next step is to immunize cattle with the antibody. Cattle are a major source of blood meals for mosquitoes. It is hoped that malaria-bearing mosquitoes that consume cattle blood carrying the toxic antibodies during the malaria parasite’s incubation period would die, disrupting transmission of the disease. A new antibody insecticide may offer hope for a malaria-free future.

Jacob is married to classmate Alyssa Brayshaw ’08. This year Alyssa was awarded a prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship to support her doctoral work. She will begin work in the fall on her Ph.D. at Texas A&M University. She plans to focus her research in the field of wildlife disease ecology, concentrating on Chagus Disease, which threatens to cross the Texas-Mexico border. Jacob was offered and accepted a post-doctoral position at Texas A&M in the lab of a population geneticist studying mosquito populations on Bioko Island and other field sites in West Africa. Jacob majored in chemistry at K. Alyssa majored in biology and studied abroad in Nairobi, Kenya.

 

Earth Words

“. . . we go to poetry … so that we might more fully inhabit our lives and the world in which we live them, and that if we more fully inhabit these things, we might be less apt to destroy both.”  – Christian Wiman, poet

Gabriella Donofrio ’13 (left) and Alice Bowe ’13 sort and plant lettuces at Harvest of Joy Farm in Shelbyville, MI.

Amy Newday plants seeds in soil (she runs her own farm), and she plants seeds in students (she directs K’s Writing Center and teaches classes in the English department). Some seeds grow green crops. Others grow green poetry.

Newday recently completed a winter term course called “Ecopoetry,” and is currently teaching a spring term senior Capstone class called “CSA (community-supported agriculture) and Sustainability.” The two courses are an integral part of Kalamazoo College’s ongoing creation of a Center for Environmental Stewardship, teaching students about the impact of human life on their world.

“I feel a strong call to be of service to the earth and the non-human beings we share it with,” says Newday. “As I get older and get to know myself better and as our ecological crises worsen, this call becomes stronger. What I was curious to explore with my students in the ecopoetry course was—what does poetry have to do with ecological crises? Can poetry be a vehicle for transforming our relationships with the ecosystems in which we dwell?”

A farmer and a poet, Newday grew up on dairy farm in Shelbyville, Michigan. Her “Ecopoetry” course drew thirteen students, all of whom participated in a reading on campus to draw their class to a close. Each student read a poem from the textbook that had especially moved or inspired them.

Emily Sklar ’15 was one of those students, a biology major with an interest in ecological issues. “I love biology, although I’m not quite sure yet what I will do with it,” Sklar says. “I also love being outdoors, and I’m concerned about the environment, so I’ve been wondering how to combine all that. Science comes short on the ethical and moral aspect of ecological issues, so that’s why I took the poetry course. Poetry gives me another way to understand what’s around me, and the course has given me a blend of language that builds collaboration between scientists and poets.”

“Ecopoetry” is a relatively new term, if not quite a genre in its own right, Newday explains. “Writing about daffodils is no longer enough. Critics beat up poets like Mary Oliver for being what they call a ‘nature poet,’ writing about birds and trees. Writing about birds and trees is important, but ecopoetry includes the bulldozer that knocks the tree down and destroys the bird.”

Poetry can help us imagine possibilities … possible solutions to ecological crises.

Three main groupings of poetry compose the new genre, Newday says. As defined by Ann Fisher-Wirth and Laura Gray-Street, the editors Newday’s class textbook, The Ecopoetry Anthology, poetry that explores nature and the meaning of life falls into the first group. A second group includes environmental poetry with a more political slant that may address social justice issues and is often related to specific events. The third group includes poetry about ecology, often in more experimental forms.

“In this course we explored how the language of poetry has shaped and reflected changing perceptions of nature, ecology, and humanity over the past two centuries,” Newday says. “We looked at what poetry can contribute to current cultural and cross-cultural conversations about environmental justice and sustainability.”

Students at the reading in March read favorite poets they had studied, such as, yes, Mary Oliver, and also Alicia Suskin Ostriker, Ralph Black, G. E. Patterson, Deborah Miranda, Tony Hoagland, Robert Duncan, Lucille Clifton, Lola Haskins, Sandra Beasley, and Linda Hogan. Some students also read their own work.

“I’m not a big reader,” Sklar admits. “But I fell in love with this poetry. What I had hoped would happen, happened. The facts in science are great, but poetry gives us a way to connect to people who aren’t scientists.”

The ecopoetry course, Sklar adds, helped her to solidify an idea for her Senior Individualized Project that she’d been mulling over for about a year. Her interest in nature, biology, ecology, and human responses to all three came together in a plan to hike the entire Appalachian Trail. Along with a K alumna, Margaux Reckard ‘13, Sklar began 2,200-mile adventure a few days after the poetry course concluded (see “Where the TinyTent AT?” in this issue of BeLight).

“Poetry can help us question,” Newday says. “We are losing all kinds of diversity in our world, and cultures and languages are being lost along with biodiversity. Languages each give us a unique way to see the world and add perspective. Poetry can help us imagine possibilities … possible solutions to ecological crises.”

Harvest of Joy farmer John Edgerton (left) discusses with students (l-r) Chandler Smith ’13, Caroline Michniak ’13, and Alicia Pettys ’13 different techniques for organic and sustainable planting.

In her senior Capstone course, “CSA and Sustainability,” Newday digs even deeper into building connections between students and the earth. Along with textbooks, she hands them trowels, hoes, shovels and watering cans. She takes her students to her own CSA operation, Harvest of Joy Farm, where she and partner John Edgerton practice sustainable and organic methods of farming.

The Capstone course, Newday says, offers students the opportunity to explore and experience food systems, agriculture, community building, education, economics, business, and food justice as an alternative to the mainstream food economy. If that sounds like it’s dealing with a great many topics—it is, and that’s the everyday life of a farmer.

Part of the course will take place in the traditional campus classroom, and for at least three hours each week students will work on the farm. They will help plan the CSA business, prepare the soil for planting and then plant a wide assortment of seeds and plants, maintain compost and learn about permaculture, and maintain and harvest the garden. Students will also experience the business aspects of running a CSA, the marketing and selling of vegetables to community members, and the relationships built between farmer and community members.

The course will also involve an ongoing blog of farm activities, and a student-generated on-campus collaborative project. Students will participate in discussions about their experiences and observations working on the farm.

In informational sessions held prior to the beginning of the course, Newday and Edgerton met with students interested in learning more information before making a decision to enroll.

“I was surprised how much I loved running a CSA,” Newday says to the students gathered to hear about the course. “The relationships we developed through the CSA were very rewarding. There’s an instant gratification when you give good food to people, and you see how excited they are to receive it, taste it, and share it.”

The concept of a CSA, Newday tells the students, is not the traditional business model of trading cash for product. “A CSA offers people the opportunity to invest in the kind of world they want to live in.”

The Harvest of Joy Farm is in its fourth year. At the beginning of last summer’s (2013) growing season, 45 members paid for 28 shares and half-shares in the operation, which provided the funds to cover the costs of farming. In return, shareholders receive vegetables and fruits each week during harvest.

“The course will help students to better understand the economics of farming, especially on a small scale, and to consider how small farms fit into the larger agricultural economy, in the United States and across the world,” says Newday. “Along with learning about sustainable agricultural practices, students will learn how to critically consider what it means to make environmentally, socially, and ethically sound food choices.”

To learn more about the Kalamazoo College Capstone CSA experience, read student blog entries, and view photos, visit kzoocsa.blogspot.com.  To learn more about Harvest of Joy Farm, LLC, visit harvestofjoyfarm.wordpress.com.

Where the TinyTent AT?

Hundreds of miles in, with thousands more to go—one would think these two women would be nicknamed Blisters and Wails. Instead, Emily Sklar ’15 and Margaux Reckard ’13 are known along the trail as Giggles and Chuckles, respectively.

Hikin’ Hornets Emily Sklar ’15 (left) and Margaux Reckard ‘13.

The two laughing hikers are at this very moment somewhere along the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail, hiking from Amicalola Falls State Park in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine on an adventure that began on March 24. The adventures of Giggles and Chuckles are being recorded, step by step and with vivid photography, on their blog, Where the tinytent AT?

“My SIP [senior individualized project] is an exploration of the relationship between humans and their natural environment on the Appalachian Trail,” wrote Emily, a.k.a. Giggles, in early April, from a point near Springer Mountain, about 164 miles into the hike.  She is a biology major with an interest in ecological issues, and she started thinking about hiking the Trail while on her LandSea expedition at the beginning of her freshman year. Her interest in nature, biology, and ecology came together in her SIP plan.

My SIP will explore what people gain from their experiences on the trail.

“I am conducting interviews along our hike to discuss individuals’ experiences, and what people gain from their experience on the trail,” Emily said. “The trip thus far has been really interesting. I’ve met a lot of people. Everyone has a different story and comes from a different place. Folks come from different geographic regions, levels of fitness, and experience levels.”

Emily Sklar ’15 encounters a wild pony in Grayson Highlands, a portion of the 2,200 mile Appalachian Trail hike she is doing for her Senior Individualized Project.

New friends (and SIP subjects) include hikers with such trail names as The Captain, Grandpa Chops, Roadrunner, Hearsay, LAF and Slim.

Emily added: “I’ve really enjoyed a lot of the company that we’ve found at the camps, although the sites very over crowded our first week. There were around 20 tents a night at each campsite. The groups are beginning to thin now because folks either leave the trail or move at different speeds.”

The two hikers have at this point hiked through the state of Georgia, and yes, there have been blisters, and rain, and frustrations along with the laughter.

“The biggest frustration that we’ve met so far has not been the rain,” said Emily. “We’ve felt like we have something to prove, being women out here. A lot of folks in camp haven’t taken us too seriously, but as soon as they learn that we’re some of the most experienced hikers out here, that changes a bit. All in all, we’re happy. We’re a little bit sore from the recent increase in mileage, but we’re having a lot of fun, making a lot of friends, staying dry (for the most part), and laughing frequently. “

As the weeks go on, the miles accumulate, and the blisters heal into calluses, the two write on their blog that they are feeling stronger. The goal of reaching Katahdin in Maine, wrote Margaux, “feels more and more possible.”

Follow their adventures and view the photos of Giggles and Chuckles at Where the tinytent AT?

Bee Man, Bee Artists

An example of honeycomb and etching by Ladislav Hanka ’75 and his bees.

Ladislav Hanka ’75 has a mind that buzzes with constant activity, always attracted to the sweetness of an idea with a twist. His degree is in biology, and his love of the natural world is evident in his art. His etchings, prints, and drawings illustrate the intricacies and mystery of nature: craggy trees, elegant fish, round-bellied frogs, fierce raptors and delicate song birds, dank mushrooms, the occasional napping old dog.

So the idea of combining living bees and his etchings seemed, well, natural. He saw it as collaboration.

Some five years ago, a friend had given him a box of bees.

“There was a little bit of sugar water in there, something like mosquito netting, and the bees were climbing around inside the box,” Hanka says. “And I thought, so cute! Like having a puppy!” He laughs. “Suddenly, I was a parent. It was on that level of forethought that I became a beekeeper.”

Where the idea came from to place his etchings inside the beehives, among the living bees, Hanka can’t say.

“Who knows where ideas come from,” he shrugs. “You wake up some night, and there it is. It seems such a simple idea, too, but I’d never seen anyone do it. So I put the etching in after soaking the paper in hot beeswax, brushing it on, and the bees seem to like that paper. Typically, they start on the chunks of old, recycled beeswax and avoid the lines of the etching. Perhaps it’s the flavor? Or the waxy aromatic paper?  Otherwise they tend to chew up and destroy any foreign substance intruding on their hives. Then again, they may just be critics.” Hanka grins.

Standing in his studio, a building he constructed where the garage once stood at his residence in Kalamazoo, just a few blocks from Kalamazoo College, he leans in close to take a look at his etchings. He has them lined up in a row on a small ledge along the end wall. The etchings closely match what he exhibited in ArtPrize 2014 in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

ArtPrize is an annual art competition judged both by popular vote and a jury. This past summer more than 1,500 artists from across the world exhibited their work in and around downtown Grand Rapids. Hanka’s panoramic etching in ArtPrize 2011 won the Curator’s Choice award and was purchased by the Grand Rapids Art Museum for its permanent collection.

The co-artist shows some the collaborative works.

Hanka’s 2014 ArtPrize entry, “Great Wall of Bees: Intelligence of the Beehive,” is his third since the competition’s inception. Contained inside a glass case along the length of a wall just inside the entrance of the Urban Institute of Contemporary Art (UICA), live bees buzzed and danced and chewed over three rows of Hanka’s etchings—detailed images of toads, salmon, trees, insects, birds—building honeycomb along the curves of his lines, indeed in surprising collaboration.

Great Wall of Bees was collaborative art and environmental message. In a description of his work on the ArtPrize website, he wrote:

“The additions bees make to the etchings are as inevitably elegant as the gently curving veils of honeycomb you find hanging from the domed ceilings within a bee tree. There is an undeniable intelligence at work in a beehive. You learn to respect that and care about these highly evolved creatures, which brings me inescapably around to bees being in trouble—not just here but worldwide.

“The cause of bee die-offs is hardly a mystery. It’s much like the growth in cancer rates. No single factor causes it. The crisis is due to a summation of assaults on the organism, until it’s all too much. Bees face a gauntlet of toxins, habitat loss, electromagnetic pollution, exotic diseases and imported parasites. …”

Hanka’s living exhibit drew a great deal of attention. He estimates that 80,000 to 100,000 persons viewed the Great Wall of Bees. His work was short-listed in the top 25 in both popular and juried categories for three-dimensional entries.

“For the three weeks of the exhibit, I was the bee-man,” says Hanka. “I heard people talking about the bees in cafes and on the street.  People still come to talk to me about the artwork and the bees, even though the show is over.”

“For the three weeks of the exhibit, I was the bee-man.”

It was profoundly gratifying, he says, to interact with the public coming to see his art and to watch the bees build their honeycomb around it. Bees crawled along the glass where children pressed their noses for a closer look. Some expressed concern over dying insects, and it gave Hanka a chance to explain something about the four-week life cycle of a bee and the difference between natural daily die-offs versus the massive losses bees currently suffer in beehives everywhere.

The hands of collaborative art makers.

He dips a bare hand into one of his hives, set in a circle beside his house, and the bees emerge, almost lazily, spinning a hum of circles around Hanka’s head and landing on him. They swarm over his bare hands and land in his beard.

“They are not aggressive with me,” Hanka says. “Frame of mind is important. They respond much like any animal would. You have to be sensitive to their mood and show some respect..”

The bees do sting him occasionally, he says, especially when stressed, but Hanka shrugs it off. All a part of the art and all part of the natural order of things. As for the way the insects weave their intricate combs along his drawings, Hanka shrugs about that, too.

“I try to be realistic about that, how much intelligence is in the bee,” he says. “There is a spirit. I have no explanation for some of it.”

Hanka considers ArtPrize carefully, now that the citywide exhibit is done, his wall of bees packed up and brought back to the hive again. During subsequent weeks he contemplated the moment of fame.

“The space is clean and no evidence remains of the effort invested,” he says. “Honey gathering and art are both among the first recorded events in the mists of human history.  My work invited  people to partake of genuine, unfalsified sacraments.  I saw they were truly moved by the beauty they encountered and by their concern for the fate of bees.”

Landing on the competition’s short lists gave him a few seductive moments of contemplating the financial prize (ArtPrize awards two grand prizes worth $400,000, and eight category awards worth $160,000). Those moments quickly evaporated in the final stages of the competition.

“Of course, there was a build-up and then disappointment,” Hanka nods. “Though we may ardently desire the accolades and money these votes confer, it isn’t why we make art.”

What remains, Hanka says, is the message he wanted to deliver: the interaction he had with his audience and his art, the near-mystical experience he had with another tiny life form. He acknowledges the influences that have remained with him from his years at Kalamazoo College, where he studied with Marcia Wood, Johannes Von Gumppenberg, Peter Jogo, and Bernard Palchick (all former professors in the art department). Equally, in biology, he credits Professors Paul Olexia, David Evans, and Fred Cichocki.

“I still keep in contact with many of them, and I value their influence in my life,” Hanka says. Ideas, he believes, are born in the buzz of many minds working at their purpose; they are built one upon another.

Hanka walks between the aisles of his beehives in the same way he walks between the tables in his studio. Both are covered with pieces of his work. He leans forward to study a detail, and then he leans back to contemplate the whole.

He is done with this particular project, this artistic collaboration with the bees that carried over years. Now, the bees will return to what they do best: making honey. The artist will let his mind spin and dream and buzz a little, until it lands on his next big idea.

Self-Authored Pathways

Judsen Schneider ’03 remembers sitting in a coffee shop in Nashville, Tennessee, sketching out rough ideas with his friend to form a firm that would bridge the widening divide between clinicians and the growing number of genetic tests that might give them answers, options, and hope.

Gillian Hooker ’00 and Judsen Schneider ’03, fellow K graduates and colleagues at NextGxDx.

That was four years ago. Today, NextGxDx—founded in 2012 by Mark Harris, Schneider’s friend—is the only online marketplace for genetic testing. Think of a site like Orbitz, but instead of airfares and rental car rates, you can search for tests relating to hereditary colon cancer or cystic fibrosis.

“We are bringing a level of transparency to the genetic testing industry that has not yet been seen,” says Schneider, scientific director for the Nashville-based startup. “It (testing) is exploding as precision medicine becomes more and more common. Genetics plays a key role in that.”

It’s been more than 10 years since scientists completed the genome sequence, and since then, the pace of research into cracking the mysteries, subtleties, and complexities of our human genome has skyrocketed. As more is learned about our genes, a greater number of tests are emerging to help us understand—and possibly even treat—rare diseases and conditions. More than 16,000 of them are available, developed for more than 3,000 diseases, about 2,000 of which have diagnostic genetic tests available for use in a clinical setting, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

“To understand the genome is to understand how life works,” Schneider says. “The genome is like a complex computer. It can function like any computer, but encodes its own development, its own software. Understanding how genes work unlocks how diseases work, health works, human behavior works. Still, we barely understand it. The human genome has been sequenced but a lot is still not known about how it works. To be able to help shape how genes interact with health care is really interesting.”

Schneider, a Nashville native, earned a Ph.D. in cell and developmental biology at Vanderbilt University. But as much as he was bitten by the biology bug at K, the real reason he trekked north for his undergraduate experience was to swim, he says.

“Initially, it was the caliber of the swim team that attracted me. I was looking for a college where I could swim,” he says. “Of course, I received a great biology education. I looked at Division I to Division III schools. K had the best fit.”

When it came time to study abroad, Schneider looked south, spending a quarter in the Costa Rican capital, San Jose. It was there that he saw how economic development can empower individuals and communities, a lesson that represents a significant chapter in his NextGxDx story. A quote from retired men’s swim coach Bob Kent stays with him.

At K the message was ‘It’s better to create your own path.

“Coach Kent fostered a really awesome environment. He would always say, ‘you can do a lot, but how much effort are you willing to give?’” Schneider says. “So I study a language for two quarters and then get dropped into Central America. It was a fantastic way to prove to myself that I could take on challenges and succeed. K does a good job preparing its students for any scenario, and more than other schools gives them confidence to explore many challenging situations that might produce a lot of fear in people.”

NextGxDx has been steadily growing, he says, so much so that more hiring had to be done to keep pace with the growth, to diversify and broaden the scope of services the company provides. The most recent addition? Gillian Hooker ’00, an expert in genetic counseling with a Ph.D. (Yale University) and a long list of impressive academic and scholarly accomplishments, including time at the National Institutes of Health, Georgetown University and Johns Hopkins University.

Hooker is a Kalamazoo native and Heyl Scholar. She didn’t knew Schneider even though their tenures at K overlapped. “It made me smile when I found out we both went to K.”

Having a doctoral degree in molecular, cellular and developmental biology means she has the scientific expertise to contribute to a whole range of genetic questions. It was the genetic counseling aspect that drew Schneider to hire her, he says. But it sure didn’t hurt that she went to K.

“The fact that Gillian attended K did play a role in her hire, from the standpoint that I have a deep understanding of what a K degree means,” Schneider says. “It was more the soft skills that K helps you develop—such as critical thinking, problem solving, and the ability to confidently take creative risks—that were important for the particular role.”

There is a softer side to the data-driven science of genetics. It’s the component that takes into account how people internalize the data that come from the tests, what they do with it, how they process the results, or if testing should be done at all. In some ways, it’s as important as the results themselves, Hooker says. There are always emotions behind the hard realities of a disease, and the clinicians and other medical personnel who administer the tests need to know how to communicate with their clients.

“I think a lot about the testing decisions people make and how the results of genetic tests impact their decision-making going forward,” she says. “A lot of their personal values go into that. It’s helpful to have that perspective and think practically how this plays out in the clinic.

“Sometimes it’s the desire to know if you are predisposed to have a disease. Other times it’s about not having answers as to why their child is sick. We call it a ‘Diagnostic Odyssey.’ Developmental disabilities. Developmental problems. Going from specialist to specialist, performing test after test and getting nowhere. It could be as simple as a clinician who didn’t know the right test exists. We throw open the gates. It can be heart-wrenching, but empowering, too.”

It’s never easy. Not in a field that deals with diseases, conditions, and syndromes that adversely affect quality of life, sometimes significantly. Schneider and Hooker are doing their part to shed light upon the confusion that has surrounded these maladies for so long.

Hooker’s Senior Individualized Project—an internship at Pfizer with Ann (Burt) Berger ’71, Ph.D., a senior research scientist at the pharmaceutical giant—was in many ways a defining experience for her, one that confirmed that the K academic culture in which she’d been immersed was a unique one.

“It was the ability to develop my own plan. It really had an impact,” she says. “To be autonomous, to take chances with it, be creative with it. That’s very empowering. I came to the realization that life and work can be more fun when you forge your own path. Others look for a path before them to walk down. At K that was not the case. The message was always: ‘It’s always better if you create your own path.’”