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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.

Emily Sklar and Margaux Reckard

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 encounters a wild pony in Grayson Highlands

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?

K Grad Achieves Lofty Rocketry Goals

A recent Kalamazoo College alumna is returning to a world stage and shooting for the stars. Emma Kristal ’18 will compete for the fifth time with Team USA July 28-Aug. 4, 2018, in the World Space Modeling Championships of rocketry in Wloclawek, Poland.

Rocketry competitor Emma Kristal in Arizona with trial rocket

Emma Kristal ’18 has set 21 National Association of Rocketry records in various events. Those records include 11 that were set Jan. 1, 2018, in Salome, Arizona, a single-day feat believed to be an unprecedented accomplishment for any individual NAR competitor.

Kristal, of Royal Oak, Michigan, wasn’t always sure she wanted to pursue rocketry. She said her dad was an encouraging influence, persuading her to attend her first National Association of Rocketry (NAR) competition.

“I didn’t want to go compete at first, but my dad had the time off and it was finally in Michigan,” she said of the competition. “He conned me into going by telling me it would be just for fun.”

Kristal set her first U.S. National Model Rocketry records in the E SuperRoc event during that competition. That led to more competitions and the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum accepting one of her rockets for its collection.

The Smithsonian “liked it because a fifth-grade girl used it to set a record and because I made it to look like a giant pink pencil,” Kristal said. Although the rocket is not on display, she hopes it one day might be.

In the nearly 11 years since, Kristal has:

• Set 21 NAR records in various events. Those records include 11 that were set Jan. 1, 2018, in Salome, Arizona, a single-day feat believed to be an unprecedented accomplishment for any individual NAR competitor.

• Won a U.S. national meet.

• Earned individual and team gold medals with Team USA in the world championships.

• Competed in countries such as Serbia, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Ukraine.

Her first event on the world stage in 2016 was the S2P Precision Fragile Payload. In that event, competitors tried to reach an altitude of 300 meters and a flight time of 60 seconds for three consecutive flights while not breaking an egg in the rocket. She was the flyer who came closest to the cumulative target without breaking or cracking her egg.

“The fun part is we can’t check between rounds whether the egg is cracked,” Kristal said. “It wasn’t until an hour after the final round had ended that I found out I was in first place.”

In this year’s Team USA tryouts, Kristal finished among the top three fliers in two events to qualify as a member of the squad. She will compete in both of those events in the world championships. They are:

• The streamer duration event in which competitors accumulate points throughout three flights based on how long a simple rocket stays in the air.

• The altitude event in which competitors fly two-stage rockets three times each with their highest single flight counting in the final standings.

Kristal said the overall experience of rocketry has been more than worthwhile as she has met people from all over the world. That experience pushes her to work harder and never give up when something goes wrong.

She also seeks to boost rocketry as an activity among children and teenagers. As youths flock to video games and online experiences, fewer of them are building things and developing hobbies, Kristal said, leading her to try some publicity on the side.

“It’s hard to make the case for building something with your hands when there’s something that can give so much more immediate gratification,” Kristal said. “Kids used to go to their local hobby store and build something. No one just goes to a hobby store to look for something to do anymore. People don’t even know about rocketry. They just don’t know that it’s an option.”

Kristal graduated June 17 after majoring in psychology and biology with a concentration in neuroscience and a minor in French. She hopes to continue on to medical school after taking some time off from her studies. In the meantime, she will continue pursuing rocketry as a lifetime member of the NAR. The membership was a present her dad recently gave her and she describes it as the best present she could’ve received.

“It’s nice to think that when I have kids someday, I’ll still be a member,” Kristal said.

For more information on the NAR, rocketry and the world championships, visit nar.org.

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 and Judsen Schneider

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.’”