Tendai is a technology analyst at Morgan Stanley.
Attending your Kalamazoo College class reunion is a nourishing experience: it means a feast of friends and reconnections, and the cornucopia reminds us that we did more in four years so that all of us could do (and are doing) more in a lifetime! As I listened to the class of ’74 compare notes last Homecoming, I was inspired to learn how many members do substantial amounts of volunteer work.
Different ages and life circumstances often predict the amount of time we are able to devote to volunteering. A study titled “The Value of Giving a Little Time,” (published in 2013 by the Institute for Volunteering Research) noted that organizations that use volunteers are moving to restructure ongoing volunteer assignments. This restructuring encourages “micro-volunteering,” inviting new volunteers to take on specific assignments that align well with their lives at the time. Many busy would-be volunteers appreciated the opportunity to give their time for specific, finite events without taking on a long term commitment.
In April 2014, the Alumni Association Executive Board (AAEB), comprised of alumni members spanning four decades of K history, discussed ways to grow and enhance alumni connections to K. We recognized that any amount of time spent connecting with K can be valuable to the College as well as rewarding to the volunteer. Yet it was clear even among ourselves that life circumstances—including age and geography—play a role in our commitment to serve on AAEB.
So the group brainstormed ways to volunteer for K that are both flexible and varied in terms of duration. From the “kitchen” of our ideas emerged Alumni Bites—a one-page “menu” that lists small, medium, and large volunteer “bites,” or opportunities, waiting to be “tasted” by K graduates.
Smaller bites may involve only an hour of time (during lunch or nap time for one’s children?) and in many cases involve no transportation. From a computer you can conduct a mock interview with a student, or respond to a student on LinkedIn. Going to a SWARM event gives you the chance to talk to admitted students about the pivotal experiences that transform students at K—both on campus and on study abroad. Attending a Hornet Happy Hour to meet fellow alumni in your area could become the start of a new network right around the corner.
Larger bites include, but are not limited to, attending a networking event, becoming an Alumni Blogger, or providing an internship or externship. Sharing your K story can benefit students and lead you to new opportunities!
To view the entire menu, see www.kzoo.edu/alumni/association/alumni-bites.
Deciding which “bite” works for your life right now may even remind you of what it felt like to choose courses at K. Every bite helps the College provide students with the opportunities to accomplish more in four. And, by taking a bite, not only will you be doing more in a lifetime, you also will savor a lifelong connection with this institution. TAKE A BITE!
Measured by the metric of making a difference, $1.26 million is a fortune! Kalamazoo College has received that sum from the Mellon Foundation during the past four years and used it to advance its programming and curriculum development.
“The Mellon Foundation is incredibly important to schools like K,” says Ann Jenks, the College’s director of corporate and foundation relations. “Its program officers are very much aware of the challenges facing small liberal arts schools, and they understand that colleges like ours don’t have the economy of scale that larger schools do.”
The Foundation’s understanding is reflected annually in grants to more than 120 colleges and universities, from Allegheny to Vassar, Bucknell to Wabash, Duke to University of Michigan. Each and every year, the total given to those schools exceeds $100 million.
The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation was formed in 1969 as a result of the consolidation of two existing foundations that had been established in the 1940’s by Mellon’s son and daughter. Its focus is on advancing the humanities and the arts. The Foundation’s Annual Report states, “While there are more than 81,000 grant-making philanthropies in the United States, too few support the humanities or arts.”
In addition to assisting the humanities in higher education, the Foundation provides support for arts and cultural heritage, diversity, scholarly communications, and international higher education. In total, its annual grants exceed $230 million, which is awarded to recipients in 68 different countries.
The money K has received from the Foundation since 2011has come in the form of three grants, each for a specific purpose. The most recent—$616,000—is for the development of diversity and inclusion initiatives, including faculty development and ethnic studies implementation.
“That grant allowed us to provide professional development for our professors for a variety of things,” explains Provost Mickey McDonald, “such as how to make classes more inclusive and how to avoid unintentional marginalization of students. It also enabled us to hire a new professional to work with our students, especially students of color and other historically underrepresented groups, to help them navigate college life and increase their sense of belonging and academic and personal success.”
“We hope to positively influence the campus climate and that includes work in the classroom and beyond,” Jenks adds. “A reciprocal mentoring effort among faculty members includes the formation of communities of practice. These working groups are engaging with issues related to power and difference and how they may affect curricula and teaching methods.”
A $150,000 grant received in 2013 helped K fund the creation of a new major—Critical Ethnic Studies. This interdisciplinary program examines issues such as colonialism, diaspora movements and indigenous languages in order to better understand multiple voices and world views.
“Our first step,” says McDonald, “was to decide what the overall philosophy of the new program was going to be and what core classes we’d offer. We brought in a visiting scholar, Dr. Reid Gómez, to help us to do that. We then needed to hire someone to actually teach the classes and become a tenure-track professor. After reviewing 130 applications we decided that Dr. Gómez was the best person for the job, so she’ll be moving into the tenure-track faculty position.”
In 2012 the Foundation gave a four-year grant of $500,000 to fund an expansion of K’s Shared Passages program.
“That grant was really important to us,” McDonald says, “because the Shared Passages program goes to the heart of our liberal arts mission. Our students cross disciplinary boundaries, cultural boundaries and national boundaries, and this program provides students the academic and communal preparation for those passages.”
The grant enabled expansion of Shared Passages beyond first-year seminars, which focus on foundational skills such as writing, oral expression, information literacy and critical thinking.
With the grant, K has included both sophomore and senior Shared Passages programs. The sophomore seminars address cultural issues, in part to prepare students for study abroad and living in a world more globally interdependent than ever before. The senior program, with courses referred to as capstones, incorporates both disciplinary as well as interdisciplinary courses, helps students reflect on their four years at K and also helps prepare students for life after K.
Both the diversity and inclusion initiatives and the new Critical Ethnic Studies major reflect K’s desire to support a robust and diverse learning community. During the past decade the school has made great strides in enrolling a student population more diverse in terms of race, ethnicity and country of origin.
K’s student body has also become much more diverse in family income level, geography and first-generation students.
Jenks points out that the Mellon Foundation also supports a post-doctoral fellowship at K through a series of grants made to the University of Michigan.
“For the past 12 years, K and Oberlin College have had a partnership with U of M. The program enables students who have obtained doctorates from Michigan to come to K or Oberlin and spend a year teaching. K benefits from the added teaching capacity particularly because we are able to recruit scholars whose expertise augments, but does not duplicate, the work of our permanent faculty.”
Jenks appreciates the Foundation’s grants because of its focus on the academic life of an institution, the nuts and bolts of teaching and learning, and the value of the arts and humanities to a well-rounded educational experience.
“The Foundation works with us,” she says. “The officers encourage us to think big and be ambitious.”
Of course ambition requires financial resources to come to fruition, and both McDonald and Jenks are optimistic that the Mellon Foundation will continue to provide funds for worthwhile projects.
“We are very grateful for their support of our mission,” says Jenks. “The work enabled by the Foundation will continue to have a significant impact on our faculty, our students and our curriculum. We certainly wish to continue working with the Foundation to foster excellence in undergraduate education.”
Most, but not all, Kalamazoo College students go on study abroad. Most, but not all, do an internship. On the other hand, everyone who graduates does a Senior Individualized Project.
Therefore, the fact that Diane Dupuis ’80 and Fiona Carey ’14 did a SIP is more “Dog Bites Man” than vice versa. But when you consider that Dupuis is Carey’s mother, and that they both studied French and completed SIPs that were both based on translating literature in their second language, things start to get a bit more “Man Bites Dog.”
And the similarities don’t end there.
Both women studied abroad in French-speaking nations—Dupuis in Caen, France, and Carey in Dakar, Senegal—and both persuaded Professor of Romance Languages and Literature Kathleen White Smith to serve as their SIP advisor, albeit some 34 years apart.
“One needs to know French very well to create a literal translation that reads well,” Smith says. “Diane and Fiona are both extremely proficient in French.”
In the fall of 1979, Dupuis translated Le ravissement de Lol V. Stein by Marguerite Duras, first published in France in 1964. Duras grew up in French Indochina, creating a literary perspective and voice unique from other French writers of the time, Dupuis says.
“There was an otherness to her voice that set her apart,” she says. “I really responded to her style.”
Carey, meanwhile, translated the first act of the three-act play Béatrice du Congo by Bernard Dadié, published in 1970, a work she first encountered in a francophone African literature class at K. Here, too, there are serendipitous similarities between the choices of mother and daughter. Significant themes in both works revolve around colonial imperialism, religion, and native peoples trying to maintain or resurrect traditional ways of living upended by foreign influences.
“I was amazed that our SIPs were almost the same,” Dupuis says. “I wondered why I didn’t think about this sooner. It seemed almost inevitable that we would pursue the same kind of project.”
Both women love language—French in particular. Carey well remembers a trip the family took to France when she was in high school, particularly the admiration she felt for her mother as they walked around towns in Normandy and she heard her mom’s French language skills reawaken.
Dupuis often read French to Carey and her younger brother when they were kids growing up, teaching them how to make the sounds of the words. But she never pushed her children to learn the language, Carey says. It just kind of happened.
“I attribute my love for language to her love for language,” she says. “I knew my mom translated a novel, but I didn’t really think about it until the end of this winter. It’s funny that it worked out this way!”
When it comes to pathways to higher education, the similarities fade. Dupuis, the daughter of two Detroit Public Schools teachers, was intrigued with medicine. In the mid-1970s, some universities were offering six-year programs that, when completed, earned a student a bachelor’s and medical degree, a sort of fast-track to the medical profession.
She applied to these programs at the University of Michigan, Boston University and Northwestern University, among others. Kalamazoo College—where she’d been accepted—was her “traditional-track” top choice, she says, adding, “If I didn’t get into one of those specialized programs, I at least knew I wanted to go to the best school in Michigan, with an excellent rate of med-school acceptances.”
She got interviews at all the universities she applied to, was placed on waiting lists for a few of them, and got rejections from a few others. K was still there, the doors wide open.
“I didn’t like the waiting list idea,” Dupuis says. “K let me know they wanted me.”
She had a passion for science, enrolling in the pre-med curriculum, but it soon became apparent that the rigidity and competitiveness of the traditional pre-med and medical-school trajectory of 35 years ago did not square with Dupuis’s vision of health and healing. “These days we have terms for what I wanted to explore: integrative or holistic medicine, and alternative and complementary therapies,” Dupuis explains. “Back then, those concepts were generally labeled as ‘snake oil.’ I wasn’t comfortable with the narrow combativeness of the mainstream.”
So Dupuis started down a compelling new path, double-majoring in English and French, diving into creative writing, writing for the Index, serving on the yearbook staff, editing the Cauldron, and helping out in the library’s A.M. Todd Rare Book Room.
Words became her passion. She took an internship on the editorial team at the Chicago publishing house Nelson-Hall, which, at that time, was administered in part by a K graduate. That experience led to a nearly two-decade career in book publishing, taking a job in 1980 at the Detroit-based Gale Research Company and spearheading her own imprint—Visible Ink Press—which she launched and led.
Now, after ten years in nonprofit administration at Interlochen Center for the Arts, Dupuis serves as Charitable Giving Specialist for the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy, near her home in northwestern Michigan’s Benzie County.
Thinking back to the six months she spent in Caen, Dupuis remembers being routinely mistaken for a native, her last name a fairly common “nom de famille” in France. Then French natives would start talking a mile a minute. She had to try to keep up, and it was hard. The experience has stayed with her.
“K was a place where you really could pursue what intrigued you. Things felt possible there. I had gone to Italy when on study abroad, and when I came back I had a strong desire to learn Italian. So Dr. Henry Cohen in the Romance Language department made it happen—just because I asked. Our intellectual curiosity was valued there. The K- Plan is so forward-looking, such a wonderful way to find your place in the world.”
For Carey, things were a bit more streamlined when it came to searching for schools. She applied to Bowdoin, Swarthmore, Dartmouth, MIT, Middlebury, and Kalamazoo College. In the end, says Carey, who majored in theatre at Interlochen Arts Academy, K was a pretty easy choice—thanks in part to her mother’s experience.
“K was always on my radar because of my mom,” Carey says. “I think particularly the study abroad the College offers was mouthwateringly cool, and I love Michigan. I wanted that small, liberal arts experience. The choice to go to school here was pretty easy.”
Graduating this June, Carey has been busy on campus, serving as a Student Chaplain volunteer and spending substantial time and talent on Festival Playhouse theatre productions, including Kahani, a theatre project that toured in India in July, 2012. Carey has always been fascinated with the intersection of culture and the arts, and with art’s potential for creating intercultural dialogue.
It was Carey’s time in Dakar, Senegal’s capital city, that really woke her to the uniqueness of the K experience, as well as her own love for learning foreign languages and navigating between cultures. Dupuis helped out, too.
“Mom’s multicultural awareness and appreciation for other cultures helped shape mine,” Carey says. “She transferred that to my brother and me. I’m very grateful for that.”
The openness and hospitality she experienced while in the West African metropolis astounded her as she learned from teachers, host family, friends, and strangers in a constant flow of culture shock and warm welcome. Carey was able to participate in a give-and-take that was different from give-and-take at home.
“It’s said that you are never more from your home country than you are when you’re abroad,” Carey says. “I experienced a heightened awareness of the importance of generosity. I carry that with me. There’s the saying at K that’s inscribed in the wall of Trowbridge Hall: “The end of learning is gracious living.” To me, that has a lot to do with responsibility, with respect on a deep level—how can I be always learning to be a gracious presence in the world? I definitely felt myself asking that question in Dakar and growing in that way.”
This September, Carey will start a job teaching English to middle- and high-schoolers on the Caribbean island of Martinique.
So, who’s the better translator? The answers are diplomatic.
“I don’t know,” Dupuis says, “I haven’t seen Fiona’s SIP yet. She’s working with idioms I am probably not familiar with. Fiona is a gifted writer in English, which is just as essential.”
Says Carey, “My mom’s probably been exposed to more French text than I have. She’s got more experience. She just has such a nuanced sensibility with language in general—she’s a really great writer.”
Either way, it matters little. What’s most important? Dupuis has a good answer: “I have always told my kids to pay attention to the things that, when you are doing them, make you forget what you had for lunch, or even whether you had lunch.
“K is a place where you can lose yourself in so many explorations that help you realize your full potential.”
NOTE: Eleven Kalamazoo Promise students matriculated to Kalamazoo College last month (September 2015), members of the class of 2019. Kalamazoo College announced its prospective students’ eligibility for the Promise Scholarship in June of 2014, and this year’s group represents the first at K. K was one of 15 private colleges in the Michigan Colleges Alliance newly Promise eligible. The addition of the 15 MCA member institutions to the 43 Michigan public colleges and universities increases the number of Promise eligible schools to 58 throughout the state. For KPS students who enroll at Kalamazoo College the tuition and fees are fully and jointly funded by the Kalamazoo Promise and by K. The Kalamazoo Promise funds at the level of the undergraduate average tuition and fees for the College of Literature, Science and Arts at the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor). K covers any difference between that amount and the amount of its yearly tuition and fees.
For Robert Gorman ’94, M.D., the city of Kalamazoo could be The Promise Land.
Nearly 25 years ago, a “promise” (in the form of a scholarship) made by F.W. and Elsie Heyl sent the Loy Norrix High School and Kalamazoo Area Mathematics and Science Center graduate to Kalamazoo College tuition free as a Heyl scholarship recipient.
Fifteen years later, another promise brought him back to Kalamazoo from New Mexico.
In 2005, a group of local philanthropists announced The Kalamazoo Promise, at the time a one-of-a-kind scholarship program that covers 100 percent of the tuition and fees to any Michigan public university or college for every student who attends a Kalamazoo Public School (KPS) from kindergarten to 12th grade (with a sliding scale based on the length of enrollment applying to all other eligible students). Since its inception, the scholarship program (guaranteed in perpetuity) has invested 55 million dollars in more than 3,300 KPS graduates.
It was the actions and generosity of those anonymous donors that would play a role in bringing Gorman and his wife, Jenn, back to his hometown.
“The idea that a community has citizens and benefactors who care so much for it that they would create something like The Promise is incredible,” Gorman says. “That just doesn’t happen everywhere. This place is special.”
The promise that brought him home recently got even more promising.
Beginning with the high school graduating class of 2015, KPS students may use The Promise scholarship to attend Kalamazoo College as well as any one of the other 14 Michigan College Alliance (MCA) liberal arts colleges and universities. The announcement between The Kalamazoo Promise and the MCA was made in June.
“This partnership truly is a winning proposition for all,” says Bob Bartlett, chief executive officer of the MCA. “Promise scholars will benefit from increased college choice throughout the state, and the MCA colleges and universities will be enriched by having these deserving students on their campuses.”
Bob Jorth, executive director of The Kalamazoo Promise, agrees. The addition of Kalamazoo College, specifically, he says, now gives students three distinctly different local choices for higher education. More than 65 percent of Promise scholars attend Western Michigan University or Kalamazoo Valley Community College.
“It’s about giving KPS students more choices and finding the right fit for them,” Jorth says. “We’re extremely happy to have a third ‘neighborhood’ choice for our students. Since the beginning, Kalamazoo College has been a great supporter of The Promise. We’re thrilled to have them on board.”
For K, says the College’s Dean of Admission and Financial Aid Eric Staab, the new partnership is about supporting the community that has supported it for more than 180 years.
“First and foremost, it’s about being a good neighbor,” Staab says. “We wanted to be good stewards and to be a part of this amazing opportunity for KPS students.”
Gorman appreciates the College’s investment in the community and hopes more KPS students will consider K when applying to college.
“I think kids who grow up in Kalamazoo often dismiss K and other local institutions out of a sheer desire to leave town and try something new,” he says. “I would argue that the moment you step on campus you see Kalamazoo College, the city of Kalamazoo, and, indeed, the world, in a completely different way.”
Gorman, who works as an orthopedic surgeon at Bronson HealthCare Midwest in Kalamazoo, and his wife, Jenn, now have three young daughters, Harper, Evan, and Bryn. Their oldest child is in first grade at a Kalamazoo elementary school.
“I grew up in the city of Kalamazoo and was a KPS kid for all of my schooling,” Gorman explains. “When I moved back to town, it was important for me to make my home in the city, to support the local public schools, to contribute to the tax base, and to socially and financially invest in the city.”
As long as Gorman and his wife continue to reside in Kalamazoo, all three of their children would be eligible for The Promise.
Currently, The Kalamazoo Promise donors fund 100 percent of the tuition and fees to any one of the 43 public universities, colleges, and community colleges in the state.
As part of the new agreement with the MCA, full tuition and fees to the MCA schools will be jointly funded by The Kalamazoo Promise and the MCA member institution. The Kalamazoo Promise will fund at the level of the undergraduate tuition and fees for the College of Literature, Science and the Arts at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor—currently the most expensive public school funded by The Kalamazoo Promise.
The MCA member institution will cover the difference between that amount and its yearly tuition and fees. That means Kalamazoo College is investing more than $26,000 a year in a student attending K on The Kalamazoo Promise based on current tuition rates. The costs incurred by the College will not be passed along to other students or affect any financial aid awards.
“It really makes a statement that K, a place that can literally open doors leading to anywhere in the world, is committed to the idea that everyone deserves a chance to have that opportunity, especially young students and families in its backyard,” Gorman says.
The Kalamazoo Promise provides more information at its website [www.kalamazoopromise.com].
Postscript: Like Gorman, author Erin (Miller) Dominianni ’95 lives in Kalamazoo and has children attending Kalamazoo Public Schools. She is thrilled that her children could be in the K classes of 2020 and 2025 respectively, thanks to The Kalamazoo Promise donors.
Playing to a packed venue in downtown Kalamazoo, the indie rock band “Lasso”—featuring Andy Catlin ’09 on keyboards—finishes the final chords of its set to rousing applause. But before Catlin can catch his breath and greet his friends in the audience (including a contingent of Kalamazoo College alumni who are staples at his concerts) he jumps back onstage to perform with “The Go Rounds,” another popular Kalamazoo-area rock band.
Catlin has been writing, performing, and recording music in southwest Michigan for the better part of a decade. Lasso has released five full-length albums since its 2010 debut. It’s fifth, “Golden Lasso,” was released this spring.
In 2011, Catlin and a business partner, Ben Lau, established Double Phelix Recording Collective, a 2,500-sq. ft. recording studio and performance space located in the River’s Edge neighborhood on the eastern edge of downtown Kalamazoo. Musicians pay monthly dues for studio time to rehearse and record their own music. Most end up helping other musicians with their projects. Lasso and The Go Rounds are among a dozen music groups that currently belong to the Collective.
Double Phelix services include audio production, engineering, mixing and mastering; music and sound for film, TV, and radio; location recording; instrument repair and rental; and more.
Catlin books bands’ gigs, schedules studio time in Double Phelix’s 100-year old converted barn space (conveniently located near a bevy of downtown Kalamazoo coffee houses and brew pubs), and oversees every aspect of recording and production. A multi-instrumentalist, he often sits in as a session musician when needed, especially during the once-a-month evenings of music he organizes for member bands dubbed “Double Phelix Showcases.”
He also promotes the studio through the weekly release of an original song from a Double Phelix member band. With singles released via “Double Phelix Bandcamp” and other social media sites, the studio enjoys a consistent web presence.
Out of breath yet? Not Catlin. In addition to all the aforementioned, he helped launch a nonprofit organization that encourages school kids to make their own music.
During his time at K, Catlin took a partial-credit course in recording technology from part-time K music instructor and acclaimed Kalamazoo-based sound engineer John Stites.
“Although my focus was always more on the music than engineering, John became a huge advocate of me being able to play and produce,” says Catlin.
Instruments of Choice
Catlin remembers first being obsessed with music as a fifth-grader learning to play the clarinet—and falling asleep with it at night.
“It was all clarinet, all the time” he smiled.
He then became interested in the trombone, tuba, guitar, piano/keyboards, “and percussion instruments of all kinds.”
After his parents gave him a four-track cassette recorder for Christmas (he was 14), Catlin began “reading every book I could possibly find about recording.”
He also became interested in the stories behind popular music studios and the wider musical cultures from which they emerged, eventually basing certain aspects of Double Phelix’s business model on successful elements of the Motown experience in Detroit and Muscle Shoals in Alabama.
Catlin began making connections in the music industry during his senior year at K when he became full-time booking agent for the now defunct Kalamazoo music venue The Strutt, at the corner of Academy and W. Michigan (now home to Rupert’s brewpub and music club). Within two years Catlin had booked more than 700 acts and was central to the transformation of the small-time coffee house and bar into a venue that featured national touring acts.
“The Strutt was an incredible meeting place for Michigan musicians. I soon started to record, produce, and advocate on behalf of a wide body of musicians. This was the genesis of Double Phelix.”
Although the studio possesses industry standard digital recording capabilities, Catlin says “we are passionate about analog sound and vintage instruments.” Thus his instrument of choice many days is a Tascam ATR 6016 one-inch tape-recorder he purchased in 2012. It’s the premiere method for recording music by his other bands. In 2013, he used it to record nationally renowned bass player Dominic Davis, perhaps best recognized for his collaboration with “White Stripes” front man Jack White, named one of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time by Rolling Stone.
Music in the Key of K
A person must possess an intense work ethic in order to juggle musician’s schedules, organize complex musical arrangements, oversee recording, mixing, and mastering efforts, and then market the final product.
Catlin said he found his at K.
“I think the K work ethic seeped into how I approach music,” said the Grand Rapids native who majored in religious studies. “K was the place where I went from being a talented musician, to becoming a total musical being. I developed so much while I was there.”
He also credits K’s liberal arts for helping to develop his jack-of-all-trades capability at Double Phelix.
“The campus is a playground of creativity,” he said.
For his Senior Individualized Project Catlin composed and recorded a 40-minute musical composition for strings, drums, guitars, and electronics.
“My SIP laid the groundwork for me to create and sustain a professional music studio.”
During the summer of 2013, Catlin drew again from his K heritage when he helped solidify a partnership between Double Phelix, the Kalamazoo Community Foundation, Communities in Schools of Kalamazoo, and the Dan Schmidt Gift of Music Fund. The collaboration set in motion an innovative after-school music education program for Kalamazoo Public School middle school students. Each participating student writes, rehearses, records, and publicly performs his or her own original song.
“K is such a huge advocate of community service, so it’s incredibly fun and rewarding to follow up with that kind of work now.”
He is optimistic about what comes next as he approaches the five-year anniversary of his June 2009 commencement. And he’s eager to keep his K connection strong.
“I continue to meet and network with the K community. I’ve played some shows on campus and continue to get support. I’m open to any collaboration that the College sees fit! We’ll at least be rocking here in ‘Kzoo’ for a few more years, maybe longer!”
Rock on, Andy!
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.
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.
“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.’”