Geek of the Week

Kaytlyn Gerbin is blazing trails in cell science and as an ultrarunner who has conquered Mount Rainier

Kaytlyn Gerbin, left, runs the Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier. She completed the 93-mile loop in just under 19 hours. Her friend Tara Fraga helped with pacing between miles 30-55. (Ryan Thrower Photo)

When Kaytlyn Gerbin moved to Seattle 10 years ago to attend graduate school at the University of Washington, a friend took her to Kerry Park in the Queen Anne neighborhood on her first visit. The celebrated viewpoint offered Gerbin a glimpse of Mount Rainier that ignited an ongoing passion.

Kaytlyn Gerbin.

“At the time, I had absolutely no idea there was a trail all the way around it, and didn’t know the first thing that went into climbing to the summit or running even a few miles on the trails,” Gerbin said. “Since then, I’ve climbed Rainier 10 times, and spent countless hours on the mountain and trails in that park.”

Along with her drive to get to know Washington state’s most famous landmark more intimately, Gerbin achieved her PhD in bioengineering at UW, where her research was focused on the therapeutic and regenerative potential of cardiac cells. For the past four years she’s been a scientist at Allen Institute for Cell Science, where she studies stem cells and cardiomyocytes, or cardiac muscle cells.

Our latest Geek of the Week, Gerbin is an accomplished ultrarunner, and she now knows a lot more about that trail that encircles Mount Rainier.

With COVID-19 lockdowns impacting her international race season last summer, Gerbin, a sponsored athlete for The North Face, went after the fastest known time, or FKT, for a run around the Wonderland Trail. Together with teammate Dylan Bowman of Portland and a small crew of local filmmakers, they made “Summer of Wonder,” a short film about the experience, which you can watch in full here:

The average thru-hiker takes 10-14 days to complete the 93-mile Wonderland Trail, with its 24,000 feet of elevation gain. Gerbin did it in 18 hours, 41 minutes, 53 seconds, and the film is a breathtaking look at her endurance feat.

Gerbin’s passion for running started with 3-mile commutes back and forth between her apartment, her research lab, and campus during grad school. Eventually she started trail running, essentially as a life hack to see if she could squeeze a five-day backpacking route into a weekend between experiments.

“It turned out I was actually pretty good at that, and that opened up opportunities to start racing at some of the most competitive trail races in the U.S. and Europe,” Gerbin said.

She’s since raced with Team USA at the Trail World Championships, reached the podium at the iconic Western States 100, and won races such as the Canary Islands Transgrancanaria and Cascade Crest 100 in Washington. She also still holds the women’s self-supported FKT for the Rainier Infinity Loop (set in 2019), which combines the Wonderland Trail with two summits and descents of Mount Rainier.

Her preferred racing distance is anything between 50-100 miles long, the more elevation gain and technical the trail, the better. During peak training, Gerbin is usually hitting between 70-90 miles with over 20,000 feet of elevation gain each week. She calls the Pacific Northwest “the best outdoor playground there is.”

“Although I love running fast, I’m also really excited about pushing myself on more challenging terrain. So many of my other FKT goals and route ideas are along these lines, with more technical traveling than actual running,” she said.

Kaytlyn Gerbin after winning the Transgrancanaria 2020 race in Spain and setting a course record. (Photo courtesy of Kaytlyn Gerbin)

COVID permitting, her highest race priority this year is Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, which is the most competitive world-stage for ultrarunning, at the end of August. The race circumnavigates Mont Blanc, passing through France, Italy, and Switzerland and covering around 105 miles and 33,000 feet of elevation gain.

While Gerbin’s experience as a scientist does inform her appreciation for what she’s putting her body through during ultrarunning, she’s equally passionate in the lab. At the Allen Institute she’s seeking answers to broad questions about how cells work, including how single cells and all of their components are integrated into a functional system, while using imaging to build predictive models of cell behavior.

“I get the opportunity to work with a multidisciplinary team of badass scientists, biologists, and engineers on really cool problems in cell biology,” she said.

Learn more about our latest Geek of the Week, Kaytlyn Gerbin:

What do you do, and why do you do it? Science and ultrarunning for me have always come down to problem solving.

As a scientist, problem solving is inherent to experimental design, data analysis, and interpreting results. By asking hard questions, I’m interested in pushing the field of cell biology forward, and challenging the current way of thinking.

As an ultrarunner, it’s a different kind of problem solving, but I lean on the same mindset to figure out how to push my athletic limits further and faster.

One thing that always amazes me is how adaptable the human body is. My training in cell science gives me context for how all of these stressors and inputs we’re putting on our bodies are fundamentally happening at the single cell level, and it keeps me thinking about the cell’s response to external cues in my research.

What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? Yes, I do think about science and when I’m running, and no, I do not geek out on heart rate monitors and training zones and all those numbers when I’m running.

Where do you find your inspiration? I’m inspired by brilliant women that are pushing what’s possible in both science and in sports. I think we often set boundaries for ourselves about what we think is possible, without ever letting ourselves really hit that limit. I’m inspired by women who set bold goals and bring others up and along for the ride, redefining what’s possible.

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? My Garmin 935. I use this watch daily to track miles run, elevation gain, etc. The battery life has lasted me for 100 miles of running and ~24 hrs, but it’s small enough to wear every day.

Kaytlyn Gerbin, left, is joined by her Allen Institute for Cell Science teammates Angel Nelson and Stephanie Dinh. (Photo courtesy of Kaytlyn Gerbin)

What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? Prior to 2020, I was splitting my time between the tissue culture hood (passaging cells, differentiating cardiomyocytes, setting up experiments), conference rooms (team science and collaboration means a lot of group discussions!), and my computer for writing and analysis. Since then, I’ve shifted my work to be more remote while I work on a few different manuscripts. I have an office set up at home with a window, some good tunes, plenty of coffee, and a chair for my dog to wait impatiently on.

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) I have always been a to-do list person. Most mornings start with me listing out tasks (and breaking those down into many sub-tasks). I feel productive as I cross things off, and it also helps me prioritize and plan ahead to make sure I can also fit my training runs in.

Mac, Windows or Linux? Mac as a personal preference, Windows for my work computer (I do work at the Paul Allen Institute 🙂

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? Transporter. I just promise not to use it in races.

Greatest game in history: “Lode Runner.” I haven’t played it since I was a kid, but the memories of yelling at the computer with my sister frantically hitting up-down-up-down arrows make me feel like it was just yesterday.

Best gadget ever: Garmin inReach mini – satellite messaging and SOS call, all in a device small enough to throw in the bottom of a pack (or shorts pocket) and forget it’s there. I bring this with me anytime I’m headed out into the wilderness/mountains, but I hope I never need to use it.

First computer: iMac G3.

Current phone: iPhone 11.

Favorite app: I have a love/hate relationship with Strava. I’ve also been using DuoLingo during the pandemic and have a strong daily streak going!

Most important technology of 2021: COVID vaccines!!

Most important technology of 2023: Advancements in remote/low-resource medical care.

Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: Most problems can be solved with more snacks and some time (works for science and running).

Twitter: @kaytlyn_gerbin

LinkedIn: Kaytlyn Gerbin

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