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On scholarship: Brown-bound Van Pernis puts academics first

July 31, 2014 - 12:05am

Kristiana Van Pernis joined the cross-country team at Hawaii Preparatory Academy because a friend talked her into it.

A soccer player since the age of 4, she wasn’t really sure where the sport would lead. Turns out, it led not only to league and state titles, but now it is taking her more than 5,000 miles away, to Providence, R.I.

That’s where the Kona resident will be attending Brown University in the fall. She plans to run cross-country and track and field for the Division I Bears.

While academics were first and foremost in her mind when looking at colleges, Van Pernis also liked the fact that she would be competing against the country’s best runners at Brown.

“That was definitely a draw for me,” she said, noting that she also was recruited by Division III schools such as Pomona College in California and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. “At Pomona, I would probably be one of their best runners in the 3,000 and 1,500 starting out. I kind of wanted a place where I’m in the middle of the pack or even in the back of the pack and look at the people in front of me and be like, ‘I want to be as fast as them.’ I want to have a place that pushes me a lot harder.”

The same held true for academics. Van Pernis, who did DNA research while still in high school, is interested in computational biology.

“There’s all of this cool technology,” she said. “There’s this exploding field of hacking biology — using technology to make biology accessible to normal people, which I think is really cool. So, I thought I’d do something like that.”

She’s following the lead of Tito Jankowski, an HPA and Brown alumnus whose company, BioCurious, developed some of the equipment that Van Pernis used in her research.

Van Pernis said she and a friend worked on a project in which they tried to determine whether HPA athletes had more fast-twitch muscles or slow-twitch muscles and if they tended to gravitate toward sports that used the specific types of muscles. For instance, did the school’s distance runners tend to have genes that resulted in slow-twitch muscles?

The project ran into some problems — specifically in regard to getting equipment that they needed delivered to the Big Island — but it also gave Van Pernis some insight into how science works outside of the classroom.

“It was definitely an eye-opener,” she said. “You do things in biology class where the teacher is like, ‘Here is the experiment we’re doing, here are the materials, go do it.’ But this was us. Our adviser was like, ‘Here’s what we have. You can order stuff, but you have to figure it out yourself.’ We had to research things online and email the guy who made that machine. It was like, ‘Wow this is a lot more complicated than we expected.’ But it was also more fulfilling than just being given a project and being told to go do it.”

Unfortunately, the results were not conclusive enough to be published.

“We did have a couple successful things, but we didn’t have a big enough sample size to show us any things,” she said.

The research also probably helped Van Pernis advance her academic career, both in terms of getting accepted to Brown and of winning the HMSA Kaimana Scholarship. The program honored 16 scholar-athletes. She was awarded a $3,000 scholarship and an additional $2,000 as a distinguished scholar-athlete.

Van Pernis said her love for biology might stem from her childhood, when her family grew coffee in Holualoa.

“I’ve sort of been interested in agricultural stuff,” she said. “That translated better to biology than chemistry or physics.”

In terms of athletics, her first love was soccer, not running.

“I ended up being naturally better in running than I was in soccer,” she said. “I think that might have colored my decision a little bit. Also, I like the fact that I can go and do running whenever. If I’m on a vacation, I can go out on a run. I can explore the neighborhood and find super cool places that I never would have discovered if I hadn’t been running. I think that’s something that has shaped my love of running, using it as a means to explore where I live.”

Now, she’ll have a vastly different part of the country to explore.

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