Bulldog Bites

News and Views from the University of Redlands

Ready to race

woman standing with a bmx bike
A lifelong passion for motocross racing led Kourtney Heald '22 to work toward a medical degree. (Photos by William Vasta)

Hundreds of biochemistry majors dream of becoming doctors, but Kourtney Heald '22 might be unique in saying off-road motorcycle racing paved her path to medical school.

Heald was born and raised in the motocross hotbed of Southern California to a family of competitive racers. Some of her earliest memories were at racetracks: "From the time I was four months old, my dad would bring me to the track and put me in a playpen. He and his buddies would then take turns riding and watching me!"

She started to race off-road competitively at 14. Heald credits her parents for helping her manage both schoolwork and a grueling race schedule that often involves traveling throughout the Southwest. "My parents have always said as long as I am getting good grades, they'll do whatever it takes to get me to the races. My dad does most of the bike prep, and I do homework in the car if I have to."

While Heald's dedication to the sport has led her to win a B-class championship, it has also exposed her to numerous injuries within her circle of family and friends. "Broken bones and head traumas are a part of the sport," she says. "My dad always says, 'It's not a matter of if you're going to get hurt, it's a matter of when.'"

Luckily, Heald has only broken a few bones, and her interest in medicine and pharmaceuticals stems specifically from wanting to help riders manage pain. "People will do whatever it takes to get through a race; some take painkillers," she explains. "Because of that, addiction has also always been a problem as racers get older and more injured. I've always been exposed to that repeated pattern—it makes my heart hurt, so I want to know more about how to help."

"My professors all take time to ask about my interests, which has helped me vocalize what I really want to do,” says Heald. “I don't think that would've happened at a bigger school."

Heald's goals have led to academic success as well. At the University of Redlands, she's a member of the Proudian Interdisciplinary Honors Society and is the Prehealth Club's anesthetics chair. In May, she was nominated by the Biology Department to receive the Beaver Medical Clinic Foundation Premedical Scholarship and was selected as this year’s recipient.

This summer, she took part in Student Science Research, a highly competitive 10-week U of R program that offers selected students an opportunity to work on a research project alongside a professor.

Despite the pandemic challenges, Heald worked with Clairissa Ponce '22 under the guidance of Biology Professor Bryce Ryan. The pair developed simulations, analyzed data, and ran chemical analyses in Ryan's research lab on pain and touch sensitivity in murine models.

Heald says one of the best parts of studying at Redlands is the personalized mentorship: "My professors all take time to ask about my interests, which has helped me vocalize what I really want to do. I don't think that would've happened at a bigger school."

The Student Science Research program highlighted just why that attention is so valuable. Because of Heald's interest in medicine and pharmaceuticals, "Professor Ryan figured out how he could accommodate his lab to work with what we aspire to do," she says. "One thing I appreciate about the Redlands faculty is they all think it's cool that I race, and they all want to know how to support me."

The broad education Redlands offers, Heald says, also has helped her think critically about various issues. She cites Religious Studies Professor Bill Maury-Holmes as a significant influence, too: "He taught Punk Rock for Social Change at my First-Year Seminar, and I worked for him as a peer advisor afterward. Not only did he go above and beyond for his students, it was also great that he could give me the viewpoint of someone who's not in the sciences." She adds, "It's nice to have that well-roundedness."

Students presented their research on September 23. Learn more about their projects at the Summer 2020 Poster Gallery.