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Alumna pursues dual passions for wildlife biology and aviation

Kim K headshot

Kimberly Kanapeckas

Kimberly Kanapeckas began living her dream well before she completed her biology major and lined up for commencement exercises with the Erskine
College Class of 2007. Her dream included developing a focus on wildlife biology, moving to Africa, and homing in on African wildlife biology. There
her dream expanded to include an interest in natural resource aviation. When she returned to the United States to complete her doctorate at
Clemson University, she began taking flying lessons.

Biology, switched up

Kimberly has spent most of the last several years in Africa, where she earned a master’s degree in Zoology/Epidemiology in the Mammal Research Institute at the University of Pretoria, South Africa. There she developed the Zambezi Buffalo Project, conducting research on African buffalo in the Zambezi Valley.

Studies of South African wildlife conducted in remote areas required the use of a fixed-wing Cessna as well as a helicopter, Kimberly said, and this experience proved significant for her.

“Observing the pilots’ skills in recognizing the animals’ behavior and the limitations and abilities of the aircraft, I was impressed by how we were placed so well for immobilizing wildlife,” she said. “I was inspired.”

That inspiration opened up a new chapter for Kimberly.

“My interests have always focused on big game and wildlife disease ecology, combining molecular techniques with ecological principles, and integrating genetics into evolution, health, and conservation of natural populations,” she said.

“I now have a keen interest in combining natural resource aviation with population ecology and genetic surveys.”

So, while working on her Ph.D. at Clemson—where she lectures in the Department of Genetics and Biochemistry—Kimberly serves as an aviator for the Clemson University Flying Club. She flies a Cessna 172 Skyhawk.

“My greatest aspiration is to fly as a biologist-pilot, and I plan to conduct aerial surveys for natural resource agencies,” she said.

Kimberly describes some of her recent activity as “flight training in earnest, practicing stall recovery, holding my altitude and heading, and mastering radio communications, pilotage and dead reckoning.”

Adventures all over the map

Kimberly in South Africa

Kimberly in South Africa

In light of Kimberly Kanapeckas’ history, her efforts to expand her scope and become a biologist-pilot seem to be completely in character. “From the time I was a young girl, I was always an adventurous spirit,” she admits.

She enters wholeheartedly into her work, wherever that takes her.

Professor Emerita of Biology Dr. Jan Haldeman has known Kimberly since her days at Dixie High School in Due West. “She and Caleb McMahan [’07] worked together on a project with me for the South Carolina Junior Academy of Science, for which they won the botany award.”

Valedictorian of her class at Dixie High School in Due West, she had sufficient moxie to apply for—and secure—a summer research position with the Colorado Division of Wildlife with only a year of Erskine College classes to her credit.

That same summer, just before leaving for Colorado, Kimberly presented research conducted with Assistant Professor of Biology Dr. Stefanie Baker at a regional meeting of the American Society of Microbiology. Baker, who now teaches at Wofford College, said Kimberly won first place for best undergraduate research presentation.

“She delivered a very professional, polished presentation and the audience members were impressed to learn that she had just finished her freshman year and that she did the majority of the work herself,” Baker recalled. “All the other students in the competition were upperclassmen, mostly seniors, from the University of Georgia and University of Florida.”

After graduating from Erskine, Kimberly went to the Mammal Research Institute at the University of Pretoria, and in 2009 spent some time as a visiting scientist at the University of Montana in Missoula.

Back home and up in the air

soloNow that she is gaining skills in aviation, she has become a member of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, the International Association of Natural Resource Pilots, and Women in Aviation International.

She has been named a mentor for Girls with Wings Inc., and was recently awarded an aviation flight training scholarship. She says her involvement in Girls with Wings “has been an incredible way to enter the aviation community and encourage others.”

In addition to her work as a lecturer and Ph.D. candidate, Kimberly has been elected president of the Genetics and Biochemistry Graduate Student Association at Clemson. But her busy schedule at Clemson has not weakened her ties to the continent she loves.

“I left Pretoria in January 2011 to take the position at Clemson, but I still return to South Africa every year,” she said.

“This May I participated in a fantastic course led by the most elite scientists in conservation genomics and molecular evolution in vertebrate species—cheetahs, elephants, wolves, etc.”

Kimberly became acquainted with some of the faculty at the workshop, which was co-sponsored by the American Genetic Association and the University of Pretoria and held at the Southern African Wildlife College in South Africa. A number of them became “colleagues and supportive friends,” she said.

“I was able to meet up with many [of them] at the Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution (SMBE) meeting in Chicago,” she said. Several of her new friends attended her presentation at SMBE and learned about the research she is pursuing for her Ph.D. dissertation.

Back in her home state, Kimberly received a Clemson Professional Enrichment Grant to take a course in Wildlife Chemical Immobilization at the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine, where she gained proficiency with dart projectors for anaesthetizing wildlife. And just for good measure, she completed a Feral Hog Management course with the Clemson Cooperative Extension Service.

Freedom, excitement, and future challenges 

Even in the midst of graduate work, scientific conferences, and ‘extra’ courses here and there, Kimberly has developed such enthusiasm for her flying lessons and other aviation-related pursuits that friends have asked whether she will be giving up science to fly commercial planes.

She dances around the question.

“Certainly, aviation is much more fitting to my personality than academia. I love the community and camaraderie that pilots share, and both the freedom and challenge flying affords us.”

This sleeping elephant was immobilized during a workshop for wildlife professionals at Kruger National Park in South Africa, Kimberly said. “Local students and some park visitors took advantage of the learning opportunity.” Kimberly said.

This sleeping elephant was immobilized during a workshop for wildlife professionals at Kruger National Park in South Africa, Kimberly said. “Local students and some park visitors took advantage of the learning opportunity.”

Then again, she says, “Some arenas of biological sciences are that way—particularly wildlife professionals.”

She is considering a number of choices. “Flying wildlife censuses, game capture, and migratory fowl research projects are perfectly aligned with my goals,” she said. “There are even some research stations that are airborne observatories, which may combine my interests. Military is also an option I haven’t yet ruled out.”

Setting high goals for herself as usual, Kimberly thinks about “climbing the ranks and ratings.” On her list are “certificate to carry passengers, instrument rating to fly in clouds, commercial to fly for money, multiengine to fly jets, Certified Flight Instructor (I want to give other people wings), float rating (to land on water or ice), heli rating (to fly helicopters).”

She would like to fly for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or a state department of natural resources. She dreams of flying in the bush, in mountains, in remote places in Africa, in Alaska wilderness areas—“the most difficult, dangerous type of flying,” she says.

“The excellent part about a pilot certificate is that I can fly anywhere on earth with correct documentation—perhaps one of the very few truly transferable qualifications!”

She’ll get there

Kim color with headsetKimberly is not merely dreaming about flying in those remote areas—she’s taking big steps toward a real goal. “My instructor is going to train me in his Citabria, a bush plane he bought from Alaska,” she said.

The Citabria—“airbatic” spelled backwards—is “the first aircraft in the United States certified for aerobatic flight,” Kimberly explained.

Her enthusiasm takes over as she describes the joys of aerobatic flight.

“Advanced spin recovery, emergency upset training, tailwheel—if you’ve never seen one, they’re pretty legit—we strap in to parachute harnesses! Tandem seats, so he instructs from behind the pilot seat.”

In graduate school, Kimberly works in the Lawton-Rauh Laboratory in the Department of Genetics and Biochemistry. Her research interests include “ecological genetics, speciation mechanisms, and molecular evolutionary dynamics of wild populations,” according to her profile on the Clemson website.

Kim test Result copy

Kimberly passed!

In flight school, she is honing skills that will take her where those wild populations are, speedily and in style.

“Piloting an aircraft teaches sound decision-making and collectedness under pressure, and also that a pilot’s dedication to her aircraft is paramount,” Kimberly said. “‘Aviate, Navigate, Communicate’ is our golden rule.”

She is determined to practice that rule, as she adds ‘aviation’ to her resume. She passed her FAA private pilot knowledge examination in November.

“We are taught as pilots that whatever happens, ‘Never stop flying the airplane.’ Ever,” she said. “There’s a lot on the line.”

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of Inside Erskine magazine.

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