Take a Hike

Journey on Appalachian Trail provides challenges, mental break for recent grad.

Jim Kwon and his mother take a selfie in front of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Jim Kwon and his mother take a selfie in front of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Jim Kwon ’14 spent much of his time in college in front of computer screens working out algorithms for research on diseases affecting millions of people.

As he prepared to study neuroscience in graduate school, Kwon realized he would probably spend the rest of his life immersed in technology.

He knew he needed a break first.

Two days after Commencement this spring, Kwon and his mother, who was visiting from South Korea, started hiking south on the Appalachian Trail. Their goal was to reach Georgia, where Kwon would begin his graduate studies at Emory University.

Jim KwonThe hike was Kwon’s opportunity to look inward. “I will get to know myself a little more and have a relaxed, natural life for a month,” he said during the first day of his journey.

Kwon’s interest in research began when he was a first-year student. A friend introduced him to Katrin Schenk, a physics professor, who told him about her research projects.

“I didn’t know what research was at that point,” Kwon remembered. “I did not understand half the things she was saying, but she was talking with so much passion that I thought that might be something I could get involved with.

“It turns out that research is exactly what I wanted to do my whole entire life,” he said. “I’m decent at it, and it’s fun.”

Working with Schenk, as well as collaborators at other universities, Kwon developed algorithms that interpret data from smartphone sensors to track a person’s physical activity. His contributions are being used in research on Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, and bipolar disorder.

“I really feel like we’re having an impact on a lot of people’s lives,” Kwon said.

Schenk considers Kwon a success of Randolph’s research program. “If you start students in original research that’s really substantial, that really excites them, they can really reach high levels by the time they graduate,” she said.

One of the biggest things science students learn is to adapt to experiments and results that don’t go their way. As Kwon experienced first-hand, those lessons apply to real-life as well.

His hike was cut short after he suffered more than 100 bug bites, which caused a severe reaction that required a week off the trail for antibiotic treatment. But he was undeterred. Once he recovered, they hiked more than 300 miles of trails in Virginia until they reached the Tennessee border.

Kwon said the hike served its purpose. “It gave me time to think about myself and enjoy nature without any pressure from a deadline or a to-do list,” he said.

Since beginning school at Emory, he has researched mouse vocalization and crustacean nervous systems. “The thing I like about research is that I get to use the stuff that I have learned, which is really exciting for me,” Kwon said.