September 27, 2011

Cornell Staffer Bikes for Crohn’s Cure

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Crohn’s disease is a form of inflammatory bowel disease. While the exact cause of Crohn’s disease is unknown, the condition is linked to a problem with the body’s immune system response. Normally, the immune system helps protect the body, but with Crohn’s disease the immune system cannot tell the difference between normal body tissue and foreign substances. The result is an overactive immune response that leads to chronic inflammation.

Diagnosed during her second semester of college, Mulvanerton was forced to drop out of school during her junior year due to constant pain, large doses of steroids, and having to be on crutches every few months because of arthritis often associated with Crohn’s. Doctors struggled to get the disease under control, and Mulvanerton’s condition worsened until one day, just before she was supposed to go on a trip with friends, her intestines ruptured.

“I was in so much pain I could hardly walk.  A day or two before I was to leave on the trip, the pain went away. I thought somehow this time the flare had just ended on its own. What was I thinking? My intestines had ruptured, thereby easing the pain.  The only thing that saved my life was that a peritonital mass had formed and sealed the rupture,” Mulvanerton said.

In 1987, Mulvanerton had surgery to remove a large part of her intestines, and nine years later, she was finally in remission. She returned to school to earn her undergraduate degree and then went to law school. During her final year of law school, she came out of remission.

“That year was a struggle. Juggling work, law school, hospital stays and coping with the constant pain from the Crohn’s was difficult. But I was determined to graduate, and I did,” Mulvanerton said.

After finishing law school, Mulvanerton worked in a law firm in New York City until what Mulvanerton calls “an unbelievable opportunity” came her way. She was invited to join NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Team at Cornell. Working as project coordinator for the mission, Mulvanerton was finally able to be true to the “space geek” she had always been.

“I’ve always been in love with science,” she said. “Until I came to Cornell, it never really occurred to me that NASA needs accountants and attorneys.”

After hearing that the then-associate director for the Center for Radiophysics and Space Research was retiring, Mulvanerton applied for the job. As associate director, Mulvanerton manages more than 450 grants, contracts and accounts for Cornell’s work with NASA, the NSF and other organizations.

“My role is associated with both the pre-award and the post award: getting proposals out the door and monitoring them once they come in,” Mulvanerton said.

Throughout her time at Cornell, Mulvanerton worked closely with Prof. Steve Squyres, astronomy, who Mulvanerton says, changed her life. After gaining weight as a result of medication, Mulvanerton had difficulty losing it and weighed nearly 300 pounds at one point. Squyres, who knew Mulvanerton was struggling with her weight, approached her and offered to help.

“He encouraged me to take up cycling.  He and another friend even came with me on the first cycling outing. There I was at 300 pounds with my hot pink 1986 steel framed bike shifting away like a lunatic over the speed bumps. With much prodding from [Squyres], I kept at the cycling and have lost 117 pounds,” Mulvanerton said.

Determined to raise awareness about her disease and raise funds to help find a cure, Mulvanerton has been a part of the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation. On Sept. 18, she participated in the Centurion Ontario Canada Bike Race for Team Challenge –– the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation cycling team.

Riding more than 50 miles and climbing over 3,200 feet, Mulvanerton said the race was much harder than she thought it would be, but was still extremely rewarding. The hills were the most challenging parts, Mulvanerton said, but even going down did not provide much relief as the downhill portion was hilly itself.

Despite the difficulty, Mulvanerton said she is proud to have completed the race.

“Crossing that finish line was one of the best moments that I’ve ever experienced,” she said. “When everyone just rushed towards us at the end to congratulate us … that was just incredible.”

The foundation raised over $110,000 prior to the race but will likely have raised closer to $118,000 after all the sponsors’ checks come in, according to Mulvanerton. Mulvanerton raised close to $6,000 and explained that a significant portion was donated by her coworkers in the space science department.

“The support they showed me was simply overwhelming,” she said.

Original Author: Maria Minsker