Student-athlete looks to make a splash in genetic research

Pilarowski dives
Pilarowski just breaks the calm surface of the water at the start of the 100-yard breaststroke at the 2011-12 NWC Swimming Championships in Federal Way, Wash. It was during this race that she broke the Whitman College record.

Genay Pilarowski ’13 was co-captain of the women’s swim team in the 2012 season. The biology major will pursue a Ph.D. in genetics at Johns Hopkins University. She said achieving a balance between pool and school helped her achieve success.

Whitman Magazine: How often do you practice?
Genay Pilarowski: We have two-hour practices every day except Sunday. We have one-hour sessions in the weight room two days a week. And twice a week we have morning practices from 6 to 7:30 a.m. We swim between 4,500 and 7,000 yards a practice. We swim a lot!

What is the athletic accomplishment you’re most proud of?
Last year getting the record in the 100-yard breastroke was pretty cool. Recently, and arguably the thing I’m most proud of, was at the Husky Invite. There I dropped two and a half seconds in my 200, which is a lot.

How do you fit school into your schedule?
We really have a good balance, and our coaches and our team understand that academics come first, but everyone is also dedicated to swimming. I find it easier to balance my schoolwork during the season, because we know we don’t have unlimited time – and nobody does – but when we know 4 to 7 p.m. is taken up every single day, you know the rest of your hours are pretty valuable, and you have to use them wisely. I stay on track better.

Pilarowski
Pilarowski

Swimmers burn through a lot of calories. Michael Phelps famously ate 12,000 calories per day. How do you fuel the machine?
I don’t think I can eat that much. I generally just go off of how I’m feeling. And I know that I need to be eating proteins and vegetables, and I know that I need to have fresh fruit in the mix. I eat seafood, but other than that, I’m a vegetarian. I try to make sure I have a lot of protein in every meal, so I eat a lot of tofu. I kind of eat all the time. I eat huge breakfasts and a bunch of cereal. I bring snacks with me and eat during class sometimes. And lots of lunch and a big dinner. I carry a one-liter bottle of water with me all the time. I drink water all the time during class. It keeps me awake and together. And I always have it at practice. I fill it up two to three times a day.

What about sleep?
I try to go to bed at 11 p.m., except it’s 9 p.m. on morning practice days. I try to get eight hours of sleep a night. You can totally tell when you have a hard practice and didn’t sleep, and the next day, you know it’s going to be rough. I can’t emphasize enough how important sleep is for going to class and enjoying class and getting what you need to out of it.

Does your health and fitness regimen help your academics?
I think being active is important for your mental state and being able to focus. On our team, we really try to leave all of our homework and all of our to-do lists at the door when we come to practice, because you’re not going to get it done while you’re there, and it’s not going to help to mull over it for two hours while you’re swimming. In the off season when I’m really cranky, someone will ask, “When was the last time you went swimming?” And I’ll say, “That’s a good point. Maybe I should go.”

What do you plan to do after college?
I’ve been accepted at Johns Hopkins Human Genetics Ph.D. program, which I’m totally psyched about! They have a few guys who are doing research that I’m really into. It’s work on epigenetics, which is the study of how the environment affects genes. For example, this summer I was working on epigenetics and obesity. We had mice that were on high- or low-fat diets, and we were looking at their pups. It doesn’t change the sequence of the DNA, but it changes the little parts on top of the DNA that cause different genes to be expressed or not to be expressed. We used to think that the sequence of DNA was the only thing that was inherited, but now it looks like other things are inherited. For the mice, it’s looking like the obese mothers are causing their pups to also have a tendency to be obese, because the genes involved in metabolism have been shut down, or expressed less. We’re just beginning to scratch the surface of epigenetics research.”

How did Whitman help you take this next step to Johns Hopkins?
“I think that the most important way that Whitman has helped me is by allowing me to ask questions. Having small science classes enabled me to ask questions as they came up, often leading to discussion of scientific research and the problems that the scientific community is currently tackling. Identifying some of these unsolved problems influenced my decision to get into the lab, see what it’s like and, ultimately go onto grad school. At Whitman, the professors are available and passionate and extremely supportive. My adviser, Prof. Daniel Vernon, has helped me land internships in the lab, focus my interests and figure out where to go next. There is always an open door and throughout this entire process, I have really taken advantage of that.”

—David Brauhn