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Former ice dancer named "Emerging Explorer"

Kakani Katija Young part of National Geographic's 2011 class

Former U.S. ice dance competitor Dr. Kakani Katija Young has been named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer.
Former U.S. ice dance competitor Dr. Kakani Katija Young has been named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer. (Heather Hoxsey)

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By Lois Elfman, special to icenetwork.com
(05/26/2011) - Dr. Kakani Katija Young's research involves many hours spent under water studying sea creatures, but ice dance enthusiasts know her from her competitive days as an ice dancer.

Young was the 1999 U.S. novice ice dance champion with her brother Ikaika. The duo also won bronze in junior dance at the 2001 U.S. Championships, competed on the ISU Junior Grand Prix circuit and competed in the senior ranks in 2002.

Young, a bio-engineer who earned her Ph.D. at the California Institute of Technology, says her background in skating is extremely valuable in her work as a scientist. She points to her sense of competitiveness and persistence.

"In science, things don't work the first time. I found this to be true in research," says Young, 29, who is currently a postdoctoral scholar at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. "With that skating ethic you fall, you get up and try something else or make adjustments. This is a characteristic you need if you're working in science.

"Also, the performance aspect," she adds. "Giving a talk in front of hundreds of people is very similar to doing a program in front of a big audience. The time scales are different. Instead of a four-minute program you're looking at maybe an hour, but you recognize that you want to keep your audience entertained."

During her competitive ice dancing career, Young balanced college with skating, and admits it was challenging. After the 2002 U.S. Championships, she decided to focus on school, a decision that was not easy to reach because it impacted her brother. He has stayed with the sport and today is a successful coach and choreographer.

She originally planned on studying aeronautics at CalTech, but switched to bioengineering after earning her master's degree. She became involved in underwater research by chance. One day her advisor asked if she'd like to learn how to scuba dive for work and Young jumped at the chance.

"Originally, my role was to design a system that would allow us to do diagnostic measurements under water. Something that a scuba diver could use, which is normally limited to measurements in the laboratory," Young says. "With that apparatus we've been able to start learning about a lot of different things in the ocean environment."

Currently Young's research in the emerging field of biogenic ocean mixing focuses on the how the movements of sea creatures have a powerful effect on ocean currents. She says these sea creatures could be as important to ocean circulation and global climate as the winds and tides.

Recently, she's been studying jellyfish and other smaller organisms in an effort to understand how when they swim they effect the fluid environment around them. Young's work came to the attention of National Geographic last year. In April, she and four collaborators did research scuba dives in Panama accompanied by two divers from National Geographic. They were filmed for a TV show that will air in 2012.

Last week, she was announced as one of the 2011 class of Emerging Explorers. She does not know who nominated her. National Geographic's Emerging Explorers Program recognizes and supports uniquely gifted and inspiring adventurers, scientists, photographers and storytellers who are pushing the boundaries of discovery, adventure and global problem-solving while still early in their careers.

Each of the Emerging Explorers receives an award of $10,000. Young's award has been donated to Woods Hole, with which new field equipment has been purchased for her research.

"A whole new set of underwater cameras and things I can use for my next field trip," Young says. The location has not yet been chosen.

Her collaborators come from diverse institutions and locations.

"The people I work with are spread out throughout the country," she says. "We have interests that support each other.

"I'm curious to see what this collaboration with National Geographic will do. The work of myself and my collaborators is very visual, very interesting and we could benefit from these collaborations with National Geographic. It could make people more aware of jellyfish in the ocean as well as the impact a single organism may have on the ocean."

In June, Young and her fellow Emerging Explorers will be giving 15-minute presentations at National Geographic headquarters in Washington, DC.

Young stays in top physical condition for scuba diving by running and swimming. Whenever she gets on the ice she finds getting into the skating groove relatively easy. She has her skates with her in Massachusetts and is happy to have an ice rink nearby, but her best on-ice experiences take place when she gets on the ice with her brother back home in Portland, Oregon.

Last Christmas, they skated in a show together. They helped raise 600 pounds of food and $200 to donate to the Oregon Food Bank in Portland. If her career ultimately brings her closer to where Ikaika is, there is a distinct possibility they may try to compete in adult ice dance.

"I think that could be a lot of fun," Young says.