When making her college decision four years ago, Grand Haven graduate Emily Thomas made what many would consider to be an unconventional choice.
Motivated by a prior trip she and her mother, Wendy, made to the Pacific Northwest, Thomas decided to travel a mere 2,200 miles away from home and landed at Lewis and Clark University in Portland, Ore.
“It’s so beautiful out here,” Thomas said on Monday. “And the weather hasn’t been as bad as I’ve heard it’s been in Michigan.”
Now entering the senior year of her undergraduate studies, Thomas is continuing with unconventional choices. This summer, she’s involved in an internship that would make most females scream or squirm — analyzing spiders.
“It’s part of my molecular and biochemical research, where we characterize what proteins are in their venom,” said Thomas, a 2009 GHHS graduate. “The ones in our spider room are alive, but once we analyze them, they’re dead. Right now, we’ve been working with daddy long legs, or the typical spider you’d find in your yard.
“Personally, I haven’t worked with a really poisonous spider, but last semester we analyzed a brown recluse spider, which can give you a really nasty abrasion on your skin. Other students have worked with black widows, but they’ve never been bitten.”
Thomas is enduring through the “creepy crawlies curriculum” in hopes of one day becoming a veterinarian.
“Veterinary school is a few years away,” she said. “I love animals and I love science, so for me, it’s a perfect fit.”
Another perfect fit for Thomas has been running. She ran her first 5K with her grandfather, Jim Elvinga, when she was just 7 years old, and has continued to be passionate about the sport thanks to her family.
Her older brother, Brendon, who is the member of the Peace Corps, was recently the first American finisher at the Great Wall of China Marathon, while Wendy is a regular on the local 5K and 10K circuit and has run the Boston Marathon twice.
“We’ve always considered a 5K our fun thing to do on a summer weekend together,” Thomas said.
Her family’s fondness for running has served Thomas well. After being a part of several strong cross country and track teams at Grand Haven, she’s continued on a path of success by turning in three stellar seasons in both sports for the Pioneers. Last season, her accolades in both earned her the school’s Female Athlete of the Year (the Lois Smithwick award), as well as the Mary Hunter Multi-Sport Athlete of the Year.
“I was totally surprised (to win),” Thomas said. “I’ve always loved running, though, so a part of me had these expectations for myself coming in (as a freshmen).
I’ve been lucky to have a great team to work with and a great coach. It’s allowed me to go out and enjoy it every day, which has really added to my college experience.”
This fall, Thomas expects Lewis & Clark’s cross country squad to be one of the best Division 3 programs in the Pacific Northwest. They’ll look to make amends for a disappointing finish at last year’s Division 3 regional, where they fell short of advancing to the NCAA Championships.
“We lost only one senior and she wasn’t in our top seven,” Thomas said.
Thomas said she’s either the “No. 1 or 2” runner on the team, a distinction earned after last season in which she collected All-Northwest Conference and All-West regional honors. At the regional in Claremont, Calif., she ran a personal-best time of 21 minutes, 44.80 seconds, which was good for fourth overall.
She continued her strong end-of-the-season showing by placing 85th overall at the NCAA Division 3 championships in Oshkosh, Wisc.
Her expectations are a notch higher for her final collegiate campaign.
“I’d love to get to nationals again and become an All-American (top 35),” she said. “And I want our team to get to nationals, too.”
Thomas said she’s running about 70 miles a week this summer, as well working twice a week in the weight room with core-body workouts.
Her track season last spring solidified her athlete of the year status at Lewis and Clark, after she set school records in the 3,000-, 5,000-, and 10,000-meter runs. She was also crowned conference champion in the 5K and 10K.
“I had a really good season in track, so hopefully it carries over to this fall,” she said.