This off-road cyclist from Colorado is changing lives overseas by distributing solar lights and bettering breast cancer detection.
Bicycling | February 2023
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Professional mountain biker and scientist Nichole Baker flies with her bike every year to southwest Uganda—8,600 miles away from where she lives in Durango, Colorado. There, she uses biking to connect with communities and hand deliver Mpowerd solar lamps at rural schools and homes in villages that lack electricity.
She also helps to push the benchmark of regional medical care via her nonprofit Path of Logic (POL), an organization dedicated to improving cancer diagnostics and outcomes in Uganda.
Funded partially by an annual gear auction with products donated by her athletic sponsors, including Yeti Cycles and Osprey, Baker founded POL in 2016, after completing pathology volunteer work in Haiti and realizing there is a tremendous need for sustainable healthcare operations in progressing nations. Baker has been laser-focused on making a difference in the global medical field, especially in cancer diagnoses, ever since.
Prior to Baker’s international work, her career path in the medical field was first catalyzed by the trauma of losing her teenage boyfriend, Steve, to cancer, which led to Baker’s deep motivation to help others and to help close the gap of health equity.
Seeing Steve’s journey and general barriers to healthcare, “has attracted me to this work beyond the problem solving, critical thinking, or allure to working in a new place. To give back through pathology and your work, you need a bigger connection,” Baker says.
How Baker Got Into Science and Mountain Biking
At the start of her science career, Baker pursued vascular surgery research at the University of Michigan, in 2007, inspired by the loss of Steve, who passed away after two years with aggressive non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, when she was 21 years old. The tragedy also propelled her pursuit of mountain biking.
“Two colleagues that were friends of mine realized I was struggling and going inward. They said, ‘You should try mountain biking. I have an extra bike; I’ll take you,’” says Baker, who accepted the invitation. Her first ride was on a steel hardtail on a tough 7-mile loop.
“I didn’t understand shifting, walked every hill, crashed, and took a long time. I was completely addicted to having this tough new sport that was getting me out of my head and into the woods. I started mountain biking a lot,” says Baker, who bought a bike right away.
That introductory year to biking, Baker started racing regionally through the Michigan Mountain Bike Association (MMBA) grassroots events and local USA Cycling race series. The impetus was to meet other riders, make new friends, and feel safe by being around other people while learning completely new trail systems. Within three years, she raced two to three times per month.
By the time Baker’s medical career evolved into becoming a pathologist’s assistant at Mercy Regional Medical Center in Durango in 2013, she was ready to explore the robust trail systems of southwest Colorado’s mountains without the structure of races. Durango is an idyllic hub for singletrack riding, which Baker could do from her front door, and she could bike commute to the hospital for her scientific research.
Pedaling allows Baker’s creativity and inspiration to ignite, she says, leading to some of her best problem solving for work. A pathologist’s assistant provides a range of services in anatomic pathology—which is the study of organs and tissues to detect the causes and effects of specific diseases—alongside other professionals. Baker’s task load at Mercy Regional Medical Center included submitting tissue samples for testing in order to determine patient diagnoses.
Eventually, Baker also started bikepacking in the San Juan Mountains on the weekends “to be in the middle of nowhere and explore new places,” she says. She’d ride her loaded bike to a basecamp, remove the bags, set up camp, then do a big unloaded ride on solitary singletrack.
Supporting Those in Uganda Through Biking and Pathology
In 2016, the year that Baker launched POL, Harvard Medical School’s Massachusetts General Hospital posted an overseas volunteer application: They needed anatomic pathology teachers at Mbarara Regional Referral Hospital in southwest Uganda. Baker applied, secured the role, and has continued to work with the hospital ever since.
It was on her second trip to Uganda in 2018 that Baker partnered with Mpowerd to donate lamps. She also created a route through rural villages and hired a translator to meet her in each place for communication and safety.
“Pathology is lab-based, and I wasn’t interacting with anyone outside of the medical team I worked with. Passing out hundreds of lamps ended up being a beautiful way to connect with the people and learn their way of life,” says Baker.
To date, Baker has bike toured to distribute more than 1,000 solar lamps in Uganda over the past four years, including giving lights to the Katunguru-Rubirizi primary school, so that students could prepare for their entrance exams into secondary school.
Reaching a major milestone in 2019, Baker helped to develop a groundbreaking computer system at Mbarara Regional Referral Hospital, which resulted in the Ugandan government’s first-ever electronic healthcare tracking system.
The system provides pathology-based medical records for healthcare providers to input data and print a PDF report for patients. The records are coded to serve as a cancer registry for researchers. Since 2019, the system has now expanded to four more hospital labs.
Nichole Baker works with other scientists in a lab at Mbarara University in Uganda.Kylie Fly
The tracking system “decreases turnaround [time] for patients to get results [of biopsies] and for clinicians to act upon results,” explains Baker. The upgrade plays a role in a patient’s chance of treatment and survival: Exam results were previously delivered in an average of 47 days and now they’re delivered in 13 days. There’s still room for progress in that timeline, though, Baker says.
The tracking system also allows medical providers to study the incidents of types of cancer, which helps to find trends in cancer prevalence, says Baker. Ultimately, Baker’s vision is that the tracking system will provide objective data to help the medical field lobby for a greater allocation of national funds toward pathology programs.
In 2022, the 37-year-old resigned from her job as a pathology assistant to dedicate herself to POL’s mission in Uganda. She enrolled in a master’s of public health program at Johns Hopkins University, where she’ll stay to earn her doctorate.
Baker syncs her classwork to her next on-the-ground project at Mbarara Regional Referral Hospital: a breast biopsy clinic, set to open this year. By the time most Ugandan women find the appropriate medical center where they can be treated, their cancer is too advanced, says Baker—and she wants to change that fact.
The clinic aligns with Baker’s mission to create an animated persuasion film about breast cancer that educates and encourages women to seek earlier biopsy and treatment. The film debuts in spring 2024.
“I’m excited about this project being an awareness project about breast cancer and to reshape the referral system, which is novel in Uganda and many African countries,” Baker explains.
The Link Between Cycling and Baker’s Healthcare Efforts
Distributing Mpowerd solar lamps by bike influenced other international mountain bike trips for Baker. She’s since ridden in Scotland, Iceland, and Tasmania.
When she’s not traveling for work or long-distance expeditions, her weekly mileage on her bike varies at home. In summer, she rides an average of 30 to 40 hours per week with several multi-digit days. Weeks when her workload is heavy, she rides as little as eight hours per week.
Nichole Baker shredding in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. Ben Gavelda
“I have to be malleable. If I put stress on riding for fitness goals, I will be in a failure mindset and won’t set myself up to thrive. On weeks when I can’t ride as frequently, I’ll still do one slow big ride, which still gets me in shape to do larger trips,” Baker explains.
Baker believes in diving into her goals whole heartedly, whether that’s lab work or riding her bike, which requires an adaptive schedule and outlook.
“Mountain biking raises money for my POL work in Uganda and allows me to connect with the people there,” she says. “Bike adventures keep me inspired to do my international work, while I’m project designing and communicating electronically at home, which is the most important part for continued momentum. I reflect on my purpose and goals when I ride.”
To support Baker’s healthcare work and upcoming projects, sign up for her quarterly newsletter, which will include announcements for fundraiser campaigns, through the contact us page on the Path of Logic website. You can also donate to the organization to help fund the film project’s local animator and the village healthcare workers that will help distribute the film.