At first, mountain biking was a form of stress relief for Nichole Baker, a way to unwind after long hours researching vascular surgery in a University of Michigan lab. Little did she know that down the road, mountain biking and pathology would become intertwined.
Today, Baker's focus is a long way from Michigan. She spends several weeks each year in Uganda, helping to diagnose cancer, which is an emerging health issue in that country. Her preferred mode of transportation in this third-world country? A mountain bike.
So, how did Baker end up as a sponsored athlete whose passion is diagnosing cancer in Uganda? It wasn’t a direct path, but everything in her life has been building to where she is right now.
Nichole Baker is working to diagnose and treat cancer in Uganda. Photo: Kylie Fly
Fifteen years ago, when Baker was 21, she lost her boyfriend, Steve, to an aggressive non-Hodgkin lymphoma. She was just finishing a diagnostic ultrasound program, and after Steve's death, she volunteered to work as a research assistant, which led her to paid research and further education. She stumbled upon pathology as a component of her research study, and through her connection to Steve, decided to pursue it. Four years later, she had a new career in pathology as a PA.
“I feel like I’ve been a continuous student,” she said. “I feel like I’m always trying something new and taking supplemental courses to learn what I need to know in order to keep doing it.”
Pathology is the science of the causes and effects of diseases. Baker has spent a lot of time hovering over a microscope in a lab looking at body tissue to understand what a disease is doing, or has done to a body.
Although her profession in vascular surgery research at the University of Michigan was fulfilling, she needed an outlet. Coworkers suggested she make a trip to the mountain biking trails outside of town. After her first ride, she was hooked.
“I had never touched a mountain bike before. Being a runner I had the fitness and the endurance, but on the [mountain] bike I loved the challenge of figuring out how to shift and go up hills. It seemed like every time I went out on my bike it was a balance of learning to ride, crashing, and figuring it all out.”
Finding the balance and figuring things out on the fly became a trend for Baker. She found herself in Durango, Colorado in 2013, where she started her work in pathology. Her mountain biking skills grew tremendously, so much so that she caught the eye of Yeti Cycles and became a sponsored athlete.
“Our first rule of working with an ambassador is that they need to be a good person. To no one's surprise, Nichole checks that box." — Kyle Rajaniemi, Yeti Cycles marketing manager
In 2016, Baker started traveling to learn more about how diseases are diagnosed and treated in other countries. After various medical stays, she had her eyes opened to very real problems outside the U.S. She went into a lot of situations with preconceived ideas, but learned that her best tool was listening. So she listened and formed meaningful relationships with people from places like Uganda.
One thing that Baker was surprised to learn was that cancer isn’t something that’s talked about in that part of Africa. Most people know nothing about it, don’t know how it spreads or why it’s dangerous. Until recently, people in Uganda didn’t have long life expectancies that would even allow them to develop most cancers. In many ways for them, it was a new disease.
Baker's work to improve Ugandan lab technology is supported by her mountain bike sponsors. Photo: Kylie Fly
She started thinking about how everything in her life could fit together to help solve some very big problems. On her next trip to Uganda, Baker brought her bike. She knew it would come in handy.
She taught, learned, and built a team to start her own non-profit, Path of Logic. The organization is dedicated to enhancing anatomic pathology services through education and laboratory procedure improvements. From there, she started organizing systems to get more people seen by doctors, keep records more efficiently, and diagnose more patients so that treatment could begin sooner. But she needed a way to fund this research and work. Within a year she had hired a team of four in Uganda, and they needed stipends for living expenses.
Around the same time, Baker was ripping up and down the gnarliest trails in the tallest mountains she could find back in Colorado. On weekends, she often packed a bag with every tool, bike part, and essential she might need out in the wild.
At some point, perhaps on a lonely singletrack trail, a solution to Path of Logic's funding problem came to her. Every year, her sponsor, Yeti Cycles, provided new bikes. Her used bikes were well-loved but still had value, which could be put toward her work in Uganda.
The folks at Yeti Cycles were all in. “I just asked. I didn’t know what they’d say. But they totally wanted to back the project,” Baker said. And they didn’t just want to help, they encouraged her to make this a regular deal.
“Our first rule of working with an ambassador is that they need to be a good person,” Kyle Rajaniemi, marketing manager at Yeti Cycles, said. “To no one's surprise, Nichole checks that box. When Nichole told us, years ago now, that she wanted to use a mountain bike to help fund her idea of bringing modern cancer care to villages throughout Uganda, we knew we had to help out. To see where Path of Logic has led, and to understand the impact Nichole is making here in Colorado and thousands of miles away, is really cool to be a very small part of. We’re beyond stoked she rides with us.”
Yeti agreed to give Baker two bikes to tear around on, and at the end of each year, she could sell them both to fund the project. Other companies got onboard, too. Baker found multiple sponsors — Osprey, Patagonia, Mpowerd and Industry Nine — that put up all kinds of gear for an annual auction to support Path of Logic.
“I didn’t realize when I asked that first question [to Yeti] just how integral it was going to be.” The more people who heard about Path of Logic, the more they wanted to get involved. “I also work with lots of companies [outside of sponsorship and ambassadorship] that have contributed to the auctions as well — Smith, Trek, Bontraeger, Sock Guy, Orange Seal, Backcountry Experience, Deuter, Tailwind Nutrition, and Buff. Plus lots of local restaurants and businesses in Durango.”
Baker's nonprofit, Path of Logic, has grown significantly over the years. Photo: Kylie Fly.
The fundraiser has grown exponentially. In her first year, Baker was happy to raise $1,000 through personal connections. Her most recent annual auction netted about $25,000, and to date, she's raised $100,000 in total to support her cause.
And the additional funding has allowed Path of Logic to beef up its lab equipment, making a real difference for Ugandans. “We’ve sped up the diagnosis process from 47 days to 13 with the new system and have impacted the lives of thousands seeking diagnostic care at three facilities,” Baker said.
Path of Logic is making progress, but without internet, telephone, or even electricity in many homes, the best way to reach people is still face-to-face meetings.
Baker's advancements in how records are kept, how people are diagnosed, and how they’re treated, has depended largely on those people to come to the clinic — to voluntarily get tested.
Path of Logic's doctors will be able to do more for when they can reach people directly in rural Uganda. Photo: Kylie Fly
But with Baker's new project, doctors will be going to the people — educating and explaining why they should come in for an exam. So with a team of doctors in Uganda, Baker is going to start canvassing. Knocking on doors. Having conversations. “If I can get every woman an exam [for cervical cancer and breast cancer] that will save so many lives,” she said. And the tool that’s going to help her reach more people faster, is the bicycle. “This community-based project could really use the healthcare workers having transportation.” The most efficient and effective way to meet people is by bike. Baker hopes to facilitate her fleet of door-to-door doctors by next year. And if it works, she could repeat the project throughout Uganda and beyond.
This will be her most ambitious project yet. If it works, the benefits for Ugandans in rural areas could be significant. Common diseases could be diagnosed and easily cured with routine and inexpensive procedures. They just need to get the doctors to the people. With a growing medical staff astride bikes — and funded by bikes too — the Path of Logic seems up to the challenge.
For Baker, the bike started out as an escape from her tedious 9-5 work, and it still is. But now, she is using bicycles to help fulfill a mission of early diagnosis and treatment of cancer. The bike will always equal adventure, but now, for Baker, it might also equal a cure.