She studied ticks in Thailand and a bacterium in TB. Now she empowers the poor to ride bikes.
By Nancy Brown, American Heart Association CEO
Kathryn Doornbos needed a way to unwind from the tedious work of studying the outer membrane proteins of the bacterium that causes tuberculosis.
So one evening she hopped on her bicycle and went for a ride through the streets of Birmingham, Alabama.
It was so refreshing she started making it a habit. During one outing, she encountered a pack of riders. She joined them. When they stopped in a park for a frosty beverage, she stopped, too.
She learned they were part of an organization that helped poor people earn free bicycles. They learned she was a former Fulbright Fellow pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Alabama-Birmingham.
The camaraderie lured Kathryn back every Thursday at 6:30 p.m. Word of the brainy scientist in their midst filtered to the group's leader, a do-gooder with big ideas who struggled with the administrative end of things.
He asked Kathryn to help write a grant request. She did, and it brought in $2,500.
Then he asked her to help write a more complicated bid. She did, and it brought in $25,000.
Then he asked her to take his place as executive director.
Two years later, it's a toss-up which is more impressive: the impact Redemptive Cycles(link opens in new window) has had on its community or the fact the nonprofit has taken off under the leadership of a microbiologist who spent two years in Bangkok studying the ecological diversity of Thailand ticks.
Both are worth a closer look.
Kathryn got into science for the purest of reasons. She wanted to save lives.
Yet the deeper she dove into the world of academic science, the less of a difference she thought she could make.
Exhibit A: Her dissertation. Even if it led to a breakthrough, she feared it would take years to change anything. She wasn't interested in a post-doctorate fellowship, and she didn't like her odds of landing a tenure-track position at a college.
Another dagger to her aspirations came as she pursued money for a research project.
Her grant application to the National Institutes of Health earned a score of 23. Anything less than 25 was considered a shoo-in. A contact at the NIH even told her, "You're good." But then came a reduction in funding and a spike in low-scoring applications. The cutoff dropped to 22.
Everything she'd been working toward seemed headed toward a dead end.
Those were among the thoughts she was working through when she pedaled into the weekly "Trample" organized by the folks at Redemptive Cycles.
Redemptive Cycles is the brainchild of Marcus Fetch(link opens in new window). He wanted people who were homeless or living in missions to have their own bikes, or to repair those they had, because of what they provided: freedom, transportation, exercise and more.
He started his crusade in a Birmingham warehouse in 2012. The organization moved into its own place in 2013 and earned federal nonprofit status in 2014.
It's run as a regular bike shop, selling new and used bicycles, parts and accessories, plus offering repairs. The difference is that revenue supports its four core programs:
- Earn-A-Bike – volunteer for 12 hours and a bike is yours.
- Sliding Scale Repairs – pay what you can afford, an honor system to keep bikes rolling.
- Public Workstation – a free, do-it-yourself tool bench.
- Mechanics Classes – a deeper dive into repairs.
There's a social component, too.
In addition to the store being a great place to hang out, there's the Trample(link opens in new window), a roughly 10-mile ride covering a different route each week. It's so welcoming that people don't even need a bike; just show up and the shop will lend you one.