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Kate Bulinski — A Great Find

A diamond in the rough might be an appropriate description for a geologist. Diamond is the hardest naturally occurring substance, created by intense pressure. But Kate Bulinski is not rough. And she’s not a mineralogist; she’s a paleontologist.

Date: 6/4/2008
By: Wendy Beckman
Phone: (513) 556-1826
Photos By: Dottie Stover, photojournalist

Let’s say she’s a great find.

But this paleontologist found us and the University of Cincinnati is about to lose her to Bellarmine University in Louisville. She has certainly had more than her share of pressure, even beyond that normally faced by doctoral candidates.

As a paleontologist, Kate Bulinski spends time crawling around on the ground.
As a paleontologist, Kate Bulinski spends much time crawling around on the ground.

“My last year as an undergrad, I noticed that my flexibility was going,” she says. She had trouble with some of her yoga positions. Her doctor concluded that it was bursitis and treated it as such.

After being accepted into UC’s graduate program in paleontology, she sought a doctor in July 2002 for the pain. Initially considering it to be arthritis, the doctor recommended that Kate see a physical therapist. She was also given anti-inflammatories and other medications.

“Then I had an MRI in October 2002, which showed that I had a tumor on the outside of my right hip,” Kate says. “They suspected that it was a nonmalignant tumor.” So in December 2002, the surgeon performed a biopsy and determined that the growth was a desmoid tumor — a very rare but benign soft-tissue tumor that had invaded the surrounding area. Kate recalls that it was very painful. But something still didn’t feel right. Kate didn’t know where to turn.

“I thought, ‘What should I do? I’m brand new here.’” she recalls. But she had truly found a home and a family at UC. Kate had originally been encouraged to consider UC’s highly ranked paleontology program by one of her professors at Penn State. At the time, she had no idea how important the decision to come to Cincinnati would be on other areas of her life.

Kate on the Kope Formation.
Kate on the Kope Formation.

“I met Arnie Miller at a Geological Society of America conference my senior year in fall 2001,” she recalls.

“Within a few months here, fresh off her undergraduate degree at Penn State in 2002, we recognized that her credentials were so outstanding that we elevated Kate directly into our PhD program, bypassing the MS; she was admitted to candidacy in the spring of her second year,” says Arnie Miller, professor of geology and outgoing head of the department.

In February 2003, surgeons removed the tumor along with the entire tensor fascia latae muscle (used in moving the leg from side to side). Everything seemed fine for a year or so.

Kate's research has taken her around the world. Here she is on board the Seward Johnson.

“Then the next summer I was conducting research in Puget Sound and it started to hurt again,” she says. But being alone in the middle of the Pacific Northwest, she couldn’t do much about it. “So I just grinned and bore it.”

At this point, Kate was no longer on her parents’ health insurance but was now covered as a graduate student on a UC policy. The policy had a pre-existing condition clause, which required her to wait a year before any treatment would be covered.

As a result of her frustration at having to wait a year before seeking treatment, Kate later volunteered to serve on the student health insurance committee. Through her efforts and those of the committee, the waiting time was reduced from 12 to six months for treatment of pre-existing conditions.

“I felt it was a worthwhile use of my time,” she says now. “And I learned a lot about insurance!”

Not being able to afford treatment without the insurance to offset the cost, she waited until the fall of 2004. She had another MRI and radiation treatment from October to December of that year, followed by surgery in February 2005 for another tumor in the same area. This time they planted radiation seeds right in the muscle, which required her spending eight days in the hospital.

Kate's thankful for the 'package deal' she got when she chose the University of Cincinnati.

After all this, Kate appears to be in good health and feels great. She is grateful to her UC doctors, surgeon Joel Sorger and oncologist William Barrett.

“They were really personable,” she says. Moreover, she is especially thankful for the package deal that she got when she chose the University of Cincinnati’s paleontology program and Arnie Miller accepted her as his grad student. Kate says, “If Arnie hadn’t taken me, I would have gone to another school. If I had gone to another graduate school, I don’t think I would have gotten as good treatment as I did in Cincinnati.”

It’s been three years now. Kate has a bit of a limp and a little residual pain, but that doesn’t hold her back.

“I have no problem collecting specimens,” she says with a laugh. “I’m not running any marathons and I can’t do any heavy lifting, but then I was never very good at that anyway.”

But she’s clearly good at lots of other things.

“While at Cincinnati, Kate has won the Isabel and Mary Neff Fellowship, awarded annually by the McMicken College of Arts and Sciences to an outstanding female graduate student, and the Winifred Goldring Award, a national accolade awarded annually by the Association for Women Geoscientists,” says Miller. “After graduation, she'll be moving directly into a tenure-track faculty position at Bellarmine University (no small feat in a very competitive business). Kate has become a very confident and creative scientist and teacher.”

Kate will now impart her enthusiasm, energy and expertise to her own students.
Kate will now impart her enthusiasm, energy and expertise to her own students.

“Throughout the entire ordeal, so many people here made it bearable, especially the people in the Geology Department,” Kate says, her eyes suddenly sparkling a little brighter. “Whether I was on crutches or walking with a cane, there was always someone to help me. They even gave me access to the little garage under the building that’s reserved for the geology vans so I could drive my car right in.”

“Needless to say, I am proud of Kate's outstanding accomplishments, but when I think about what she went through to reach this day, I get chills,” Miller says. “To me, it is nothing short of remarkable that she managed to keep her focus on her work, let alone that she did such an outstanding job completing her PhD in little more than five years. It is a true testimony to her unique blend of intellect, enthusiasm and sheer doggedness.”

Kate’s father was in the army.

“We moved around a lot,” she says. “It’s going to be hard to leave Cincinnati — these people are my family. I’ve lived in Cincinnati longer than anywhere else I lived in my life.”

Kate has been given a tenure-track position at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Ky., where she will be the first person to teach geology in their Chemistry and Physics Department.

"I'll be working to develop an environmental science program from scratch this year. First I'll develop the minor, then I hope to start a major in a few years' time. Many of their students are education majors who have to take an earth science class. The school used to ship them over to the University of Louisville, but now I will take them all," Kate says. “The university itself is working to increase total enrollment from 2,500 students to 8,000 by 2020, and hopes to double their facilities in the process.”

We hope we haven
We hope we haven't seen the last of Kate at UC.

“I’m so excited — it was my top choice of all the schools I applied to,” she says. She plans to be there a long time. “My parents are talking about buying a cabin midway between Cincinnati and Louisville.”

"Leaving is going to be so sad, but it's going to be so thriling, so exciting." And her eyes begin to sparkle again. Just like diamonds.

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