FAIRBANKS (AP) — As he sits in front of a laptop in a quiet, windowless office at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, it’s easy to forget that Tom Grant has led a double life for much of the past two decades.
Grant, 39-year-old post-doctoral student at the UAF School of Natural Resources, spends his days immersed in the study of invasive plants and forest ecology. But his body, covered with scars and held together with metal pins, gives a hint of his other passion — professional snowboarding.
From 1996 to 2003, Grant’s run on the pro snowboarding circuit provided a few sponsorships, a modest amount of prize money and a lot of vivid memories.
“I never thought of it as a career,” he said. “I just enjoyed it.”
Grant has the laid-back demeanor and easy smile you’d expect of a pro snowboarder, but not necessarily the academic background. When he wasn’t cutting paths down slopes, Grant was gradually marching toward a doctorate degree in environmental sciences.
For years he alternated between plant research, academic study and time on the mountains. Before arriving in Fairbanks a year ago, he recently had finished a seven-year run working for the Denver Botanic Gardens.
Those types of off-the-mountain credentials aren’t the norm in the snowboarding world. One competition he entered even included a startling bit of biographical information about Grant in its program, he remembers with a laugh: “He has a job.”
Grant said his interest in the outdoors and skiing have been connected since his childhood in the Chicago suburbs.
He moved to Colorado to attend college, attracted by the dual promises of nature and the mountains he remembered from childhood vacations.
He went on to earn his bachelor’s and graduate degrees in Colorado, while focusing on work with invasive plants and rare species. Grant said ecology always seemed like a natural fit.
“I came to the realization that I could do something hopefully positive for people and our environment,” he said.
Along the way, Grant could never get away from the slopes. He entered competitions, going from racing to freestyle to extreme snowboarding events, which basically involve maneuvering down an ungroomed mountainside.
Those years, along with his skateboarding hobby, also helped Grant compile a spectacular list of injuries. The first time he stepped on a snowboard Grant fell and broke his left wrist, and he’s gone on to break both ankles, fracture the other wrist, separate his shoulder and suffer two spinal compressions, among other injuries. He’s had at least two concussions, although he admits it’s tough to categorize all the head trauma he’s endured.
His biggest moment of fame likely came when he did an accidental flip off a 35-foot-high cliff onto some rocks, a pratfall impressive enough to show up on an ESPN2 highlight later that night. The failed move also marked the moment when his wife, Corrie Knapp, decided she was done watching his competitions.
“I destroyed my snowboard and crushed my pinky,” he said. “I was really lucky.”
Retired for nearly a decade from competition, Grant moved to Fairbanks a year ago after Knapp began working on her doctorate degree at UAF.
Grant’s mentor professor, Glenn Juday, said Grant made a quick impression after being hired as a part-time student worker, allowing him to eventually move to a position as a post-doctoral researcher. He said Grant’s skill for using research equipment, strong work ethic and good-natured enthusiasm make him a rare commodity.
“Try putting those things together, and the Rolodex gets pretty small,” Juday said.
Grant said his time in Alaska has been good, down to the cabin in the woods he and Knapp live in with their three cats. He’s studying the way caribou react to wildfire-scarred areas, and said it’s dazzling how much research potential the state has for a wilderness ecologist.
“I like that people in Fairbanks have a strong connection to the land,” he said. “You don’t see that as much in the Lower 48. That’s not as much a part of their lifestyle.”
And while Interior Alaska isn’t well-known for its slopes, he’s taken advantage of the prime back-country snowboarding that exists down the Richardson Highway at Thompson Pass.
“Knowing that Valdez was close — that I could drive there in an evening and be in some of the best snowboarding in the world — made Fairbanks a lot better,” he said.
Grant said his future beyond post-doctorate research is still hazy. He enjoys teaching, but isn’t sure he wants the burden of juggling fundraising, instruction and research.
“I’m looking for something that’s meaningful and has real-world applications,” he said.
And someday, Grant said, he may even be ready to leave the beloved ski slopes behind.
“I think surfing’s going to be my retirement sport,” he said with a smile. “You don’t get hurt as much.”