Quantic Trailblazers: Iditarod Musher Paige Drobny

Executive MBA Student, Paige Drobny, was born with a love of animals. Her parents couldn’t keep the frogs and crickets and small animals out of the house. She got her first pet, a cat, at the age of three and there were a slew of house pets and barn animals that came after that. Fast forward to 2021, and she is now competing in her seventh Iditarod with a team of incredible sled dogs. 

“I never heard of the Iditarod when I was a kid,” says Paige. “I never dreamt about going up north. It never occurred to me that I wanted to race and I never thought I would be doing this, but I was always drawn to the outdoors.”

Paige’s love and respect for the outdoors has only grown stronger since she moved to Alaska in 2001. She loves the wilderness and wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. Since the state has eight to nine months of winter each year, residents need to find ways to keep active in the snowy season. That’s when Paige first discovered dog sledding. 

“Fairbanks is unique because many people have small recreational kennels,” says Paige. “Most people I know have dog sleds. It’s a way for people to get around and get out.” The first time Paige contemplated getting on a sled is when her husband and business partner, Cody Straith, made her one for Christmas.

“I gave it to her for Christmas and said ‘maybe we can get some more dogs,’” says Cody. “I went to visit my family a week before the holiday and when I came back she had already gotten three more dogs. Then we could officially use the sled.” 

“We actually talked about dog sledding in retirement,” laughs Paige. “We thought it would be a way to stay active when we were older. I always wanted a ton of dogs. We attached them to the sled and off we went. I was hooked from the get go.”

Since that first moment of jumping on a sled, Paige has become an extremely accomplished musher. Besides this being her seventh Iditarod competition, she is also a five time Yukon Quest and Copper Basin Musher.

“I knew Paige was a driven athlete back in 2010,” explains Cody. “She had just finished her first 300-mile race. She got to the finish line and just wanted to keep going. She was just having a great time and wanted to continue.” 

Paige’s ambition is apparent both on and off the sled. She is the owner and operator of Spearfish Research, where she is a biological consultant, and her and Cody run a successful kennel, dubbed Squid Acres, an homage to Paige’s work consulting for fisheries. The couple purchased a lodge off the Denali Highway (one of the most remote and scenic highways in the world), and are expanding their business into a high-end tourism retreat where people can learn about sled dogs and the Alaskan environment. “We’re on thousands of acres of wilderness. We can show people the real Alaska,” says Paige. 

To get her new venture off the ground, she needed to equip herself with a strong foundation of business development and operations. She needed an MBA education, but needed a program that would be flexible enough to accommodate her chaotic schedule. That’s when Quantic came into the picture: “I wouldn’t be doing an MBA if it wasn’t for Quantic. I love Alaska and I have 50 sled dogs that I can’t leave. Being able to stay home and take care of my dogs, and run my other businesses, wouldn’t be possible without the mobile platform.”

Both Cody and Paige have a background in science. Since joining Quantic in October 2020, the courses have already helped Paige with the accounting side of her new business, and she’s looking forward to learning more about marketing. Always eager for a new challenge, Paige admits, “I’m really excited for the marketing course. It’s not my skill set at all. Business Law, too, I’m excited to learn about the proper way to expand in this new industry.” 

Being a newcomer to the tourism industry doesn’t faze Paige, in fact, she says it excites her. And if mushing has taught her anything, it’s that no challenge or obstacle is insurmountable. “Running dogs can be chaotic. There are new obstacles all the time. You need to be calm, cool, and collected. You can’t dwell on the missed corners and wrong turns, you have to learn your lessons and apply them the next day. The business world is the same. You learn from your mistakes and succeed.” 

It’s safe to say the dogs instill a sense of positivity in Paige’s racing and, in general, influence her optimistic outlook on life. “Living with dogs is just one giant lesson. I learn something from them every day. They’re happy, they live in the moment, and every day is exciting, and offers new opportunities. When you hang out with a bunch of dogs, you can’t have a bad day.”

The 2021 Iditarod kicks off tomorrow morning, Sunday, March 7. This year’s multi-day sled dog race across Alaska has some major changes planned, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but as always, Paige is ready to roll with the punches. Participants in this year’s 860-mile course will instead race in a loop that begins outside of Anchorage and eliminates many of the stops traditionally required in previous Iditarod races. The teams will travel from Deshka Landing to Flat and then loop back around and return the same way they came, rather than continuing northwest toward Nome.

The Quantic community is excited to cheer on Paige and with her positive attitude and determination, we know she is going to be the leader of the pack. Be sure to follow Paige’s race journey on our social channels. We’ll be tracking her progress and hearing from her throughout the course!

Student Spotlight: Catherine Johns Keeps Her Sights on the Stars

Executive MBA Student, Catherine Johns, has always shot for the moon, even when she was a little girl. “I think most people have a moment from childhood that is etched in their memory,” says Catherine. “For me, it was watching the launch of the very first space shuttle, seeing this beautiful white bird soar into the air and escape the Earth’s pull. It just felt as though the whole world was watching. We were united in celebrating the next step on this extraordinary journey of exploration, a journey that is fundamental to who we are. Space exploration and astronomy remind us all of the best of ourselves.” 

It’s safe to say that Catherine’s passion for space was written in the stars. After an accomplished career path in the space industry, Catherine is now the CEO of Kielder Observatory, a public astronomical observatory located on nearly 580 square miles, their dark sky zone, known as Northumberland and Kielder Water and Forest International Dark Sky Park. It is the second largest area of protected night sky in Europe and is said to be one of the “most remarkable places to visit in the U.K.” 

Image Credit: Kielder Observatory

“There is something extraordinary about Kielder,” says Catherine. “There are many observatories in the world, all of them special, all of them unique, but there is something about our landscape, our location, the quality of the dark skies, that truly opens up the soul of the universe for people. We sit in the largest Gold Tier dark sky park in Europe, as certified by the International Dark Sky Association, in the largest man-made forest in Northern Europe and next to the largest man-made lake in England. It’s a wild, rugged landscape but it was actively created by humans, thinking in the long term, for the good of the planet.” 

One of Catherine’s favorite aspects about the observatory is seeing visitors experience their Kielder moment for the first time. “The Kielder moment is very special, it’s the moment that visitors look up at the glittering skies and realize they are completely connected to this vast cosmos, yet utterly unique within it. My favorite part of the job is seeing the team at work, helping that moment of realization dawn on so many faces.”

But when the COVID-19 pandemic quickly brought public restrictions and quarantines, Catherine and her team knew they would need to get creative in order to maintain these Kielder moments remotely. “My priority was to try and convey that special Kielder moment to more people than could visit us on site. So, Kielder Constellations was born. It was a new approach to delivering our purpose: to create opportunities for people of all backgrounds and abilities to experience moments of inspiration, revelation, wonder and hope through observing the cosmos. In the works we also have an augmented reality app, a new digital learning platform, new arts programs and of course, our new radio telescope. Everyone needs that moment of inspiration and have that lightbulb moment.” 

Keeping that lightbulb moment alive and igniting STEM excitement in the next generation is also a major goal for Catherine. Kielder has now launched its “STEM to Stars” program. Through this, young students can learn about STEM careers, help restore a William Herschel telescope, and discover the mechanics of observation. “We have a team of mentors from the industry to help and inspire the children,” says Catherine. “This makes it very real to children that the space industry isn’t something that happens in the United States or Russia, it happens right around the corner from them.”

This type of combination of academic research and community-based citizen science has given Kielder deserved recognition in the space industry. Most recently, the observatory was funded by the Tanlaw Foundation to install a Spider 500 radio telescope. A radio telescope scans the sky for radio waves from space and, unlike optical telescopes, is not weather dependent. It can also be remotely observed and controlled at any time.

“Radio telescopes see the universe differently to our eyes and to optical telescopes. They detect radio waves from things like nebulae, planets, stars, etc. So, there are many projects that we will be commissioning the telescope to do, such as a comparison of optical and radio images of the Sun or the Moon; the search for radio anomalies (asteroids, comets, etc.) around the Kuiper Belt; the study of the Aurora Borealis and connections with Solar Wind and Earth’s Magnetic Field, and the study of time itself or astrochronometry.” 

Seeing education in a new light and expanding on innovative ways to learn is why Catherine knew Quantic would be the perfect fit to pursue her MBA. “I loved the whole ethos of it. I’d wanted to do an MBA for some time, but I wanted something fresh and innovative. I tried out some of the courses as part of the application and they were just so much fun. Learning was scaffolded and challenging in just the right way. You can see that from the cohort; an amazing network of people, all ambitious, all collaborative, all talented.” 

Catherine is excited to see the continued advancements in the space industry and believes that “looking up” can do us all a little good.  “In my experience, most people think it’s the coolest industry to be in, aside maybe from the arts. Of course, we have ongoing developments with SpaceX, missions to Mars. That is all very exciting, but I think we have to be careful not to forget that we are all naturally part of the space industry – no matter where we are, we can all look up, we can all see a few stars, a reminder of our unique place in this universe.”