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[Pacific Lutheran Scene]

Leadership and Service

Doctor excels in medicine—and hot-air ballooning

By Drew Brown

Dr. Clayton Cowl
Dr. Clayton Cowl

One great PLU mystery is the origin of “Free Radicals” sign that hangs on the far wall of the Rieke open lab. It’s been there since 1987, when Clay Cowl ’88 (along with fellow chemistry alum Greg Schuster ’88) celebrated their underdog chemistry softball team’s championship by creating the sign. The banner is a symbolic, if not humorous tribute to what the PLU experience was for Cowl— working hard, playing hard, and having divergent experiences.

Cowl made most of his news at PLU away from chemistry. His senior year, he was editor of The Mooring Mast.

Cowl found one of his greatest PLU mentors in someone who would be considered odd for a chemistry major—Frosty Westering. Cowl didn’t play football, but covered the team extensively for the Mast. Cowl learned from Westering concepts and principles that he has used throughout his career.

“I brought Frosty’s Breakaway idea—taking people and focusing them on a single goal—to Northwestern,” Cowl said. “They’re still using those concepts.”

After graduating from PLU, Cowl went to medical school at Northwestern University in Chicago, completed two residencies and finally landed at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. At Mayo, he completed training in pulmonary diseases and was appointed the research chair of the Division of Preventive and Occupational Medicine, as well as chief of the Aviation Medicine Section. He lives in Rochester with his wife, Cammy, and children, Andrielle, 7, Arianna, 5, Alicia, 2, and Adam, who was born Feb. 7.

Cowl spends much of his time on patient care, performing forensic pilot examinations for certification with the Federal Aviation Administration and seeing referrals for occupational lung disease. He is also an active researcher and consults for Northwest Airlines on such issues as establishing aircraft oxygen standards.

Cowl in his hot-air balloon
LEVITATING: Cowl in his hot-air balloon.

Cowl has one distinct hobby—but for him, describing hot-air ballooning as a hobby may not accurately cover it. Since being commercially rated as a hot-air balloon pilot seven years ago, he has accumulated three balloons and spends his summer months participating in maneuvering competitions.

“It’s like levitating. There is no turbulence, because you are rising with the air currents, not fighting them. You can fly from as high as 10,000 feet to almost as low as you want to go,” Cowl said. “Riding through a thousand-acre cornfield over the tops of the tassels is like being on the ocean.”

Cowl has quite effectively found a way to merge his hobby with his profession. His research paper, “Factors Associated with Fatalities and Injuries from Hot-Air Balloon Crashes,” appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association. “Balloons are very safe if you use common sense and don’t break the rules,” says Cowl. “Pilot error—not mechanical failure—is the biggest cause of accidents.” And the biggest risk to pilots? Power lines.

Since Cowl’s article was published, he has been considered a national expert on hot air balloon safety. While he enjoys helping the hot-air ballooning community through his advice, it’s a hobby first.

“It’s a nice diversion from medicine, and I get to meet a lot of different people” he says. “Everyone should experience it at least once.”


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