Today at Berkeley Lab

The Many Searches of Antoine Snijders

— By Sabin Russell

At his Life Sciences Division laboratory on Potter Street, Berkeley Lab scientist Antoine Snijders studies responses of cells to low-dose radiation, probing for clues that might advance our understanding of breast cancer or protect astronauts on deep space missions to Mars. On his off-hours, he often finds himself working on mysteries of a very different kind, searching for missing persons as a volunteer with Contra Costa Country Search & Rescue.

In the two-and-a-half years since he joined this local band of 200 civic-minded searchers, he has tromped through rugged terrain throughout Northern California, sometimes finding frightened and hungry hikers, sometimes dead bodies. He prefers the happy endings, like the time his team was first to reach a missing mushroom hunter who had been lost for days in heavy brush and steep gullies near Willits. “We brought him back up to the rescue vehicles, and yes, he was very grateful,’’ Snijders recalls.

A native of Holland, Snijders (the j is silent) came to Berkeley Lab in 2008 after a ten-year career in cancer research at UCSF. His interest in Search & Rescue was piqued when he met recruiters for the Contra Costa County volunteer unit, who had set up a booth outside an REI store. He sees a lot in common between his research and his avocation. “In both cases, I try to solve the mystery of what happened,’’ he says, “based on gathering as many clues as possible.”

The path in his lab research is often elusive and the answers complex. His work is to determine the mechanisms that might either predispose or protect an individual from low-dose radiation-induced breast cancer. He also is exploring how space radiation might induce skin cancer on missions to planets or asteroids. Snijders is working with Berkeley Lab’s Andrew Wyrobek to develop an efficient way to use blood samples to gauge a person’s radiation exposure; they are also studying how radiation affects cognitive function.

His outdoor searches are long, arduous, and offer no guarantee of success. Sometimes the outcome is just awful. A year ago, his team recovered the bodies of two teenagers who had been swept away during a heavy rainfall in the surprisingly dangerous waters of Walnut Creek. He recently returned from several days on the coastal hills near Pacifica, where a 76-year-old woman has been missing since July 25. Unfortunately, they did not find a trace of her, and the search area was thick with clusters of poison oak. “I have never seen so much of it,” he says.

Snijders is an avid hiker, but he says he took on this rescue work to be with a special group of volunteers who share a deep dedication to finding missing people “This is an opportunity to do something that can really have an impact on someone’s life. It’s good if you find someone alive and well,” he says. “Sometimes, all we can do is to bring closure to a family.”

Preparation is key to Search and Rescue squads. Snijders has taken an 80-hour course for Emergency Medical Responder (EMR) certification, a level below that of EMT’s, who serve on ambulances. Contra Costa County Search & Rescue holds monthly team training sessions, where they conduct mock searches, and learn new skills in fields such as overland navigation and swiftwater rescues.

At home or at work, Snijders carries with him a small pack with enough food, supplies, and warm clothing to sustain him for a day out in the field. A call can come at any time, day or night. “If I had a call right now, I’d have to say no, because I have an experiment running,” he says. “But there are other times when I can rearrange my schedule.’’ In a year, he may be engaged in about eight searches, and will have devoted close to 300 hours to the team.

Logistics are more complicated for a father of a three-year-old son and a six-year-old daughter. Snijders said his Search & Rescue work would not be possible without the support of his wife, who has a fulltime job as a software developer at UCSF, and who makes sure the childcare connections are kept up when he is out in the field.

The volunteer work brings the excitement of the occasional helicopter ride, but Snijders concedes that most of the time, “we are all ground-pounders.” Yet the experience is also rewarding for the mind of this scientist. Thousands of miles from his home country, he is now part of a community of problem solvers, linked by the spirit of volunteerism — and perhaps sharing the common bond of being a searcher, in search of a happy ending.