Researcher Vying for Spot in 2012 Paralympics
She’s logged the requisite four to six training hours a day, competed in World Championship events, won gold medals and earned a spot on the USA Paralympic Team in two sports. The only thing Cassie Mitchell needs now is the thumbs up that she’ll be competing in the London 2012 games.
“You’re doing all of this preparation, and there’s no guarantee that you’ll be selected,” said Mitchell, who is a faculty researcher in the Department of Biomedical Engineering. “But my competitive juices are flowing, and I’m determined to make this happen.”
For almost two years, Mitchell has competed in handcycling, bringing home two gold medals from the 2011 Union Cycliste International Para-cycling World Championships. She also became the first female quadriplegic handcyclist to win a World Championship.
In addition to handcycling, Mitchell recently took on a “back-up event” — to help solidify her chances of competing in London — and has excelled at wheelchair track racing.
“It can be really challenging to try and train for such different events,” she said. “Handcycling events are 10 to 30 miles, while the track racing is more like 100 to 200 meters. So, I’m having to do endurance training and speed training at the same time.”
Mitchell has been a competitive athlete for most of her life, winning world western equestrian team events as a teenager and later accepting a collegiate track and field scholarship. But before she headed off to college, she developed Devics Neuromyelitis Optica, which severely damaged her spinal cord and left her paralyzed.
“I initially chose to get involved with handcycling because I wanted to get in shape,” she said. “But then, I went to a couple of races, and a friend encouraged me to go after my life-long Olympic dream — I was convinced.”
In June, Mitchell will find out if she has been selected to compete in either event. Until then, she’s sticking with her favorite mantra, printed on a sign in her office: “Never, never, never give up.”
Read on to learn more about Mitchell and her time at Tech.
What did you want to be when you were a child?
I’d always wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon and had a scholarship to study medicine when I was paralyzed. I knew that being a surgeon would be difficult given my physical limitations, so I decided to consider something else. I’d taken an aptitude exam and tested high for engineering, so I went with chemical engineering. After some job experience as an oil reservoir engineer, I realized that I still wanted to do something related to medicine and that pushed me to graduate school and biomedical engineering.
How did you arrive at Georgia Tech?
I earned my PhD from the Department of Biomedical Engineering in 2009. But, I didn’t want to leave the research that I’d begun. I started as research faculty at Tech in 2011.
Tell us about your research.
What I do is a lot like weather forecasting for neurological diseases and injuries. I try to predict how they operate as well as how they respond to intervention. Ultimately, the computer models I develop forecast the most promising treatments and the likelihood of favorable outcomes. Currently, I am in hot pursuit of causes and treatments for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease).
What is something you’ve learned from the students you work with?
I realize that you don’t have to know all of the details of your field to make key contributions. The 12 undergraduates that I mentor have a naiveté about them that allows them to ask questions that more seasoned researchers don’t feel comfortable asking. Sometimes, their questions can lead to great discoveries.
What piece of technology could you not live without?
My laptop is like the left hemisphere of my brain.
Which do you prefer and why: Facebook, Twitter or a world without all of this social media stuff?
I’m not on Facebook or Twitter and previously haven’t really seen the value in either. However, my involvement in these elite sports is forcing me to reevaluate my stance on this, because I want people to be part of the Olympic dream and adventure.
If you were stranded on a deserted island, what is one book you would want?
Where is your favorite place to eat lunch, and what do you order?
Moe’s, and I get a cheese quesadilla.