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For Cassie Mitchell ‘Life is engineering, and engineering is life’
Just as Cassie Mitchell was about to start college, an autoimmune disease attacked her spinal cord, causing paralysis in her legs and weakness throughout her body. She persevered anyway, earning a chemical engineering degree from OSU and a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering from Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University’s School of Medicine.
Mitchell doesn’t let additional paralysis, inadequate sports equipment or intractable diseases stop her.
When she isn’t winning national handcycling championships or training for the 2012 Olympics, the young Georgia faculty researcher is creating computer models to zero in on promising treatments for ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease.
After her first race on a borrowed cycle last May, Cassie Mitchell realized she’d have to engineer her own if she wanted to continue.
“I was literally duct taped to this bike because I couldn’t hang on,” says the 2004 chemical engineering alumna. “It wasn’t built for a quadriplegic. I knew I would have to come up with something else to ride.”
Four months later, Mitchell won the 2010 Women’s H1 National Handcycling Championship, a division of the USA Cycling National Professional Championships, on Prototype 1, a three-wheeler she and a coworker designed.
“You can’t just go out and buy one of these cycles,” says the amiable athlete whose design allows her to lean forward on a chest plate and pedal at hand-level since she can’t control her abdominal muscles or raise her arms.
The 8-mile timed trial around Greenville, South Carolina, last September would have been easier if a gear shifter for all 30 gears had arrived prior to the race. “All those hills on just three gears! It took willpower!”
Mitchell wasn’t trying to win a national championship or worried about her time or placement.
“It was just about me wanting to do it,” says Mitchell, who turns 30 on June 8. “I didn’t know at the time that no quad female had ever finished the race.”
Being on the winners’ stand brought back memories of being an able-bodied Warner, Oklahoma high school athlete and winning four world championships in Western Equestrian speed events and two All-Around titles with her horse Misty Jet.
She says Prototype 1 exemplifies a philosophy she adopted from OSU’s engineering faculty a decade ago: “Life is engineering, and engineering is life. So you have to be able to problem solve as you go.”
Shortly after high school graduation in 1999, an autoimmune disease called Devic’s neuromyelitis optica attacked Mitchell’s spinal cord.
"I woke up one day and couldn’t move from my knees down,” she says. “On the MRI, it looked like a rat chewed up my spinal cord.”
Devic’s causes painful muscle spasms and inflammation that damages the spinal cord and optic nerves, resulting in paralysis and weakness throughout the body as well as vision loss and blindness. The class valedictorian suddenly had to rethink her future, including a track scholarship to study pre-medicine in Missouri.
As she recovered, she adjusted to permanent double vision, intermittent blurred vision, leg braces and a wheelchair. She asked her doctor if attending college would aggravate the disease. “When he said no, I thought, ‘I’m not putting my life on hold. I’m going to school.’”
Until then Mitchell was leaning toward studying orthopedic surgery, although she was equally interested in engineering.
“But the paralysis confirmed my decision to go the engineering route,” she says. “I didn’t know at that point if I would get better. In a medical career, I might not have the physical ability to do surgery or other procedures. But I knew I could do engineering despite my disability.”
She talked to engineering recruiter Bob Hollrah and says something about OSU just clicked.
Yes, OSU was relatively close to home. It offered one of the best engineering programs around. And as a Regents Distinguished Scholar, an OSU Valedictorian Scholar and a member of the President’s Leadership Council, all her expenses would be covered — a significant concern for someone with mounting medical bills and prescriptions.
“Ron Beer was very helpful in figuring out all my scholarship business,” she says of the retired vice president of student affairs. “I had to wait one semester before I started college because of my medical condition, and OSU held my scholarships for me.”
But most of all, OSU felt right.
“OSU’s family atmosphere really mattered to me. Even though OSU is much bigger than the small community I was from, I didn’t feel like I would be just another one in 25,000 coming through the door,” she says.
At OSU, Mitchell also discovered that a chemical engineering degree could lead to a career in medical research through the emerging field of biomedical engineering.
“That’s something interesting about chemical engineering,” she says. “It’s never been just about the material or doing the job you’re hired to do as a chemical engineer. It’s about taking the material further to help other people.”
Logistics of Living
While most freshmen were adjusting to college classes, dorm life and living away from home for the first time, so was Mitchell, but her learning curve also included text-enlarging equipment and maneuvering campus in a wheelchair.
“OSU was like a fresh start for me because no one knew me any differently from before I was in the wheelchair,” she says. “Back home, people would stare because they remembered me as a very athletic person who rode horses and ran track. They didn’t know what to say. My freshman year, I came to a decision point. Do I just to class and do my thing, or do I interact with people? I decided I’m going to create my boundaries. I’m going to go out and see how it goes.”
She joined the Society of Women Engineers, tutored engineering students as a Student Academic Counselor and played on OSU’s Wheelchair Basketball team, making the all conference team in both 2003 and 2004 and was named an all-American in 2004.In the collegiate chapter of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, she served as president, vice president and secretary and was liaison to the executive committee all four years.
“I think coming to OSU was the best thing that could have happened, not just for my education, but also socially and just moving on in life,” she says.
Mitchell met one of her best friends, Kyla (Morgan) Templeton, when both were freshmen living on Drummond’s engineering floor.
“Cassie was in 401, and I was in 402,” says Templeton, a 2004 industrial engineering graduate and now project manager for Sam’s Club in Bentonville, Arkansas.
Besides a mutual interest in engineering, they share a strong devotion to the Christian faith.
“Cassie has a lot of focus on God and on the task at hand,” Templeton says. “No matter what the situation is, Cassie does everything with excellence, whether it’s her schoolwork or her research or athletics. And she does it with joy and happiness.”
Despite visual and physical imparities, Mitchell excelled in chemical engineering, one of the most demanding majors in regard to the amount of homework and required reading of scientific texts full of mathematical and chemical equations.
Templeton says she has learned a lot from Mitchell. “Without knowing it, Cassie taught me to be thankful for whatever situation I’m going through. She made me want to be a better person and more like her,” Templeton says.
Templeton remembers when the disease flared up in February 2002, causing paralysis in Mitchell’s upper legs, and again near the end of 2002 when paralysis reached her upper abdomen.
“Cassie was in a lot of pain,” Templeton says. “She couldn’t move. She couldn’t see. At that time, they thought it was multiple sclerosis. There was a lot of confusion around her illness.
Even then, Cassie stayed on top of her classes, even faxing homework to her professors from the hospital when she was able.”
“With Cassie as an example,” Templeton jokes, “there was no excuse to not do your homework.”
Regents Professor Lionel Raff says Mitchell’s academic excellence equals any of the world-class students he’s taught during his career as a chemistry professor, but no one comes close to matching her determination to excel.
“Of all the students I have known in my 47 years on the faculty, I rank Ms. Mitchell as number one,” he says. “They simply don’t come any better.”
Mitchell first stood out among the 240 students in his intro to chemistry class when she insisted on taking an exam even though a deadly spinal pump malfunction caused her to miss three weeks of school.
“My exams are extremely hard,” says Raff, who adheres to an absolute grading scale each semester. The average test grade in his class is 50. “I thought she would fail it.”
Knowing Mitchell didn’t have sufficient time to prepare, he offered to give her an incomplete grade so she could take the course the following semester.
Mitchell’s response: ‘Did I ask you for any special consideration?”
“To say I was surprised is an understatement,” Raff says. “But I need not have worried.”
Mitchell scored the second-highest grade on the exam.
Mitchell laughs now remembering she was scared and trembling before the professor she greatly admired while asserting her right to take a test no one expected her to pass.
“He never treated me differently than the other students,” she says. “He didn’t pity me or feel sorry for me. I was like one of the others, and I appreciated that.”
Raff says he never asked her why she was willing to risk her academic standing over the precarious situation.
“She didn’t have to explain,” he says. “After taking the test, it was obvious she was capable and didn’t need any help. She’s an outstanding scholar, and she was just determined she could do it.”
Mitchell says her research mentor, chemical engineering professor Randy Lewis, was the first to welcome her into the lab at OSU.
“I was in a wheelchair, and he never questioned it. He never even blinked at it,” she says.
Later, while applying to some of the nation’s top graduate schools, Mitchell discovered not all environments are so friendly. She says the connection between chemical engineering and the medical field clicked when she observed graduate students of Lewis and Sundar V. Madihally using chemical engineering principles to regenerate biological tissue and other medically related experiments.
“That showed me I could combine my love of engineering and my desire to apply it to medical research to help people. I was amazed and inspired,” she says.
When Mitchell was awarded a Wentz research scholarship, Lewis suggested she create a project to interest young people in engineering. That led to her award-winning fluidized popcorn popper and becoming a founding member of ChemKidz, a student organization dedicated to teaching chemical engineering principles to fifth-graders. Mitchell continued to excel, winning a 2003 Goldwater Scholarship for the nation’s top engineering undergraduates; and in 2004, she was named a USA Today First Team Academic All-American and an American Institute of Chemical Engineers National Scholar.
In graduate school, she was awarded two National Science Foundation fellowships that paid for all five years of her doctoral work, and she also won awards from the National Neurotrauma Society and the Society of Neuroscience. In 2010, she won the Best Presentation Award at the National Motoneuron Society International Conference in Paris, France.
“I don’t know where she gets her strength to do it sometimes,” Templeton says. “Cassie has such drive to achieve and she does things that look impossible. I’m totally not surprised to see her win awards and accolades because of the hard work I’ve seen her do.”
Lewis, who is now a professor and department chair in Brigham Young University’s Department of Chemical Engineering, says Mitchell’s positive, upbeat attitude is inspirational.
“I never once heard her complain. She was an outstanding student, but she wasn’t learning it just to get an A. She had a desire to learn the material and apply it to real problems. “Cassie is one who can make a change for good for mankind,” Lewis says. “She’ll make a difference in the lives of people.”
In May 2009, Mitchell received her Ph.D. in biomedical engineering from both Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University. Now she’s a faculty researcher in the universities’ joint Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering. The atmosphere of openness toward people with disabilities impressed her during her first visit in 2004 and continues today.
“Much like OSU, they never really saw the wheelchair,” she says. “They just saw me.”
For her doctoral research, Mitchell created computer models that analyze biomedical data from hundreds of research programs, simulate the results and predict treatment outcomes.
“It’s like weather forecasting,” Mitchell says. “I use computer modeling and data analysis to predict responses. I enjoy translating the language of biology — words — into the language of math — numbers.”
Her first four computer models focused on simple physiological neural systems and the fifth on secondary spinal cord injuries.
"Today, I’m taking the methods I created as a graduate student and applying them to ALS,” says Mitchell, who collaborates with neurologists at Emory’s world-class ALS research center. She was awarded a National Institutes of Health grant and hopes to eventually tackle multiple intractable diseases.
“Right now, ALS is a disease where there’s not a lot of hope,” she says. “It’s like trying to find a needle in a haystack. ALS is in need of direction, and that’s what this computer simulation is all about, providing direction toward treatments that look the most promising universally. It’s a good fit. I think I can have a very positive impact on ALS patients with the methodologies I’ve created. Experimental and clinical research can take years and years and years. But if you can model it on the computer, you can get results faster. It’s all about expedience so we can get to the right answers quicker.”
Expedience in medical research is something Mitchell takes to heart.
“Thirty percent of people with Devic’s die within three to five years,” Mitchell says. “It’s been 11 years since my first attack. Maybe that’s why I want to give back to the medical field.
I’ve had a lot of people helping me, and a lot of research hasgone into keeping me alive this long.”
On a Roll
Modeling is integral to biomedical research, but Mitchell’s work supersedes conventional techniques.
“Real advances in science and engineering come from people who bring together ideas from different areas,” says OSU chemical engineering Professor Rob Whiteley, whom Mitchell credits with teaching her the “tools” that apply to engineering problem solving as much as to daily life.
“Cassie’s pioneering research was successful because of her ability to combine the state of the art in both modeling and neurophysiological medicine,” Whiteley says. “She combined her world-class education from OSU, Georgia Tech and Emory University with her incredible talent and motivation. That’s a recipe for success at an unprecedented level. Her work is truly sophisticated and represents a major step forward in her field. I’m very proud that an OSU chemical engineer is leading the way!”
Although Mitchell lost dexterity in her hands and wrists in 2006 during the latest recurrence of her disease, she remains competitive in handcycling and rugby and is a frequent contender at regional and national tournaments. Whiteley says Mitchell has a “Michael Jordan quality” that transcends talent and ability to find a will to win in any situation. And she does it without any sense of ego.
“I never realized the true capacity of the human spirit until I met Cassie,” he says.
Mitchell says she appreciates athletic competition because it brings out the best in herself and others. “It teaches us to encourage and motivate each other. It provides a great model of what we should do in life.”
“Whatever I’m doing, I’m doing for others,” she says. “Whether it’s using my engineering skills, mentoring patients at Shepherd Spinal Cord and Brain Injury Rehabilitation Hospital in Atlanta, encouraging a stranger dealing with cancer, or riding a bike and training for the 2012 Olympics. I think that kind of ‘looking outward’ attitude has really allowed me to not get sad or upset in whatever circumstance comes along or whatever life deals me.”
Mitchell says her faith enables her to persevere despite her health problems, and her engineering problem-solving tools equip her to help others.
“I think that also comes back to OSU where people love their neighbors and treat each other like family,” she says. “That’s not just me commercializing. It’s true.
“OSU’s chemical engineering program goes above and beyond to relate engineering problem solving principles to all life skills,” she says. “Engineering is something special at OSU."
Story by Janet Varnum
OSU Photos by Phil Shockley
Published Spring 2011 in STATE, The Official Magazine of Oklahoma State University
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