Ice bucket challenges intrigued and inspired the nation in 2014, bringing unprecedented awareness and donations to help fight ALS.
The ice has melted and the challenges have disappeared, but amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) — also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease — still affects people all over the world. That’s what attracted U.S. Paralympian Cassie Mitchell to get involved.
Mitchell, who won a silver medal in the discus and a bronze medal in the club throw at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games in the F51 classification, plays a pivotal role in helping find a cure for the fatal neurodegenerative disease. She runs computation remodels of diseases in hopes of expediting a cure. She works on various diseases, but spends most of her time aiming for an ALS cure.
“The outlook looks better than what it did five years ago when I started my lab,” said Mitchell, a research engineer who is a professor in the biomedical engineering department at Georgia Tech. “A lot has happened since the ice bucket challenge, but the challenge only scratched the surface.
“It’s a disease where people are dying and nothing can be done about it. It’s one of the reasons I latched on to it.”
Mitchell is hardly alone as a person with a disability making positive contributions in the workforce, which is why the United States observes National Disability Employment Awareness Month each October. And she has lots of company within the Paralympic sports community. From Google to Facebook, investors to pharmacists and from coast to coast, Paralympians continue to amaze their peers beyond the sports arena.
Mitchell was a sports junkie and valedictorian in high school who developed neuromyelitis optica, which left her paralyzed from the chest down. She attended Oklahoma State and studied chemical engineering while pursuing wheelchair sports.
Wanting to be an orthopedic surgeon as a youngster, she got back on track to a medical career and earned her Ph.D. in biomedical engineering with an emphasis in neuroengineering. Mitchell, now a doctor, remained at Georgia Tech to take on the Herculean task of leading a charge against ALS.
“Somebody needs to make a stand for them,” Mitchell said. “This is a chance to go and make a difference for people who get this disease.”
Mitchell leads a team in what she calls informatics analysis. They compile data from animal models and medical models. She said that although the ultimate goal would be to find a “magic bean” that could cure ALS, right now they are working on experimental research to identify what causes ALS and how to treat it in the short-term — all while trying to discover the long-term fix.
Mitchell said she approaches the disease like it’s a big engineering problem, with multiple cure scenarios instead of just one.
“As a researcher, I have to balance working on the big picture and helping people now,” Mitchell said. “We’re finding ways to screen for ALS. We’ve come a long way in understanding the genetic part of it, but we don’t understand the sporadic part of it. It’s a complex disease and it’s going to take some more effort.”
She has authored more than 75 papers, one of which she will receive an award for next month at the Society for Neuroscience Convention in San Diego.
Alpine Skier Directs Business Development
Mark Bathum has an eye for business, though he has no peripheral vision. The two-time Paralympic alpine skier has a business degree from Washington and his MBA from UCLA.
In his current position at CDK Global, Bathum is the contract negotiator, constantly working with big corporations like Google, Chrysler and others.
“Recently I signed the contract to resale Google advertising, and I helped negotiate that contract,” said Bathum, who competed in the 2010 and 2014 Winter Games, winning three silver medals. “I constantly work with companies like Google because our needs change over time, and we may have new ways to use Google Maps, we may have new advertising or might have to reconfigure advertising.”
He’s worked in branding management for Nestle, and he helped launch a shoe business called Bite Golf shoes. He and his brother sold the shoes across the country before selling their business to Crocs.
Bathum, who turned 58 this year, said he works mostly out of the Seattle office and travels less than he used to. But while doing all that, he operates six rental units on four properties while he still skis to get ready for the 2018 Winter Games in PyeongChang.
Scott McDonald is a Houston-based freelance writer who has 18 years experience in sports reporting and feature writing. He was named the State Sports Writer of the Year in 2014 by the Texas High School Coaches Association. McDonald is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.