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The Paddle and the Pipette

CREDIT: Brett Heyl

This past June at an Olympic qualifying run, James Wade just missed earning a spot on the U.S. team in slalom kayaking. Similar to downhill skiers, slalom kayakers navigate through a series of gates scattered over a course—of whitewater rapids. In Wade’s final race, he nicked one of those gates; the 2-second penalty cost him a trip to London.

But his performance was good enough to make Wade the team alternate, prepared to travel to the United Kingdom at a moment’s notice if there was an injury. Now, after a year and a half of intense training, Wade plans to turn his attention to his life’s other major goal: earning a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) in Atlanta.

“I’m a nerd and an athlete,” Wade, 27, said in a Q&A published on the U.S. National Canoe/Kayak Team Web site. He has the resume to prove it. On the athletic side, he’s been a member of the U.S. national kayaking team five times and was the U.S. National Champion in 2009. He’s ranked 21st in international competition.

On the nerd side, Wade earned the Outstanding Undergraduate Researcher Award in Georgia Tech's College of Engineering in 2010. Earlier this year, as a second-year graduate student there, he received a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.

Wade makes his achievements seem “effortless,” says Barbara Boyan, a biomedical engineer, the associate dean for research at Georgia Tech’s College of Engineering, and one of Wade's Ph.D. advisers. “He’s quite an impressive young man.”

Our sport is analytical. You have to look at the water and look at the course and figure out the best way to do something.

—James Wade

Good mentors

Wade is quick to credit his family, coaches, and professors for what he has achieved. “I’ve been able to reach an elite level in sports and a relatively elite level in academics,” he says. “And a huge reason for that is the people around me. I’ve had some incredible mentors.”

Wade’s earliest mentor was his father, an avid kayaker. A native of Boise, the young Wade didn’t take up his father’s pastime in earnest until he was 14. “Eventually I gave it a legitimate shot and fell in love with it,” says the younger Wade. Characteristically, he threw himself into kayaking completely, attending a school for competitive kayaking during his freshman year of high school. The students and their teachers traveled the world, from Costa Rica to Australia, in search of warm weather and suitable water. After that, Wade split his time between Boise, where he lived and went to school, and Asheville, North Carolina, where he trained.

In Asheville, he trained every day for at least 3 hours and spent another 3 hours commuting to and from his practice club. That didn’t leave much time for schoolwork, but he had a natural aptitude, especially for math and science. He also had understanding teachers. “If I wasn’t always doing my homework, they didn’t mind too much as long as I was still getting good grades on the tests,” he says.

James Wade

James Wade

CREDIT: Jennifer Tyner, Georgia Tech

When the time came to choose a college, Wade emphasized the opportunity to keep up his training regimen. He chose Georgia Tech because it was the best engineering school near a national kayaking training club. He declared a mechanical engineering major, sampled courses from a variety of fields, and landed in developmental economics. "As a result, I got interested in mathematical modeling,” he says.

Wade eventually majored in industrial engineering, focusing on the optimization of complex networks. For his senior design project, he worked with the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), the world’s largest food-aid agency. After spending 2 weeks at WFP headquarters in Rome, Wade and project teammates built a mathematical model of WFP’s supply chain, including all of the places where the organization buys and sends food, and its various transportation methods. They investigated how and where to use storage depots to minimize disruptions in the supply chain. WFP is testing a pilot program in East Africa based partly on their work.

Nearing graduation in 2010—because of the kayaking, it took Wade 6 years to finish his undergraduate degree—he wasn’t sure what to do next. He wanted to pursue a graduate degree or perhaps go to medical school, but he also wanted to train for the 2012 Olympics. Georgia Tech “gave me a deal I couldn’t refuse,” he says. They let him to study whenever he wanted to and offered a fellowship that would allow him to train for the Olympics.

Soon he made contact with Boyan, who shares a lab with Zvi Schwartz, a dentist and engineer. One aspect of their work studies how cell signaling pathways, such as those that initiate cell growth or death, are affected by the nanostructures and microstructures of implant materials such as titanium. The lab has lots of data on how individual pathways work, but no one was looking at the pathways as an interacting system. Boyan says she got excited when she learned about Wade’s background in network research. “I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting to take our background in cell biology and material science and put it together with someone who understands how information flows through networks,” she says.

During his first semester of graduate school, Wade was a regular student. He spent the second semester training in Australia while enrolled in one 6-hour course. Staff members filmed lectures and sent them to him, and professors gave take-home exams. Still, it “became clear that being a full-time graduate student and … at the same time trying to be an athlete wasn’t really possible,” Wade says. So he took last year off from school to train full-time. Living and training like a professional athlete, he noticed a huge jump in his performance.

But on balance, Wade believes his science is good for his athletic performance. “Our sport is analytical,” he says. “You have to look at the water and look at the course and figure out the best way to do something.” Competitors aren’t allowed to practice on a course once the gates are set up, so the only way to prepare is to practice the race in your mind. Science training helps with that, he says.

Wade is now ready to dedicate himself to his studies, for a while at least. For his dissertation research, which he'll begin this fall, he will try to untangle the network of proteins that controls how mesenchymal stem cells differentiate into bone, muscle, and other tissue. If he can build a successful model of this system, researchers may eventually be able to control and direct these stem cells as they wish.

Wade is considering a career in academia, but before he makes that decision he has another one to make: whether to train for the next Olympics. “To stop now is a difficult thing to swallow,” he says. But he doesn’t want to delay his career any further. “I’m the type of person that might get involved in something and it dominates me,” he says. “It’s very possible that I’ll get involved in my research, and I just won’t care about kayaking anymore.”