As she slices through the water at Augusta Aquatic Center, Kristin Ates can’t hear a sound. The same drive and endurance that fueled her as a top deaf swimmer is now pushing her on to a career as a physician scientist through her studies at Augusta University and elsewhere.
Ates, 26, has completed her first two years as a student at Medical College of Georgia and is working on her doctorate there and with her advisor, Dr. Albert Pan, who is now at Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute. She is exploring a very rare genetic mutation discovered in one patient at the National Institutes of Health Undiagnosed Disease Program and has created a model of it in a laboratory animal called a zebrafish that will allow her now to study the protein involved more in depth. It took a year and a half just to create the right fish, Ates said.
“That took a lot of patience just trying to generate a new animal model,” she said. “Now we’re at the point where we can actually do experiments with them.”
It also put Ates in touch with a medical geneticist, a physician scientist as she aspires to be, that could also provide a role model for the kind of career she might like to have.
“I thought his job was really cool because he was the one meeting these patients and trying to treat them,” she said. “He also showed this connection with the basic science mode and all he needs to do on the Ph.D side to research a new mutation.”
In a similar way, Ates has been shaped both by her clinical experience as a child growing up with profound hearing loss and an early love for swimming she got from her family. She was born with hearing loss but could compensate with hearing aids and had an interpreter help her in school. After her brother, who had a similar hearing loss, seemed to do so much better with a cochlear implant, she decided at age 11 to get one, too. And when they first switched it on, she did not like it.
When “people started talking, they all sounded like chipmunks,” Ates said. “They just really had this high-pitched voice and I hated it. I was like, is this what I have gotten myself into?” It would take a lot of hard work and speech therapy and adjustments over time to get to a range she was comfortable with. It is those experiences that she thinks will shape her when she is the one treating patients.
“Just coming from that perspective, I can understand how long it may take to work with patients and having patience with them,” Ates said.
Patience might be an odd thing to expect from someone used to moving so fast in the water.
The family, first on the Gulf coast of Mississippi and then in Charlotte, was always around the water and swimming just came naturally for her from a very young age. Ates proved to be very good at it – she won two gold medals at the 2007 World Deaf Swimming Championships in Taiwan, and another as part of the team that set a world record in the 800-meter freestyle relay at the 2011 World Deaf Swimming Championships in Portugal. In an interview, she mentions only that she competed at these games and not her accomplishments and later adds that she doesn’t usually talk about her medals unless asked.
“I just really like being able to use my body to compete,” said Ates, who also swam at the Division 1 level in college at Tulane University. “It is a team sport and you train multiple hours a day with your teammates and you do cheer for each other and you want to beat the other team. But it is an individual sport, too. I think that’s what I liked about it.”
She was raised in public schools and always had hearing friends so the games were a chance to be around a lot of other deaf athletes.
“I wasn’t exposed to deaf culture that much,” Ates said. “So those trips were interesting to actually see more of that.”
Those early experiences may have helped shaped her in other ways, making her more visually oriented and more observant, which might help her as a researcher and scientist. With eight years total to become a physician scientist, a journey she is only halfway through, her family tells her to fall back on her experience as a long-distance swimmer.
“My family jokes about that. ‘Okay you’re an endurance swimmer, just keep moving along,’^” Ates said. “It’s definitely taught me perseverance and just being patient, too. I’m still having to learn patience in some aspects. But I’ve definitely grown even just the last two years I’ve been doing this Ph.D.”
Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213