Ryan Cates Ryan says, “From the mental to the physiological, PKU has impacted every aspect of my life.” For several years, Ryan experienced the mental and physiological consequences of his PKU in a major way. He attended a competitive private high school. While Ryan fit in intellectually, he felt out of place socially and desperately wanted to “blend in” as much as possible. During his freshman year, he gradually started abandoning the diet, until he was fully off the diet by late spring 2000. He remained off the diet until his sophomore year in college. Now back on the diet, he says those five years off the diet were “a life lesson learned hard but learned well. I have come full circle with my diet and now realize its huge importance in my life.”
Despite being off the diet for most of his high school years, Ryan still managed to achieve admirably. He was on the Honor Roll much of the time, was involved with a number of extra-curricular activities and clubs, and ran cross-country and track for three years.
It was not until his freshman year at Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama that he confronted the intellectual effects of being off the diet. In high school, Ryan discovered his love of sciences after taking Honors classes in chemistry, and anatomy and physiology.
He entered Spring Hill College with a chemistry major on a pre-medical school track. However, his science and math courses were profoundly affected by his high blood phe levels. He says, “After a series of less-than-satisfactory grades the first semester, accompanied by a devastating second semester, I felt that I needed to refocus my lifestyle and return to the diet. Despite my abhorrent performance my freshman year, I had acquired a heightened determination and a strong desire to pursue the fields of chemistry, physics, and mathematics.” He decided that majoring in chemical engineering suited his interests perfectly, but when Spring Hill College did not offer this major, Ryan transferred to the University of South Florida, which has a strong engineering program, to start his sophomore year.
With a fresh start and renewed sense of determination to control his PKU, he finally returned to the diet. He had a long and arduous struggle to make the best grades, which required many extra hours to bolster his less-than-adequate foundation. The payoff, says Ryan, has been “unimaginably fulfilling.” His grades have gone from less than a “B” average to a nearly straight “A” average in challenging science-based courses such as calculus, physics, and chemistry. Students are typically accepted into the Department of Chemical Engineering as juniors, but Ryan has been accepted early, as a sophomore. One of his professors says, “Ryan is the rare type of person who could be placed in any academic, work, or social situation and be able to communicate and function at a very high level. He is a model student and my hope is that he will either go to graduate school or medical school as he is too bright to stop with an undergraduate degree. He has the motivation, scientific curiosity, and work ethic to start and finish anything that he wishes.” His advisor believes that “Ryan will be one of the most outstanding students in the engineering department.”
Ryan has taken an unprecedented early leadership role, elected to the position of Public Relations Officer in the American Institute of Chemical Engineers’ Student Chapter. As part of his involvement with the engineering society, Ryan has shown great initiative. With his considerable networking skills, he has helped to form a bridge between the College of Engineering and the local Museum of Science and Industry, connecting many of the museum’s and engineering college’s functions He also has recruited students from engineering and science fields at USF for tutoring members of the YES! Team (Youth Enriched by Science) who show potential in sciences and interest in college despite being economically and socially deprived. Additionally, he volunteers his time at a local hospital, shadowing physicians so that he can gain insight into different medical specialties that might be in his future.
Ryan hopes to be accepted into the Honors College this spring, a possibility that only exists because of his return to a strict diet. He now maintains his blood phe level at around 6 mg/dl and is constantly seeking to better his diet by attending PKU cooking workshops and experimenting with different Asian and Indian vegetarian dishes. Ryan looks forward to the day that he can “make a substantial contribution to the science community, which has given me such a rewarding quality of life.”