How I find career motivation in my fathers diabetes

How I find career motivation in my fathers diabetes

Insulin syringes for diabetes on blue background

Credit: LightFieldStudios/Getty

For Nature’s younger readers, 1974 probably brings the era of disco and Star Wars to mind. Our history textbooks tell us that was when Richard Nixon resigned as US president, and when the newly constructed 443-metre Sears Tower in Chicago, Illinois, became the world’s tallest building. We might even imagine people blasting ‘Band on the Run’ by Wings on cassette tapes in their Corvettes. It was also the year that my father — then a nine-year-old in rural Illinois — began rapidly shedding weight after experiencing flu-like symptoms. A hospital trip confirmed the sudden onset of type 1 diabetes, and marked the beginning of his life of juggling the roles of nutritionist, maths whizz and exercise fanatic — all required to manage his disease. Until his diagnosis, he had never heard of this strange ‘pancreas’ organ, yet now a nurse was passing him an orange and a syringe to practise for his future daily insulin injections. The haemoglobin A1C test, which monitors how well a person is managing the condition, would not be developed by researchers at the Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston, Massachusetts, for three more years. His diagnosis came as a surprise, given that the disease is associated with genetic risk factors but was nowhere in his family history. Thankfully, type 1 would not be passed on to any of his children. I, his daughter, instead developed a desire to study diabetes and would go on to begin my scientific training at Joslin as an undergraduate researcher. What started as a seemingly long-shot application turned into an acceptance to a premedical summer internship that catalysed my consuming excitement. Research connected the science I’d learnt in my courses with the potential to alleviate the challenges of a disease I knew all too well. As expected, entering my final year of university has sparked some reminiscing on how I ended up discovering this missing link between my interests, as well as appreciation for the encouraging and patient mentors who have made it all possible.

A number of people I have met over the past three years in the field of diabetes research have a personal connection to the disease. This deeply rooted motivation makes sense to me: it’s what keeps a lot of us going. In times of frustration (often accompanying bubbles in my western blot, or my realization that, after finally finishing the cell counting for a set of images, there are five more sets to go), I must cling to personal reasons that help me to push the field further. It’s been 16 years since, at age 5, I told my school class that when I grew up I wanted to “cure dya-meetes” — but the essence of my scientific curiosity is the same. Thanks to research advancements, my dad was able to be my first soccer coach, and he got to twirl me around at father–daughter dances.

This is why I have a picture of my family stuck to my bench with autoclave tape, which I look at as I snap on my latex-free gloves and wrestle into the sleeves of my laboratory coat. My work is for my dad, and for the other 425 million people with diabetes across the world. I realize how lucky I am: being involved with projects and publications while completing my undergraduate studies gives me the opportunity to make a difference while forging my career path. During the summers, while working at Joslin, I’ve been able to learn from leading scientists in the field while focusing on unravelling disease mechanisms and genetic causes. It’s easy to see why I’ve been counting down the days until I return as a research assistant after my graduation. And, when Boston’s thick summer heat turns to bone-chilling wind, I retreat to a different diabetes lab in New York that is affiliated with my university. Outside of my coursework at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, I work on developing devices made of biomaterials that can encapsulate and deliver heathy insulin-secreting cells to recipients who have diabetes. Encapsulation might just be a quick fix while we continue working to develop a catch-all cure, but after 45 years of his constant checking, adjusting and stressing over blood glucose levels, being able to reward my dad with even one year of glycaemic-free troubles would be fulfilling beyond words. Knowing that we are easing the burden to any degree is equally comforting and motivating.

Diving head first into the world of research as an undergraduate has been overwhelming — sometimes with excitement, but at other times with stress. Being a student means learning to stop being afraid of asking questions, because adding the wrong amount or type of chemical to a stock solution will affect everyone’s experiments for the next month. It means spinning around in my chair every half an hour to re-activate the motion-sensor lights in the lab because I’m there after hours, analysing data from an experiment I finished just before running to an afternoon class. It means looking around while giving a data presentation during group meetings and realizing that I’m the only woman there. It means missing lunch because my cells need new medium and the culture hood is booked solid by the graduate students and postdoctoral fellows for the rest of the day. And, every once in a while, it means gasping after seeing the glucometer reading come up as 400 milligrams per decilitre, confirming that, after weeks of uncertainty, the mice have become diabetic and the experiment is working. It means finally understanding complicated pathways and graphs, coming to realize that science doesn’t have to be an inaccessible foreign language and helping younger students to figure that out, too. Although my enthusiasm is often an enemy to the patience that science demands, I am inspired by Charles Best, who was just a student when he and Frederick Banting discovered insulin in 1921. While I strive towards making a revolutionary discovery such as his, being able to widen the path for others with my data is equally exciting. My daily discoveries are adding more grains of rice (or perhaps a low-carb, diabetic-friendly alternative) to the pile.

On the theme of optimism, thinking of how far the field has come fuels my anticipation for the revelations that await. Looking at the data coming out on a weekly basis, I am more encouraged than ever that we are approaching a new era in which a diabetes diagnosis will no longer be a life-changing event. A cure is coming. And if it cannot be in my dad’s lifetime, I am working towards it being in mine.