In 1996, I began studying in the Biomedical Sciences Graduate School at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. It was there that I met Katherine, who became my best friend. Two years after I met Katherine, she taught me how to knit, and I’ve continued to do so over the past seventeen years. But Katherine influenced my life in a much bigger way than introducing me to the craft of purling stitches. She became the inspiration for my research during my postdoctoral fellowship (and beyond) at the University of Virginia. And it all had to do with needles.
I earned my Ph.D. in immunology in 2002, and was trying to figure where to take that in a Biomedical Engineering lab at the University of Virginia. One option was to investigate an immunomodulatory drug in a model of Type 1 diabetes. At that time, UVA had a strong diabetes research program. My postdoctoral mentor suggested it because I have a personal connection to diabetes. Katherine, you see, was that connection.
In graduate school I had spent a fair amount of time watching Katherine deal with blood sugar checks, and infusion sets. I had seen what stress did to her blood glucose on her wedding day. I understood first-hand that, just like the knitting she’d taught me, diabetes was about way more than needles. It was about intricacy and planning; slip ups and recoveries; patience and more. Katherine’s life, seen up close, became my immediate passion and motivation for this project. And I knew that while I might not be able to help her, I wanted to try to help others avoid a Type 1 diabetes diagnosis.
While the drug I worked on at UVA did not prevent or reverse the onset of diabetes, I have continued to study what initiates the development of Type 1 diabetes and how we might be able to stop it. Fueled by my desire to help Katherine, I am working with a team of other scientists from around the world to determine whether or not viruses might play a role in Type 1 diabetes development. I am also a part of the newly formed Human Islet Research Network, an NIH-funded group established to look at different aspects of Type 1 Diabetes while working as a team.
As I have moved through my career as a research scientist, Katherine is never far from my mind. Nor are the children I have seen at the JDRF Hope Gala. Since I don’t see patients in a clinic, it is very motivating for me as a scientist to have this kind of contact. Over the past two years, I have gone one step further, and started doing bike rides to help raise money for diabetes research. I’ve also used my knitting to raise funds for research. This year, I started making “Cozies for a Cure.” These hand knit coffee cup cozies fit perfectly on the reusable plastic Starbucks coffee cups. Each one is unique, like each person with diabetes. To date, I have raised $611 by selling my Cozies.
Unfortunately, I will be riding for another patient this July. Katherine’s tiny daughter was recently diagnosed this month with diabetes. I didn’t want another reason to do research, or another reason to ride. In fact, I would be quite happy to be out of a job because someone found a cure (it doesn’t have to be me!). However, I am much more likely to be out of a job due to a scarcity of funding. One current statistic has indicated that only 1 of every 60+ grants will be funded (across all biomedical sciences). That’s a very scary thought for someone in my shoes, and for someone who cares about a Katherine and her daughter out there in this world.
Generally, I try not to think about that, but follow my motivation and inspiration to keep plugging, and keep applying for grants. I’ll keep going with my experiments in the lab, hoping with each one that I understand a little bit more about why someone develops Type 1 diabetes. I’ll keep riding my bike to help with the fundraising efforts, and give back a little of what has been given to me in the form of grants. And I’ll keep knitting. It’s not just about the needles, you know.