Monday, October 29, 2012

'Science is imagination in a straitjacket.’
American physicist Richard Feynman


As a young person, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. So often, children are asked What do you wish to be when you grow up, and my only answer was contented.

My parents were both well educated and had high standards when it came to schooling and the pursuit of a career but, in their own lives, neither was particularly successful. I was raised in the extremes of privilege and then in poverty, and neither seemed to much matter in terms of my happiness.
It was by pure accident that I found my way to science. I like a good story. I’ve always been a dedicated bibliophile, and I have done my share of writing. Science is much like the process of authoring a work, except that in the context of the sciences, we are constrained by all the things we know to be true, and we have the facts and the tools to dissect the story we are trying to tell.

I also like to travel but, on the earth, there is no landscape we have not yet discovered. There are, however, an endless numbers of new things to learn about the world and the way it works…the way our bodies work. In that regard, too, science takes us in to the foray of the unknown.
My work in microbiology and genetics became my life when I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes.

Diabetes usually happens because a person doesn’t have enough of the hormone insulin, which is the only hormone capable of lowering blood sugar concentration after a meal. Every time you eat a Mars bar or Hershey bar, your blood sugar will begin to rise and that insulin will call to your cells, depart the pancreas, and cause the blood sugar to be lowered. It’s a beautifully orchestrated event that comes together like the tiny pieces of a little jigsaw puzzle.

I spent a long time after my diagnosis interested in the mystery of how that insulin begins to rise, and what makes it know to beckon the cells. It’s actually a fascinating event. A single protein acts like a tiny hole in the cell membrane, and when this little pore opens up, it allows ions to pass through it. Those ions are an electric current, and their movements based on that single protein triggers a series of events that determine whether or not insulin is secreted, and in what amount. Proteins, amino acids, are the stuff of bone and tissue and life itself.

In the same way, the miracle of exogenous insulin is no less impressive than the wonder of that protein, the current of electricity that ignites the body’s insulin, or the processes by which those mechanisms fail. In 1922, Dr. Frederick Banting could never have imagined how drops from a vial would translate into millions of lives saved.
Each time I hold an insulin pen or pump in my hand, I remember that I am holding life itself.
My friend Chris Scully ( posted about the realization that the whole of her health was contained in a tiny insulin vial, and the reaction from others with diabetes ranged from the frightened, “I try not to think about it,” to the fascinated, “Isn’t it amazing that once upon a time, this simple serum didn’t exist?”
Today, there are scores of dedicated scientists researching newer insulin technologies, closed loop systems, the artificial pancreas and, yes, a cure for diabetes. There are fundraisers and parents who work, tirelessly, to advocate for new treatment applications and, in the process, refuse to allow diabetes to become “someone else’s problem.”

Most importantly, there are 350 million of us living with diabetes, finding the strength to do all over again for another year.
As we head into November and Diabetes Awareness Month, I want to pay my gratitude to all those who work to keep me alive, to make my life better, to let me ride my bike and run a marathon and to enable me to see my children grow up. Thanks for all you do.

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