I asked Dr. Mark Atkinson if I could spend the day with him. I figured if anyone could help me understand how the world of diabetes research worked, it was someone who has spent 30 years trying to figure out what causes Type 1 diabetes.
Atkinson explained that he doesn’t spend his days looking through microscopes, meeting with patients, or checking on mice in a lab. He’s more like the guy in charge of determining what research should be pursued, bringing the right people together, and writing up what has been discovered. His days and nights are spent in meetings, on the phone, working on his computer, answering emails, traveling around the globe.
The night before I got to Atkinson’s office, he had flown in from a trip to Guyana, Trinidad, and the Cayman Islands. He and his wife of 32 years, Carol, whom he met in high school, operate an international nonprofit organization called Insulin for Life USA that started in Australia and now has seven affiliates throughout the world. They collect unused diabetes supplies—including syringes, test strips, and insulin—in the United States and distribute them free of charge to clinics and doctors in struggling countries such as Haiti, Rwanda, Nigeria and Congo.
He was operating on little sleep. Though strung tight by deadlines and conferences and phone calls and mishaps like having his phone stolen at the airport in Miami, he seemed, oddly, relaxed.
He was trying to describe his lab at the University of Florida to a job candidate, Amanda, who was in a final round of interviewing for a position to help input and manage the data collected at the lab.
Atkinson’s own road to UF started in Michigan. His mother, one of 17 children, dropped out of school in the seventh grade. His dad, a child from a family of coal miners, dropped out in the ninth grade. As a child, Atkinson liked taking things apart and putting them back together again, figuring out how they worked. He got his first tool set when he was 5.
Given their background, education was not a priority for his family. His father died when he was ten. In high school, Atkinson got into a bad accident and had to wear a body cast for five months. He missed a lot of school but still went on to the University of Michigan–Dearborn, where he studied microbiology. He was a graduate student in pathology at the University of Florida when he started a rotation with a diabetes researcher, Dr. Noel Maclaren, who recommended he spend a week at a diabetes camp for kids.
“I remember just being amazed at how the kids lived with the disease, from the foods they had to eat and what they could not eat, and the amount of concern they had to have when they had activities relative to when meals occur,” he recalled. “There were a whole lot of blood glucose tests and insulin injections, and that was back when things were more rudimentary than they are today.”
This was how his career in diabetes began. For the next two decades, he pursued Type 1 diabetes research. He explored ways to cure the disease, developed tests to identify those at risk for diabetes, attempted to understand the role of the environment in Type 1 diabetes, and much more.
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