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In a class by themselves: a special college course for students with type 1 diabetes

Leaders in type 1 diabetes research and treatment teach students who live with diabetes.

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The University of Florida Diabetes Institute in Gainesville, Florida (USA) offers a two-credit course each semester which provides students with an introduction to groundbreaking research and initiatives at the institute. For many students who opt to take the course, career and academic trajectories can be impacted, and are sometimes changed altogether. Students attend because they want to know a little bit more about diabetes, and that’s usually because most all the students who participate have type 1 diabetes, or are connected to a family member with the condition.

It’s a win-win situation given leaders in diabetes science and treatment are teaching students the instructors call the real experts: people living with type 1 diabetes.  “Think about how reassuring it is to be in a room where they don’t have to explain diabetes to anyone, where everyone understands why you’re checking your blood sugar or what an insulin pump is,” said Ashby Walker, Ph.D., a member of the UF Diabetes Institute and an assistant professor who leads the class. “There is no greater support system as an undergraduate than having a robust group of peers around you who know exactly what it’s like to live with Type 1 diabetes.”

A science background is not a prerequisite, and neither is a type 1 diabetes diagnosis. However, the course is geared towards students who many have a “personal connection” to type 1 diabetes. In 2018, seven of eight students in the fall class have type 1 diabetes and the one person who doesn’t has a family member with the condition.

The students meet weekly to hear from speakers who run research at UF’s work on diabetes, from Desmond Schatz, M.D., a past president of the American Diabetes Association and Medical Director of the UF Diabetes Institute, to Allison O’Kell, D.V.M., an assistant professor in the UF College of Veterinary Medicine who has done research on diabetes in dogs.

Mollie Huber, who took the class as a senior microbiology major in 2018 and is now in the biomedical sciences Ph.D. program, has been living with Type 1 diabetes since age 5. Her brother, Sam Huber, now a sophomore, also has the disease and took the class with his sister.  Mollie credits the class with solidifying her desire to make a career in diabetes research and one day examine the genetic underpinnings of the disease.

“I wanted to get a greater understanding of what was going on in the field of type 1 diabetes and what people are doing,” Mollie explains. “What I really liked about the course was the idea that you got it from a variety of perspectives. It wasn’t just researchers. One example is a psychologist who came to discuss diabetes stress.  it was also helpful to hear speakers where they didn’t have a set plan to get to where they were, but they were all successful. They had worked in a nonlinear fashion and ended up where they were in their careers.”

Director of the UF Diabetes Institute, Mark Atkinson has created a program that connects influential individuals in diabetes and health sciences research, education and patient care with outstanding persons working in food systems, policy, family and youth sciences, engineering, the arts, and more. The goal is to share information, ideas and resources, and to disrupt traditional institutional models, building a community focused on making an impact on the lives of people touched by diabetes.

The University of Florida is widely considered to be among the top five in the nation for type 1 diabetes research and is a leader in clinical trials seeking to prevent or reverse the disease and has been remarkably successful in acquiring competitive research grant funding.


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