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MHC Professor to Present Diabetes Research at ADA National Conference
Dr. Ashby Walker, Mars Hill College sociology professor, will be the lead presenter for exciting new research into managing type 1 diabetes (formerly known as juvenile onset diabetes) in children. The research, to be presented at this weekend’s American Diabetes Association national conference in Philadelphia, looks at the influence of social networks and socioeconomic status on controlling the disease’s symptoms.
Caption: Dr. Henry Rohrs, Dr. Ashby Walker and Dr. Desmond Schatz led the research project that will be presented this weekend at the American Diabetes Association’s national conference.
According to Walker, researchers have long realized that children with type I diabetes from higher socio-economic groups tend to manage their blood sugars and, consequently, their disease, better than children who come from lower socio-economic groups. The exact mechanisms of that discrepancy, however, remained unproven hypotheses.
Walker’s research, conducted in collaboration with medical experts at the University of Florida’s Diabetes Center of Excellence in Gainesville, shows that the social networks bred by extracurricular activities give youth with diabetes the tremendous emotional support needed to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
“A diagnosis of type I diabetes is incredibly hard for any family, but especially for families that are economically deprived,” Walker said. “What we saw in this research was that children from more affluent households were involved in more extracurricular activities, and were therefore tied into more social networks. The children from middle-and-upper class households also knew and interacted with more people with diabetes. Our argument is that these networks give the children a meaningful source of identity, offset depression and give them the emotional resources to manage their blood sugar successfully.”
According to Walker, the research has implications for future treatment because it stresses that extracurricular activities and hobbies can be seen as an intervention treatment for children with type 1 diabetes. If those interventions contribute to better blood sugar control, they will in turn lead to a healthier life for diabetes patients.
Part of the core leadership for the project was Dr. Desmond Schatz, professor of pediatrics and Director of the Center of Excellence. According to Schatz, the correlation between glycemic (blood sugar) control and health for people with diabetes is overwhelming.
“The long term consequences of poor glycemic control with diabetes are associated with significant morbidity, an earlier and increased mortality and a tremendous financial burden both to the individual and society,” he said. “This is especially true in lower socio-economic classes and in blacks and Hispanics. Enabling participation by youth in social networks is a highly innovative way to reduce the impact of race and socio-economic status on diabetes related morbidity and mortality.”
Dr. Walker, who is originally from Florida, spends time with family members near Gainesville each summer. Two years ago, she contacted physicians at the Center for Excellence to propose this research project. Not only did she feel the findings of such a project would be important, but she wanted to spend more time pursing her role as a researcher.
“I love being at a teaching college like Mars Hill,” she said. “But I felt that I was missing that part of my professional identity.”
Through that initial contact, Walker was introduced to Schatz, one of the country’s foremost authorities in diabetes research; and Dr. Henry Rohrs, assistant professor of pediatric medicine at UF, who eventually would serve as the principle investigator for the joint research.
Walker said she was grateful that, despite their stature in the medical community, Drs. Schatz and Rohrs were willing to accept her proposal, and collaborate with a professor from outside their field, and outside their state, for the good of their patients. The result was a project that she said has been not only professionally rewarding, but emotionally gratifying as well.
“I’ve been inspired, first by the dedication of Dr. Schatz and Dr. Rohrs. They are so dedicated to their patients and to finding a cure for diabetes,” Walker said. “The most profound experience of this research, however, has been meeting the families affected by diabetes, and listening to their stories. They never get a break from this disease, and hearing their stories has given me a real passion to do whatever I can through research and advocacy.”
Dr. Schatz had similar praise for Walker’s commitment and ability.
“Ashby Walker is an outstanding social scientist and translational researcher,” he said. “She is extremely innovative, humble, diligent and an absolute pleasure to work with. She has forged a unique and highly promising collaboration with an outstanding and committed group of clinicians, educators and researchers at the University of Florida. With her vast knowledge of social and human networking, she has, in just 2 years, identified such participation by patients with Type 1 diabetes as crucial to improving blood glucose control.”
Though the initial findings for type 1 diabetes will be presented this weekend, research will continue this summer as the team begins gathering similar data for youth with type 2 (formerly known as adult onset) diabetes.
Including type 1 and 2, over 25 million Americans have diabetes.