I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes (T1D) when I was just 16 months old. The disease prevents my pancreas from producing its own insulin, so a normal day involves puncturing my body with lancets every few hours, performing calculations on the fly to convert carbohydrate levels into insulin doses, and constantly worrying about how insulin doses and physical activity are affecting my blood sugar levels. On some days, it doesn’t require much effort to keep these stable. On others, my diabetes takes me on a rollercoaster ride of headaches, shakiness, fatigue and frustration, despite my best efforts to tame it.
But when I began my PhD in 2018, I realized that my chronic illness had prepared me well for a graduate programme. Here’s how.
When I was seven years old, I started taking over the task of keeping meticulous daily records of my diabetes management: blood sugar levels; when they were tested; the amount of carbs I ate; and the amount of insulin I gave myself. As a child, I couldn’t see the value of this detailed logbook, but I eventually realized it was meant to help me (and my endocrinologist) in coming up with better therapeutic strategies.
In the laboratory, keeping meticulous records has been of paramount importance. Sometimes it is inconvenient to jot down a calculation or record antibody dilutions for a Western blot, but I do these things as a service to my future self, who might not remember the intricate details of a particular experiment. By maintaining a lab notebook, I can revisit the experimental strategies I’ve tried in the past and discuss alternatives with my lab-mates. By taking a few minutes to update my lab notebook every day, I have undoubtedly saved many hours of trying to remember protocols and redoing calculations.
As a second-year undergraduate, I returned to my dorm one day after a morning of classes feeling exceptionally weak, shaky and dizzy. When I finally worked up the strength to check my blood sugar level, the meter read “35 mg/dL” — a level at which people can easily slip into a coma. Several similar experiences during the semester prompted me to troubleshoot my diabetes management. I spent months adjusting my insulin pump’s settings to prevent episodes of severely low blood sugar levels while also avoiding letting them get too high. Although it was hard, it paid off: the standard deviation of my blood sugar levels began to decrease and I felt healthier and happier.
At a basic level, research involves answering questions and filling knowledge gaps to solve scientific problems. At a more technical level, research regularly involves experiments that don’t succeed, protocols that don’t work as anticipated and results that don’t make sense.
A large part of my PhD research involves performing Western blots to investigate inflammatory pathways. At the beginning, I spent hours obtaining inconclusive results and doubting my scientific abilities. However, after spending a few months optimizing the experimental conditions, I was eventually able to replicate my results with confidence. Although it was hard work, it paid off because I can now test my hypotheses effectively.
Some days I’m tempted to give up on my diabetes management when, despite my best efforts, my blood sugar levels run amok for no apparent reason. I remind myself that giving up would cause long-term damage to my eyes, kidneys, nerves and heart. That reminder is enough for me to continue fighting for my health, no matter how difficult it can be.
I’m sometimes tempted to give up on my PhD programme, too, when, despite my best efforts to perform robust experiments, they run amok for no apparent reason. I remind myself that giving up on my PhD would lead to regret, damage to my self-worth, loss of potential career options and death to my goal of becoming an independent scientist.
Another way in which diabetes has prepared me for a PhD is by giving me a dream of seeing the disease cured in my lifetime. Although diabetes can knock the breath out of me at times, it also breathes purpose and passion into my PhD work. As I constantly tell my peers and family, “I’ll find a cure for T1D or die trying!”
Nature 586, 630 (2020)
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