In 1970s Detroit, mechanics and cars were built in droves. There, in a middle school shop class, a 12-year-old raised by a single mom discovered a love for problem-solving by taking engines apart and putting them back together. That passion and curiosity would eventually drive him from his Michigan hometown to sunny Florida in pursuit of a solution to one of the most pervasive health issues.
Upon coming to the UF College of Medicine as a graduate student, Mark Atkinson, PhD ’88 — the first in his immediate family to ever attend college, let alone graduate school — sought to answer three questions: Can we predict who will develop Type 1 diabetes, can we determine what causes the disease and can we cure it? Although the first task is largely complete, three decades later, scientists are still working to answer the latter two queries.
“There’s promise that we’re on the precipice of that long-held breakthrough notion about preventing and curing the disease,” he says. “There’s never been a time with more potential to see that occur.”
This potential for a breakthrough pushes Atkinson to keep his foot on the gas all these years later. As the director of the UF Diabetes Institute, the American Diabetes Association Eminent Scholar for Diabetes Research and the Jeffrey Keene Family Professor, he and his team collaborate with colleagues throughout UF’s academic health center and beyond on initiatives ranging from research on diabetes development in dogs to nutrition and education programs for the community.
As one of the most-cited authors in Type 1 diabetes research, he’s received accolades from national and international organizations such as JDRF and the American Diabetes Association but counts the 2019 UF College of Medicine Wall of Fame recognition among his top accomplishments.
“This award is special because this place is home,” says Atkinson, who founded the Network for Pancreatic Organ donors with Diabetes program, or nPOD — now the largest Type 1 diabetes research program in the world — and established a nonprofit with his wife in 2011 to deliver diabetes supplies to patients in developing countries. “I always felt there’s no place I could do more for Type 1 diabetes than at UF.”
Despite the honors that line his office walls, what fuels Atkinson are the connections he forms with people, from collaborators across campus and around the world to patients and families affected by the disease he’s dedicated his career to driving away.
“At UF, diabetes research becomes more than a job; it becomes a mission,” he says. “It’s something you talk and think about, not just while you’re on campus or in this hospital. It’s about 24/7 dedication.”
This story originally ran in the Winter 2020 issue of the Doctor Gator newsletter.