Back in the 1960s, when I was in graduate school, progress in the then-new discipline of molecular biology was going on at a rapid pace. This was partly because the time was right. When the time for some scientific advance is right, you'll often see different labs making the same discoveries at just about the same time.
But another reason was that the new science of molecular biology was attracting researchers who weren't biologists -- they had been trained in chemistry, physics, or mathematics instead. They brought to the study of molecular biology new ways of looking at problems, and new techniques that traditionally trained biologists had not yet learned.
They also brought creativity. Sometimes, when you're too familiar with a problem, you tend to see it the way everyone else sees it. You tend to accept the dogmas that your professors taught you.
You might even have been taught that some problem is too complicated to understand. So why bother trying? For example, my professors told us that the genetic code would not be deciphered in our lifetime. Yeah, right.
Someone who hasn't had that training may examine a problem from a new perspective. Not having been trained in the field, they don't realize the problem is considered extremely difficult or perhaps even unsolvable. They "think outside the box" and see a solution that the "experts" never even considered. The result is progress.
This can happen in the field of diabetes when engineers with no medical training start looking at the disease from an engineering standpoint. Engineers tend to be problem solvers instead of hand-wringers. They are trained to gather data, analyze it mathematically, plot the results in charts and graphs, and come up with a solution to a problem.
The most well known example of this is Dr. Richard Bernstein, who had had type 1 diabetes since childhood and wasn't doing well on the high-carbohydrate diet he'd been prescribed by his doctors. In fact, he had kidney damage and had been told he didn't have many years to live.
But instead of giving up and putting his affairs in order, Bernstein read as much as he could about the disease and discovered there was an amazing new machine that could actually measure your blood glucose (BG) levels. He used the machine (which cost hundreds of dollars in those days) and then used his engineering background to analyze the results and come to conclusions.
His main conclusion was that he could get normal BG levels by eliminating most carbohydrates from his diet. Using this approach, he found that his many complications began to regress.
It was only after no one would listen to him or publish his results that he decided, in his 40s, to go to medical school to get the clout he needed to get his work published. He then dedicated his life to helping other people with diabetes get the same good results that he had gotten.
Another less well known electrical engineer, Derek Paice, who has type 2 diabetes, many years later used a similar approach of using his own BG meter to test his own BG levels after eating many different kinds of foods.
He also came up with a concept he calls the substance glycemic index (SGI), which is similar to the glycemic index but measures the glycemic response to a certain weight of food rather than the amount that contains 50 grams of carbohyrate. Thus it can be used to determine how much noncarbohydrate foods, including meats, will affect your BG levels.
Like Bernstein, he wanted to share his results with others, so he wrote and self-published a small book, Diabetes and Diet, describing his results. The book can be downloaded free through the Internet.
Other books by Paice, including another free download, Effects of Aging on BG Control, can also be seen at his home page, and other information about tests that he and others have done are also available at the site.
Engineer DeWayne McCulley had BG levels of more than 1300 mg/dL when he was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, which he calls "the perfect disease for an engineer." Like Paice, he used his meter to determine the effect of the various foods he ate and worked out a diet that allowed him to get off medications and reach a normal A1c. He's written up and self-published his results in a book called Death to Diabetes.
Another diabetic electrical engineer, Gary Krauch, who has type 1, has written articles on BG testing equipment and has founded a Yahoo list for people using continuous glucose monitors. He's also blogging on his experiences with such a monitor.
Ron Sebol, a retired type 2, has used his ability with mathematics to work out a system of insulin dosing that has helped a lot of people achieve excellent control without totally giving up the carbohydrate foods that they enjoy.
He started an Internet mailing-list group to tutor people in his methods. Anyone wishing to join this list may send an e-mail message to LISTSERV@LISTSERV.TBINET.ORG with the following in the body of the message: SUBSCRIBE DSM-L your First Name your Last Name.
Manny Hernandez, a 34-year-old type 1 who studied electrical engineering, started a Web community called TuDiabetes, which has been described as "like MySpace on insulin."
Marston Alfred, a 24-year-old computer engineer who was diagnosed with type 1 when he was 8 years old, founded SugarStats, a "web-based system to record and track glucose levels and medication usage, food/carb intake, and exercise and activity levels."
A retired engineer who uses the name "Old Al" on the newsgroup alt.support.diabetes has helped many people to understand the disease.
I'm sure there are many many more. The point here is that these are all people who applied their skills in a nonmedical field to a medical problem in a creative way that produced results that are helping other people with diabetes.
There is no reason that this approach should be limited to engineers.
A glucagon-injecting device called SimpleShot was invented by Kim Bertron, a pastry chef who had difficulty mixing up a glucagon solution when her young daughter went so low that she had a seizure. Writing about the invention in the New York Times, reporter David Pogue said, "I love this story, not only because the idea is so simple and clever, but also because it comes from someone outside of the medical world, an amateur who saw a need and then elegantly filled it."
No matter what your background is, you may have skills and problem-solving approaches that would be useful to other people dealing with diabetes. For example, if you're a homemaker skilled at keeping track of the multiple schedules, dietary needs, and so forth, of your family members, maybe you could come up with a creative way for others to keep track of their many medications, carb counts, exercise needs, and so forth.
If you're a chemist, maybe you could come up with a cheap, easy way that people could actually measure the carbohydrate content of complex restaurant meals.
If statistics is your field, maybe you could take a second look at some of the diabetes studies that have been publicized so much and interpret the statistics for the layperson.
I've often thought it would be interesting to have think tank sessions in which you invited people from different disciplines: engineers, police officers, military people, psychologists, homemakers, elderly people from varied backgrounds, carpenters, and so forth. Then you'd present a medical problem in terms the different groups could relate to and you'd see how they'd tackle the problems.
This isn't apt to happen. But whatever your background, instead of seeing diabetes as a handicap, look at diabetes as a problem to be solved. If you come up with something you think would be helpful, don't be shy. Share it with others. Who knows, maybe, like Kim Bertron, you'll win a $10,000 prize for amateur inventors.
Even better, you'll help other people with diabetes control their own disease.