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Alumni Spotlight | Elizabeth Seaquist, M.D.

The technologies and expertise needed to conduct leading-edge brain imaging research are just part of what has kept endocrinologist Elizabeth Seaquist, M.D., at the University for more than three decades. (Photo: Jim Bovin)

Coming home—and staying put

Elizabeth Seaquist, M.D., chose her career path as a young girl while reading the book series about nurse Sue Barton. “I knew when I read them,” she says with a laugh, “that I wanted to be the doctor.”

So when the Minneapolis Public Schools alumna didn’t get top grades at Vassar College and was subsequently rejected by medical schools everywhere—two years in a row—she was mentally and emotionally preparing to move on. She’d instead go to graduate school and become a special education teacher.

Then Seaquist got a call from the University of Minnesota Medical School’s admissions office notifying her of an error on its part and asking whether she would consider being wait-listed.

Seaquist—who was then working as a researcher in New York City—had no intention of moving back to Minnesota. The oldest of six children who used to share a bedroom with two sisters, she enjoyed being on her own. But she also really wanted to become a physician.

The Medical School officially accepted Seaquist a few days after that phone call. Thirty-four years and an illustrious research career later, she’s still here.

“At every time point where I have thought about moving, and there have been several, Minnesota always offered me amazing opportunities,” says Seaquist, who holds the Pennock Family Chair in Diabetes Research. “This school has been really good to me.”

Asking questions, finding answers

Seaquist’s first taste of research at the University came even before medical school, when she worked for four summers in the laboratory of William Krivit, M.D., then head of the Department of Pediatrics.

Though Seaquist was intrigued by her studies in Krivit’s lab, her true interest in endocrinology and diabetes was sparked by a second-year medical school lecture.

“Why does this problem of high glucose lead to all of these downstream things? How can people end up blind and have kidney failure? What’s happening in the cell in response to this high glucose that’s causing all of these problems? That’s sort of been the theme of everything I’ve done in my research career,” Seaquist explains.

Through the recently wrapped-up ACCORD Study, for instance, Seaquist and colleagues across the country examined whether glucose control was important in reducing diabetics’ risk of heart disease, as it is for reducing eye, nerve, and kidney complications. But it didn’t seem to have a positive effect — in fact, Seaquist says, there may be an increased risk of death for the participants trying to keep their blood sugars normal.

Seaquist is now preparing to enroll patients in another multicenter clinical trial called GRADE that’s aimed at ascertaining which drugs — in addition to the standard metformin — help people with type 2 diabetes maintain normal glucose levels the longest.

While she says these large studies are important for determining the best ways to help patients, Seaquist also likes to take a more independently creative approach to her research. For the last decade, she has partnered with colleagues at the University’s world-renowned Center for Magnetic Resonance Research (CMRR ) to study how diabetes and its therapies affect the brain.

At first she studied how the human brain uses glucose “in real time in real life,” using the CMRR’s leading-edge technologies to watch the process in both healthy people and people who have diabetes. Today Seaquist and imaging expert Gülin Öz, Ph.D., are examining how neurotransmitters in the brain’s hypothalamus are altered in people who experience hypoglycemia unawareness, a dangerous complication of diabetes. They also are exploring how a storage form of glucose (known as glycogen) can play a role in providing fuel to the brain when there isn’t enough to perform its usual functions.

A new challenge

What’s next for Seaquist may provide an even bigger challenge. She’s a coleader of the “Decade of Discovery” initiative, a partnership between the University and Mayo Clinic to prevent, optimally treat, and ultimately cure type 1 and type 2 diabetes.

“We view it as an opportunity to conquer diabetes across the state of Minnesota,” says Seaquist, who represents the University on the project’s three-person management team.

The team hopes to accomplish that goal by bringing new knowledge garnered from novel research happening at the University and Mayo to colleagues in the community, whom Seaquist considers the experts on transferring that knowledge into best practice care for patients.

It’s a big project and a huge challenge. But Seaquist is optimistic.

“We’re really going to have an impact on diabetes across the state,” she says.

Good thing for that admissions error, eh?

“It’s horrible not to succeed at something you want to do, but in retrospect, it probably was a good experience,” she says of her initial medical school rejection. “If you don’t really love what you choose to do, you’re not going to be able to deal with the disappointments that come. It has to be well worth it.”

For Seaquist, it is.

By Nicole Endres, managing editor of the Medical Bulletin.

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