Riley Jenkins pursues a career in diabetes research

Riley Jenkins pursues a career in diabetes research and grows support network across college campuses

Riley Jenkins is an honors student at the University of Georgia (UGA). She’s dual-majoring in biological sciences and nutrition science and will soon begin a research project on mitochondrial capacity and muscle endurance in individuals with type 1 diabetes. She is president of Dawgs for Diabetes, the College Diabetes Network chapter that she inherited from fellow t:slim Insulin Pump user Mindy Bartleson at UGA. From there, she works hard to grow support networks across college campuses for students with diabetes.


Riley Jenkins near a lake

If you could be on the cover of any magazine next month, which magazine would you want it to be?
I would love to be on the cover of Forbes for the topic Balancing Your Career and Type 1 Diabetes.

What are your goals as a student? 
I plan to graduate from UGA’s honors program in 2018 with degrees in Biological Sciences and Nutrition Science with a distinction in research. After college, I plan to attend dental school. 

Can you tell us more about the research you do on diabetes and exercise?
I have been so lucky to have Dr. Kevin McCully from the Kinesiology Department as my research professor at UGA, along with wonderful graduate students and fellow undergrads. In the lab, I study mitochondrial capacity and muscle endurance. Next semester, I will begin my project on mitochondrial capacity and muscle endurance in individuals with type 1 diabetes. I am trying to learn whether people with type 1 diabetes experience more muscle fatigue or have different mitochondrial capacities compared to those without type 1 diabetes. We are also trying to determine an association between a person’s type 1 diabetes control and these outcomes of interest. 

What do you like to do when you aren’t in the lab?

When I’m not studying, I like to cheer on the Dawgs, catch up on Greys Anatomy, Criminal Minds, or Homeland. I kayak, paint, explore local restaurants, and go shopping with friends.

How did you find College Diabetes Network (CDN)?
I learned about CDN from the representative from Tandem Diabetes Care. While he trained me on my new t:slim Pump, we talked about my enrollment at UGA in the fall. He told me about Dawgs for Diabetes, the CDN chapter on campus. My experience with the chapter was wonderful from the start. Mindy Bartleson was the president when I arrived as a freshman. She has had a huge influence on my life as one of the most charismatic, fearless leaders I have had the pleasure to be around. I was immediately captivated and knew I had to be a part of such an inspiring group.

What do you think is the most important need or issue for college students with diabetes?
College students with type 1 diabetes need a support system. College is tough, and with diabetes you can really feel alone in the first year away from home. The students I met through our chapter became my family, and I want to offer that to other students. 

How can others be involved to help fill the need?
CDN is growing, and the added chapters help to create support networks all over the United States for college students with diabetes. If there isn’t one at your school, CDN makes it easy to start one! 
Riley Jenkins and five others colleague showing their t:slim X2 insulin pump

Have you always used an insulin pump? If not, how was your experience transitioning to your t:slim Pump? 

I was diagnosed in the summer of 2007 when I was 11 years old. Right after diagnosis, I started on the traditional syringe and vial and changed to pen needles shortly after. I was extremely reluctant to start the pump because I was afraid of always having something attached to me, and I had some body image concerns, but after starting on a pump in 8th grade, I learned I have so much flexibility and good control. Plus, I can still hide it if I want to. Some days, I like it as an accessory, other days I feel fortunate the t:slim Pump is small and easy to tuck away.


In what ways does diabetes affect your daily life? 
In my daily life, diabetes often brings highs and lows that are inconvenient and unpleasant. Despite the inconveniences, diabetes has brought many positive things into my life such as wonderful connections and relationships with other people with diabetes and the medical community. Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate my awareness of nutrition and knowledge of medicine as it relates to diabetes. With diabetes, ignorance [of blood sugars] is not bliss and the focus on numbers has fit well with my interest in math. I was always a responsible, independent person, but I think that I’ve grown to be more patient.


Do you feel supported in your journey with diabetes? 
Yes, my family, friends, and Jacob, my boyfriend of six years, have always been very helpful and supportive. I’m also grateful for all the people with diabetes that I know. They can truly say “I’ve been there,” and I learn from their suggestions.

Do you have any diabetes tricks or tips you want to share with the community?
Being prepared is key. Always having snacks for lows, meters/CGMs, chargers for my devices, etc., is super important, and so is having someone you can count on in emergencies. Be open to new technologies. Initially I was intimidated to start using an insulin pump and later a CGM, but I am so glad I got my t:slim Pump and my Dexcom. I love math and statistics, so being able to see 24/7 data is a treat for me. The alerts often allow me to catch trends earlier than I would be able to otherwise. Also, find a good provider who supports your wants and needs in diabetes care. Reach out to the community if you need help because there are so many who are willing to share their experiences. 

Read Riley’s article about laws that protect college students with diabetes on Beyond Type 1.

If you met someone newly diagnosed with diabetes, what would be your advice to them? 
During my nine years with diabetes, three of my friends were diagnosed. My advice to them has been to not be too hard on yourself. Even someone who has lots of diabetes experience and relatively good control still has highs and lows. Don’t let the guilt associated with these numbers get to you. Just try your best and make sure to surround yourself with those who can support you and who truly get it. You can do anything with diabetes! If you could have a song written about you, what musician would compose it and what would the song be called? My musical tastes are all over the board, but I think Thomas Rhett is really sweet, so I’d like him to write and sing a song called “When You’re Feelin’ Low." Maybe it could be a love song with a little bit of a diabetes twist.
If you are to be recognized in history for one thing, what would you want to be known for?
This is a hard question. Maybe for being the longest-living person with type 1. 

Interview and photos by Blair Ryan.

From time to time, we may pass along: suggestions, tips, or information about other Tandem Insulin Pump user experiences or approaches to the management of diabetes. However, please note individual symptoms, situations, circumstances and results may vary. Please consult your physician or qualified health care provider regarding your condition and appropriate medical treatment. Please read the Important Safety Information linked below before using a Tandem Diabetes Care product.

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