Type 1 diabetes_ traveling the world _ diabetes health

By: Julia McCandless

Insect collecting has been a fascination of mine since childhood. Growing up in urban Los Angeles, I found myself looking under leaves and turning over rocks looking for beetles, amazed by the diversity of forms and life histories they possess. I found it impossible to ignore the unseen beauty of nature that is right at our feet. This passion has brought me from the backyard of my childhood

home to all kinds of exotic, relatively unexplored places of the world.

Although having type 1 diabetes is not without its challenges, I have not let it hinder my curiosity or desire to explore wild places as a biologist. My ultimate dream was to visit the remote areas of Papua New Guinea, not only because of the amazing biodiversity found there but also for the fascinating customs and culture. What captured my imagination, were the stunning beetles nicknamed “Smurf weevils” (Fig 1). These beetles are various shades of blue-green with purple and even yellow in some cases. Interestingly, the Smurf weevils and close relatives are only found in New Guinea and have diversified into some other remarkable forms. One genus Gymnopholus even promotes the growth of algae lichens and moss on their backs, which are in turn inhabited by mites and other arthropods. These weevils with their portable ecosystem are only found above 6000 feet in the mountains of New Guinea. I was determined to investigate where they came from and what gave them their brilliant color. When I finished my Ph. D. at the University of California, Berkeley, I decided to write a grant to the National Science Foundation to do just that.

I developed type 1 diabetes as a child and have now been living with diabetes for over 27 years without any major complications. I went on many field and camping trips as a child and young adult and have learned techniques that work best for me to manage my diabetes. However, I knew that my expedition to Papua New Guinea would be a lot different. Not only would I be undergoing treacherous hikes in a mountainous tropical rainforest, but there would also be no medical infrastructure in the remote areas that I planned to visit.

Before I headed off to the field, I did some practice hikes and local overnight trips. During these trips, I closely monitored my blood sugar to gauge how my body would react to these prolonged activities. I also tried out different foods that are light and easy to transport. I like to use sugary sports gels to raise sugar levels back to normal, should I have any unexpected low. Sports bars (Power Bars) are particularly good for ensuring fewer lows, as they have sugars to bring you back to normal as well as longer lasting carbohydrates. To be on the safe side, I packed two times the diabetic supplies I normally need for that duration of time. I also took antibiotics with me to prevent any possible infections. I also went to my local endocrinologist to make sure I was in good condition and control before taking off.

After more than 36 hours of travel, I arrived in Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea. I met up with Raymond, a student from the University of Papua New Guinea who would help participate in the research. We then headed off to Mt. Wilhelm, the highest peak in Papua New Guinea, reaching almost 15,000 feet. We met up with Bradley, a Papuan researcher from the Binatang Research Center, who would help coordinate our travels with the local villages in the area. At the field sites, we met with local guides, who taught us about the various local customs. For example, whenever going to a new unexplored area, we would have to make offerings (in forms of food items) and ask permission from the mountain gods.

I also taught them about diabetes, which was a completely new concept to them because it is extremely rare (or undiagnosed) on the island. I explained about my condition and what I had to do to maintain my health, such as the need to take more breaks to check my blood sugar level regularly and to watch my calorie intake. I also briefed them on what to do in cases of emergencies.

In the morning after some much need rest, we started our ascent towards the peak. The forest was pristine and densely filled with all types of tropical plants. We saw endemic wildlife that I have only seen in books and documentary films including a black sicklebill bird of paradise with long black tail feathers and a brilliant green bib.

After exploring the alpine zone at 12000 feet, we made our way down to lower elevations. Before sundown, we stopped at a local village. There is a constant smell of sweet smokiness, from the campfires and the cooking of indigenous people living in these small villages scattered across the mountain range. After some explanations/ negotiations by our guide Bradley, we settled into a wood woven hut.

Our host shared some “Kau Kau” (baked sweet potato freshly picked from their garden) and some steamed fiddleheads while I shared with them some chocolate that I picked up from the airport. Their staples mainly consisted of garden root vegetables, including yams and sweet potatoes, complemented by some fruits and wild greens. Meat from domesticated animal and hunting is consumed only on very special occasions. The villagers spoke Tok Pisin (an English-based creole language), and their local language, however, New Guinea has approximately 800 languages total. Although we could only communicate with broken sentences or through a translator, I tried my best to convey to them my fascination with the biodiversity of their country. They found it appealing that I traveled halfway around the world to study the species unique to their mountain.

I was ecstatic to find out that the local kids shared my obsession with the Smurf weevils, and they were happy to show me where they commonly occur. The brightly colored beetles are mostly found feeding on leaves of yams and other toxic plants. This supports my initial hypothesis that the coloration may serve as a warning to predators that they are poisonous (aposematism) so that they would avoid eating them. I am now carrying out further research back in my laboratory to study the gene expression and biogeography of the specimens collected.

My diabetes certainly made my two moths in New Guinea more challenging, but with careful planning and with the help of my new friends it became the least of my concerns. I was happy to have the opportunity to explore this very special place and am in the process of describing 45 new species from Mt. Wilhelm. I look forward to many more trips to other remote and unexplored parts of the world to study endemic insects and their unique and intriguing life histories.

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