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UNC professor dedicated to diabetes research


Elizabeth Mayer-Davis is the president of health care and education for the American Diabetes Association and researches diabetes in youth.

Elizabeth Mayer-Davis entered the field of diabetes research with her head, not her heart.

Without a personal connection to the disease, Mayer-Davis was drawn to diabetes 20 years ago by its science and impact on public health. But two decades later, it was her passion for her research and the people it helps that took her to the top of her field.

In January, President Barack Obama appointed her to the advisory group on prevention, health promotion and integrative and public health. She had already been named president of health care and education for the American Diabetes Association this academic year.

“We were all so excited for her. It’s well deserved,” said UNC professor Melinda Beck, one of Mayer-Davis’ colleagues in the nutrition department at the school.

A pioneer in diabetes research, Mayer-Davis has juggled her national roles with her teaching duties at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. She is also a mother of five who still finds time to read mystery novels and cook with her husband.

“She’s not just a great mother and scientist, she’s a really great best friend,” said Richard Davis of his wife, who came to UNC to do research and teach three years ago.

Despite her many national accomplishments, Mayer-Davis said she sees her role as chairwoman of the SEARCH for Diabetes in Youth Study and principal investigator for the SEARCH Carolina Site as her most rewarding professional work.

She said that SEARCH, a multi-center project funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that researches diabetes in youth, already helps children across ethnic groups to manage their diabetes and will continue serving adolescents for years to come.

“It’s the gold standard in diabetes research,” said Lindsay Jaacks, a first-year graduate student and member of Mayer-Davis’ research group.

Jaacks said Mayer-Davis not only has a passion for her research, but also works diligently to apply her findings to help patients — characteristics that make her inspiring.

“When I came here, I was mesmerized by her,” she said.

Mayer-Davis said that she believes teaching and working with young scientists is both fun and crucial to the future of diabetes.

“That’s where the real potential for impact is,” she said, adding that it will fall to the next generation of scientists to implement the findings of her studies.

In her more than 20 years in the field, Mayer-Davis has researched type 1 and type 2 diabetes in youth and adults, diabetes prevention and management and diabetes in minority groups. Much of her work focuses on the effect of nutrition on diabetes.

“I haven’t been bored in over 20 years,” she said.

She said her passion for her life’s work has helped her to achieve and has enabled her to manage her many responsibilities.

“I have a very supportive family,” she said. “And I really believe diabetes is important.”

John W. Griffin Jr., chairman of the national board of directors for the ADA, said Mayer-Davis’ passion and expertise in nutrition make her an excellent advocate for diabetes patients.

“She’s had some groundbreaking studies that have really helped people with diabetes,” he said.

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