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AMVETS and Ohio University student researchers celebrate a heartfelt connection over diabetes

Linda McGriff, president of the AMVETS National Ladies Auxiliary, lost her husband, Tom, to diabetes-related complications. She calls AMVETS Diabetes Institute “a member of our family.” (Credit: Joel Prince, Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine).
(ATHENS, Ohio — June 2, 2014) The AMVETS organization and Edison Biotechnology Institute recently celebrated the 10th anniversary of a unique collaboration that has propelled Ohio University students into the world of medical research on diabetes-related projects, led by John Kopchick, a longtime faculty member at the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine. The initiative has funded 32 students with nearly $250,000 in grants over the past decade.

But numbers tell only part of this story.

“I’ve been in AMVETS for 45 years, and I believe this project is probably the most important thing we’ve done as an organization,” said Jim King, a former AMVETS national commander and one of several representatives from the group who spoke at the emotional anniversary celebration in Athens.

King and others cited a grim statistic: One in four U.S. veterans has diabetes – a rate triple that of the general population, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. The incidence is even higher among Vietnam War veterans.

The AMVETS Diabetes Institute, as the grant program is called, aims to chip away at the problem by engaging students in research early in their academic careers so they can join the fight against one of the nation’s most serious health issues. Of the 32 scholars funded so far, about half have gone to graduate school and half to medical school. Two are now practicing physicians.

To qualify to be an AMVETS scholar, students must hold at least a 3.0 grade point average and have a veteran in their family, or be one themselves. For Kopchick, principal investigator at the Edison Biotechnology Institute who helped launch the AMVETS scholars program, the family research that students put into discovering relatives’ military service is just as important as their work in the lab.

“This (AMVETS) grant is unique in a lot of ways,” said Kopchick, an Ohio University Distinguished Professor of molecular and cellular biology and Goll-Ohio Eminent Scholar. Kopchick points out that 100 percent of donations to the AMVETS scholars fund goes to support students, avoiding administrative costs associated with traditional grants. The fund is also one of the few that connects undergraduates with research opportunities.

The idea for the program hatched from a 2002 conversation between Kopchick and members of AMVETS Athens Post 76, one of whose family members had diabetes. Was there a way that AMVETS could help with diabetes research? The national organization got behind the effort with a $15,000 donation to launch the scholars program in 2004, and it’s been growing ever since.

Ten years later, Kopchick and a handful of veterans watched as AMVETS scholars gave presentations on their diabetes-related research and relatives’ military service.

Dr. John Kopchick introduces Elizabeth Jensen, an AMVETS scholar who has done research on the relationship between diet and accelerated aging. Jensen has been accepted into the Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine’s D.O./Ph.D. program for 2014.
Elizabeth Jensen, a student scholar who is studying cellular and molecular biology, told of her grandfather, Pfc. Dorsey Arnold, who was wounded in Italy in 1944 and later died of complications from diabetes and heart disease. As an AMVETS scholar for the past two years, Jensen has delved into the relationship between diet and accelerated aging. She has been accepted into Heritage College’s D.O./Ph.D. program for 2014. The D.O./Ph.D. program combines training in medicine and research for students interested in becoming physician-scientists, helping to prepare them for careers as faculty members at medical schools, universities and research institutes.

Former AMVETS scholar Adam Jara talked about his own military service as a first lieutenant in an Ohio National Guard medical detachment. Jara, a Heritage College D.O./Ph.D. student just finishing up his Ph.D., talked about his work examining the effects of growth hormone on the heart.

Over the past decade, AMVETS scholars have had a part in more than 150 research papers and have given countless scholarly presentations.

The program has been meaningful for many in AMVETS, as well. Linda McGriff, president of the AMVETS National Ladies Auxiliary, lost her husband, Tom, to complications from diabetes in February. Shortly afterward, she made a donation to the AMVETS Diabetes Institute on his behalf.

“It was a no-brainer for me,” McGriff said. “(My husband) was a champion for this program, and it’s been a member of our family.”

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Last updated: 01/28/2016