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Cycling for health: Division staffer on diabetes study founds East Bay group for African-American cyclists

Jenna Burton on her bicycle.

Jenna Burton, a research associate for the Division of Research on a gestational diabetes study, founded a bicycling group for East Bay African-Americans called Red Bike & Green. Her family history of diabetes has spurred her to pursue a healthy way of life through bicycling, and to work toward a career in medicine.

Jenna Burton has lost a grandmother, two uncles and most recently, an aunt to complications from type 1 and type 2 diabetes. But the 29-year-old Division of Research research associate is not standing by wringing her hands.

Instead, Burton is grasping the handlebars of her 24-speed maroon Bianchi Eros bicycle and steering her life down a path committed to healthy living.

Her parents, who raised her in Hartford, Conn., gave her the first push. Burton’s mother cooked green beans in water instead of in tastier pork fat as other relatives did. And her father sweated through playground basketball at least once every week, while she watched from a nearby jungle gym.

With those examples of a healthy diet and regular exercise, Jenna and her parents have so far avoided the diabetes that has taken a toll on other family members.

Blacks at higher risk of developing diabetes
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), African-Americans are at a much greater risk than Caucasians for developing diabetes. More than one in 10 African-Americans 20 or older now has diabetes. But the CDC says regular exercise can help control or even prevent type 2 diabetes.

Riding everywhere on her bike — including to and from work, and on twice-monthly rides with the bicycling group she founded — helps Burton and fellow African-American cyclists control their weight and blood sugar levels, and lower their risk of heart disease, a condition common to people with diabetes.

Burton was a childhood cyclist and went on long rides with her father. But when she arrived in the Bay Area six years ago, she hadn’t been on a bicycle in years. Swept up by local bike culture, that soon changed.

Founding Red Bike & Green
Two years ago, Burton founded Red Bike & Green (RBG), a 200-member East-Bay bicycling group for African-Americans. RBG launched its 2011 cycling season with an April 23 ride that drew 65 cyclists and looped for 10 miles across Oakland and Emeryville.

One RBG member is Jamie Brooks, JD, an old friend of Burton’s who is now national leader for Patient Safety and Risk Management with Kaiser Foundation Health Plan. “I’m just amazed at what Jenna’s been able to do,” said Brooks. “Biking is a great way to be green and healthy. I hope she spreads Red Bike & Green to other cities.”

In late June, Brooks’ hope sprang to life when RBG’s second branch — Red Bike & Green NYC, in Brooklyn, N.Y. — sponsored its first ride on June 18.

Three-point plan
RBG’s three-point plan emphasizes using bicycling to:

  • Improve people’s health through cycling as exercise
  • Save money by cycling instead of driving
  • Reduce fossil fuel emissions.

Burton’s commitment to healthy living has its own three points. In addition to founding RBG, she has her job as a research associate on a Division gestational diabetes study and her pursuit of a career as a physician.

As a research associate with the Division’s “Study of Women, Infant Feeding and Type 2 Diabetes” (SWIFT) investigation, Burton recruits new mothers to participate in gestational diabetes studies conducted by Erica Gunderson, PhD. Gunderson’s team investigates development of obesity and diabetes in women after they’ve been pregnant.

With six research associate colleagues, in Oakland and Sacramento, Burton also helps to retain recruited mothers participating in the studies. She enjoys the work because “you get to see the face behind the research.”

Pursuing a career in medicine
Meanwhile, Burton recently completed a post-baccalaureate pre-med program at the University of California, Berkeley Extension. She plans to apply to medical school with the goal of becoming a physician specializing in obstetrics and gynecology.

“Everything I’ve done up to this point — founding RBG, being part of a research project and completing the baccalaureate program — has built the foundation I need to be a good doctor,” said Burton. “Here at my job I’m learning about the importance of research and how research can shape the practice of medicine.

“Going into medicine brings me closer to the health problems I want to address in the black community. With medicine I can offer an answer — something tangible from my hands — and feel satisfied with myself at the end of the day.”

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