People Behind Our Research: Barbara Nikolajczyk and the Inflammation-Diabetes Connection

Barbara Nikolajczyk has always had a passion for scientific exploration and discovery. After losing her father to complications from type 2 diabetes, she decided to delve into research examining the connection between inflammation and the disease. 

Nikolajczyk, who is an associate professor of pharmacology and nutritional sciences in the University of Kentucky College of Medicine, as well as the associate director for translational research at the Barnstable Brown Diabetes Center, has secured funding for a project that follows people who are relatively metabolically healthy as they progress to type 2 diabetes. Her research team is hoping to identify potential drug targets along that trajectory. 

Nikolajczyk is also partnering with the WHY [Women’s Health and You] registry, which has over 17,000 participants to create a sub-registry of women with type 1 and type diabetes. The partnership is a win-win for WHY and Barnstable Brown as it increases the number of participants for research studies, and for disseminating information on personal care and community resources for diabetes patients. 

Working with human subjects and moving from bedside to bench comes with its own set of challenges, but according to Nikolajczyk, these challenges help push the next generation of researchers to reach their full potential. 

“With human subject research, you have to be really flexible. A sample may come in at the very end of clinic, at 4 or 5 o’clock. You need to decide, is it more important to get your data out of that sample, or is it more important to keep plans you had with your friends in the evening? It’s not easy, and it’s never 9-to-5,” she said. “I really try to challenge the preconceived notion of what a career [in research] is with this flexibility aspect.” 

The culture surrounding UK’s research environment is particularly gratifying for Nikolajczyk.  

“I feel like every single person here is sort of on the same team, with the same goals. When I have a success in something, I feel like others feel that as their success as well,” she said. 

What is most fulfilling, according to Nikolajczyk, is seeing students push through challenges to reach their ‘eureka moment.’ 

“It’s not a scientific discovery, but I think it’s sort of perpetuating science to the next generation.”