John B. Buse, MD, PhD, is Chief of the Division of Endocrinology, Verne S. Caviness Distinguished Professor, Director of the Diabetes Center and Director of the NC Translational and Clinical Sciences Institute.
Sometimes, the path in life we think we are least likely to travel is the place we are meant to end up.
“Apparently, what I was told is that my first career choice was a garbage man because I loved the truck and physicality of it,” John Buse, MD, PhD, said. “Next, I wanted to be a marine biologist. In high school, I decided the one thing I didn’t want to do was medicine because frankly, my parents, both doctors, were such impressive characters, I didn’t want them to figure out how limited my abilities really were.”
Dr. Buse’s father, orphaned at a young age, overcame many challenges to become a doctor, specifically specializing in diabetes. In Hungary, his mother lived through World War II and decided to pursue medicine, also with a focus in endocrinology.
Pushing away the idea of following in his parents’ footsteps, Dr. Buse started as a government major in college, but, after a few semesters, he switched to comparative literature.
“After a semester of that, I converted to biochemistry because I realized I didn’t really have a mind for anything but science,” Dr. Buse said. “So, I decided to go into medicine. However, the one thing I knew was that I wouldn’t want to do diabetes.”
The plan was to become an oncologist. When completing his MD, PhD, at Duke University, Dr. Buse’s research mentor could no longer support the lab. Scrambling to find another person in immunology, the path he had chosen not to take appeared again.
“There was this young guy, Dr. George Eisenbarth, who was doing research on the immunology of diabetes and I thought to myself, ‘Oh my god, I can’t do diabetes! But that’s okay. I’ll just do this and switch to cancer,’” Dr. Buse said. “Then, I just got fascinated with diabetes and the rest fell into place.”
Dr. Buse found a home at a well-established diabetes center with the University of Chicago. Eight years later, when the University of North Carolina began looking for a diabetes center director, Dr. Buse was asked to interview for the position. Convinced he already had what he was looking for in Chicago, he agreed to visit UNC to give Grand Rounds and attend Duke’s 10th year medical school class reunion.
“I just fell in love with UNC. In fact, it was during an hour gap they gave me. I was walking though the hospital lobby and there’s that plaque that said something like, ‘Our mission is to serve the people of the state of North Carolina.’ The idea that I had found an institution explicitly focused on service just blew my mind.”
So, in 1994, Dr. Buse came to UNC to start the diabetes center. After successfully engaging the healthcare system to fund the center’s work, Dr. Buse was asked to be chief of the Division of General Medicine.
“I thought that was crazy. I’m an endocrinologist, but there were a lot of patients with diabetes in general medicine. So, what I agreed to do was help do an assessment of the division and in that process, again, fell in love with the division of general medicine and its full commitment to the mission of service, teaching, care and scholarship.”
As Chief of General Medicine, Dr. Buse used the mission of service as motivation to transform the division. After five years, Dr. Buse switched back to endocrinology, this time as division chief and has remained in this position for 16 years. He has received international recognition for innovative clinical care and efforts at prevention of type 1 diabetes, type 2 diabetes and their complications. As well as supporting dozens of early-stage investigators.
“He’s great to work with and is extremely humble. When I first started working for him our clinical research program was really small and now, we have anywhere from 12 to 20 trials at a time,” Jill Cunnup, Division of Endocrinology administrator, said.
“With the support of department chairs, year by year we’ve been able to grow the division by one or two faculty and now we have this extraordinary young talent,” Dr. Buse said. “Dr. Janice Hwang is coming in September to take on the efforts moving forward, which, I feel really, really, good about. I do think that it’s essential for the health of academic medicine for young people to have the opportunity to step forward.”
Janice Jin Hwang, MD, MHS, will become the Chief of the Division of Endocrinology and Metabolism, effective September 1, 2022. Dr. Buse will continue his career focusing on patient care and research. He is looking forward to spending more time with his wife and children, and maybe will start playing soccer again.
“So, there’s some people whose careers have been much more focused,” Dr. Buse said. “And that may work for some, but I do think that many of the most important things that happen in people’s careers is based on the side route, not the route that you were planning on going on. That turned out to be big for me.”