David Marrero discovered he had diabetes – the disease that would come to dominate his health and career – purely on a lark. He was 25, studying for his master’s at UC Irvine and working in a Corona del Mar hardware store, when a co-worker found a box of ketodiastix – the wooden sticks used to measure glucose in urine – in the backroom. As a joke, Marrero grabbed a stick and headed into the restroom. When he returned, the stick he was holding had turned brown.

“What does that mean?” he asked.

“It means you’re diabetic,” came the reply.

Marrero had no idea what the word even meant. His father, a doctor, later confirmed the diagnosis through more sophisticated tests. Since then, Marrero has gone from knowing almost nothing about diabetes to becoming a leading expert on the disease.

As the J.O. Richey Professor of Medicine and director of the Diabetes Prevention and Control Center at Indiana University, the UCI alumnus has conducted extensive research linking the lack of exercise and diabetes, published more than 100 articles and book chapters, and co-authored the popular 101 Tips for Coping with Diabetes.

“As a patient and a researcher, I see the disease from both sides,” Marrero says. “The prevalence of diabetes corresponds with the rise in obesity in our country. It’s our lifestyle. The more obese you are, the more insulin-resistant you get.”

The sports-loving Marrero doesn’t fit the profile of those at risk of developing diabetes. He attended University of Iowa for two years on a football scholarship, before transferring to UCI his junior year. While here, he and Ray Novaco, professor of psychology and social behavior, were league doubles champions in racquetball. People still talk about the time Marrero knocked out Novaco’s front teeth during a championship match.

“Instead of quitting, Ray just shoved some paper in his mouth and kept playing. We won,” Marrero recalls.

Marrero ’74, M.A. ’78, Ph.D ’82, received his bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate in social ecology from UCI; while a graduate student, he began applying his research skills to diabetes.

“Diabetes has a huge impact on people’s health. It’s the third-leading cause of death, and the leading cause of blindness, kidney failure, and lower extremity amputation not caused by trauma,” says Marrero, who received the UCI Alumni Association’s Lauds & Laurels Distinguished Alumni Award in 2006 for his contributions to the field and was twice awarded The Allene Von Son Award for Diabetes Patient Education Tools by the American Association of Diabetes Educators.

“When you get diabetes, you don’t burn – you rust away,” he says.

Marrero’s currently working with the YMCA on developing a lifestyle program to combat diabetes. Six Ys in Indiana have successfully launched the program, and he’s seeking funding to roll it out nationwide.

“My work is really rewarding,” he says. “I’m able to touch people’s lives on multiple levels.”