“You don’t learn until you do.” Tammy Lowe was describing letting a neighbor girl prepare one of the miniature horses she and her husband raise for a competitive show at the recent Iowa State Fair, but these words could easily stand as a guiding principle for the way Ms. Lowe has approached her career. They certainly serve her well in her current role as Clinical Trial & Data Management Research Associate in the Division of Endocrinology & Metabolism.
Ms. Lowe moved around Iowa often while growing up, her family eventually settling in Columbus Junction, which suited her. “I love small towns, you get to know everybody.” That same openness to others and their experience has also benefited her. After high school, a love of animals led Ms. Lowe to briefly study animal science and agriculture business at Iowa State University, but opted instead for real-world experience, taking a position closer to home at a grain elevator. There she sold livestock feed, making recommendations on how producers might best optimize their business.
From small-scale to large-scale, Ms. Lowe took those same skills to work for a Walmart distribution center, just as the retailer was beginning to grow. For ten years, she coordinated receiving across most of the Midwest. But the call of her community and the opportunity to be more available to her family brought her back to the elevator.
In her spare time, Ms. Lowe also became a volunteer first-responder with her husband. Their home’s rural location near Crawfordsville positioned them well to arrive at the scenes of some accidents faster than an ambulance could. “We were always on call. If you were around, you had your beeper at all times.” The Washington County 911 system would page Ms. Lowe and her husband to the scene while rescue units were dispatched. “You see a lot,” Ms. Lowe said. And so, she also learned a lot about medical care. That experience, coupled with a lifetime of working with animals, proved she had the constitution for working in the medical field. Which is where Ms. Lowe went next, joining the University of Iowa.
“I had a friend who worked with the heart failure group, and they were looking for someone that knew how to use a defibrillator, knew how to take blood pressure, knew how to do things under stressful emergency situations.” The research group also needed someone with clerical experience, managing databases, keeping the books. Ms. Lowe was a natural fit for the team. She worked with a variety of researchers, cardiologists, nursing staff, and students. When the students were not available to handle the lab work, Ms. Lowe jumped in.
About four years later, Ms. Lowe moved to the kidney transplant team. It was there that one of her greatest assets and joys was tapped. “I really liked working with the patients. My co-workers joke now that there’s nobody I can’t talk to and find something that I know about them, the town they live in, something they’re interested in.” Part of the joy was seeing the difference that her team made in their lives. “You see someone waiting for a transplant, purple fingers and lips, and then ten days later, they’re pink, everything’s better.” Ms. Lowe also became more exposed to the intricacies and the variety of ways research was conducted at the university, learning about funding, organizing, communicating between teams, and maintaining long-term investigations.
Eventually Ms. Lowe joined Dr. Bill Sivitz, Professor of Endocrinology & Metabolism, on the GRADE study. This NIH-funded, national study tracks the comparative effectiveness of metformin in combination with one of four other drugs to help people manage their Type 2 diabetes. Iowa is one of 45 institutions participating, tracking more than 5,000 individuals. The scope of the 7.5-years-long randomized clinical trial—recruitment, scheduling of lengthy appointments, communication with enrollees and their primary care providers (PCPs), education, organization of data—is a massive and unprecedented project, but with implications for the individual participants and the future of diabetes care and management.
Ms. Lowe has managed recruitment and communication on GRADE for years. Because the study required people in early stages of diabetes, finding the appropriate patient population was a challenge. “We’re a specialty hospital in a lot of ways. By the time they come to Iowa, most folks are already pretty far along.” So Ms. Lowe visited outlying clinics, contacted regional providers, spreading the word about the opportunity to participate in important research. “Once we got IRB approval, we sent emails, letters, made phone calls.” By the end, GRADE enrollment had exceeded its national goals.
Now the researchers are working with Iowa’s 135 enrollees directly and with their PCPs on tracking, maintaining or adjusting disease management plans. Ms. Lowe continues to play a significant part in this stage, forming bonds with participants, encouraging their commitment to the study and to their health care, while scheduling their examinations at Iowa every three months. One man, she recalls, had lost nearly 70 pounds over the course of the study. “It was like winning the Olympics for him, and you have to make sure he knows that, like he’s done the world’s best thing, and he has. You’re as important to them as they are to you.”
Ms. Lowe’s empathy, her ability to connect with GRADE members, has been of tremendous value to the study. Dr. Sivitz says, “Tammy did a wonderful job recruiting for GRADE and, in many ways, added fun to this difficult task. It is obvious that patients love working with her.” GRADE Study Coordinator Laura Knosp agrees, “I don’t think Tammy has ever met a stranger. She always has a cheerful and upbeat attitude.”
When she is not working with patients in the GRADE study, Ms. Lowe is working with her own charges at home: miniature Australian shepherd puppies and those miniature horses. She and her husband also teach their niece and nephew how to show the animals at fairs. Her nephew, competing against professionals, took first place recently in one particular event. Ms. Lowe also lights up when she talks about her recently married son in Missouri and her daughter, who works in sports administration at nearby Coe College. Ms. Lowe, who has learned by doing all her life, enjoys seeing others realizing this same truth.