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Joy Bunt, MD, PhD, Named College of Medicine –Tucson 2016 Alumnus of the Year

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Joy Bunt, MD, was a respected exercise physiologist and endocrinologist, and assistant professor with the University of Arizona departments of Physiology and Exercise and Sport Sciences when she realized she wanted to broaden her experience.

She applied and was accepted to the UA College of Medicine – Tucson’s Class of 1990. She received her medical degree within a week of her 40th birthday.

“Most people would call it a career change,” she says, “but I prefer to think of it as a career expansion.”

Hundreds of individuals – from the children she cared for as a pediatrician, to the Native American people she treated during her years as a clinician and researcher with the NIH National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disease in Phoenix – have benefited from her career decision.

The University of Arizona College of Medicine – Tucson is proud to honor Dr. Bunt as the College’s 2016 Alumnus of the Year.

Dr. Bunt says she is humbled to be chosen for the honor.

“There are a lot of people who have done a lot of really great things with their lives after medical school. But I do have quite a bit of history with the College of Medicine, and it will always be a special place for me.”

After earning a PhD in exercise physiology and endocrinology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Dr. Bunt spent the following year with the Department of Kinesiology at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. She then came to the UA, following Illinois classmate and friend Scott Going, PhD, now professor and chair of the Department of Nutritional Sciences in the UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. They and their Illinois mentor Tim Lohman, PhD, were colleagues in the UA exercise science and physiology programs.

While teaching and pursuing her research on the effects of exercise on the human endocrine system, and how exercise can prevent disease and help manage chronic disease, Dr. Bunt also assisted Anne E. “Betty” Atwater, PhD, now retired, in her early effort to create an undergraduate program in exercise science. Dr. Atwater later developed an undergraduate major within the Department of Physiology, one of the most popular undergraduate programs at the University of Arizona.

"So my research interests had a strong clinical bent to them. I realized that if I wanted to continue doing that type of human research, it would be important and helpful for me to have the clinical training and experience of the MD degree."

A career in medicine “was something that was always kind of there, when I was trying to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up.

“I just thought more and more about becoming a physician. I finally decided I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life thinking ‘what if,’ so I gave it a shot. I was 36 when I started medical school.”

Being an older student had its advantages, Dr. Bunt recalls. “I think being older and having been in academia helped me to prioritize and focus.”

In 1994, with her MD in hand, she began her residency in pediatrics with professor Andy Theodorou, MD, as one of her mentors. She specialized in diabetes and digestive disease.

“Joy was an awesome student and an excellent resident,” says Dr. Theodorou, now professor and vice chair for clinical affairs and quality with the Department of Pediatrics and Regional Chief Medical Officer for Banner Health. “She has always been able to link her studies in basic science to clinical relevance and has become an asset to our community and beyond. She makes all of us, the faculty of the UA, very proud!”

Dr. Going says he was not surprised when his colleague decided to combine her clinical skill with her research training.

“She often mentioned her interest in medicine and in true Joy fashion, she took the leap. In a way, I went to medical school too, as most Sunday nights Joy would visit me and my wife, Jeanne, and fill us in on the adventures of medical training,” Dr. Going says.

After completing her residency, Dr. Bunt joined a pediatrics practice in Phoenix. Before long, she realized that she missed doing research.

“Again, I was at a crossroads. Then I met some endocrinologist at ASU, and they hooked me up with the NIH group here in Phoenix that was working with the Gila River Indian Community on type-2 diabetes treatment and research. It turned out they needed an MD with research experience. I was made medical director to supervise fellows, and to oversee the health and safety of the volunteers who took part in our studies.

“It was a perfect fit for me,” Dr. Bunt says. “It was a really stimulating place to work. We had a saying that every day is a holiday at the NIH.”

She was with the NIH in Phoenix for 14 years. “Some really iconic research in type-2 diabetes came out of there, including better ways of preventing, and earlier diagnosis and better management of type-2 diabetes.

“As an exercise physiologist and endocrinologist, I considered exercise a tool for health and treatment. As a physician, I still consider exercise and nutrition my two favorite and preferred 'medicines' for prevention, treatment and maintenance of many chronic metabolic diseases. Drugs and surgery are used or added when exercise and diet aren't working adequately.”

Of Dr. Bunt’s achievements, Dr. Going says, “Her early interest and training in exercise physiology, endocrinology, metabolism and body composition was the perfect platform from which to pursue her later work in behavioral and biological underpinnings of obesity and diabetes risk. With little fanfare, she has consistently made important contributions to our understanding of obesity and diabetes risk, particularly serving youth and adults in high-risk communities.”

Now retired, Dr. Bunt is teaching at the UA College of Medicine – Phoenix and fulfilling a long-held dream of volunteering as a docent at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix.

“Nature has always been my sanctuary,” she says. “I had a favorite spot, which was a great meadow on top of Mount Lemmon just below the observatory. I called it my 'meditation meadow.' I spent many hours up there when I was contemplating my move from academia to medical school. I now spend my days helping people from around the world to see and appreciate the wonders and beauty of the Sonoran Desert. I guess I need to add nature as my third favorite medicine.”