From the ashes

Julia Bohannon

At a young age, Julia Bohannon knew she wanted to explore the world of science and medicine after being introduced to countless doctors and the healthcare profession at Kosair Children's Hospital.

But she didn't develop the interest from taking a tour of the facility or a field trip; she was there because she was a patient. At 9 months old, Bohannon and her parents were severely burned after their trailer exploded in Louisville due to a propane gas leak.

The accident left the young Bohannon with burns so severe she would undergo numerous reconstructive surgeries, including amputation of part of all four fingers on her left hand, multiple skin grafts, and two consecutive scalp expanders to restore hair to one side of her head that had been burned severely, all between the time of the accident until she was 15 years-old.

Bohannon's mother suffered a traumatic brain injury which required full-time care, and ultimately, her parents were forced to divorce. Her grandparents would take over care for both Bohannon and her mother.

But tragedy struck again when Bohannon was 8, this time claiming the life of her caretaker and grandmother in a motorcycle accident. She and her mother would go on to live with her great-aunt until she went to college at 18.

Due to Bohannon's intensive and frequent surgeries, it was borderline impossible for her to participate in sports at school. Because of this, Bohannon began to develop a strong work ethic with her school work.

"My aunt was very strict and pushed me hard to excel in academics. She told me I could be whatever I wanted to be, and no one could stop me, but she also reminded me that as a woman, I might have to be tougher and work harder to do it," Bohannon said. "Even she was very hard on me, and we often had a strained relationship as a result. It was her intense faith in me that made me believe I could pursue my dreams of a demanding career in a difficult field and also fulfill my dreams of becoming a mother while doing it."

After moving to Arkansas, Bohannon graduated summa cum laude from her high school. From there, she attended Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, MO, before transferring to Eastern Kentucky University in 2001.

Bohannon lived in Telford Hall before switching to Burnam Hall from fall 2001 to spring of 2002. Her time on campus helped her grow into the professional she is today. She credits her success to several mentors on campus, including Dr. Barbara Ramey and Dr. Bill Farrar, but most importantly, Dr. Pat Calie.

Calie was Bohannon's genetics course professor during her junior year and made a major impact on the direction of her career. After approaching him about doing research in his lab, Bohannon was welcomed immediately. Through sponsorships, GRE preparations and presentations, Calie was there every step of the way.

"I give the majority of credit for my success thus far to incredible mentors I’ve had during my journey, all of whom have been extraordinarily invested in my success, and I’m proud that Dr. Calie was the first in that line of influential mentors," Bohannon said. "I would not be where I am today without his guidance and direction."

With the original intention of applying for medical school after arriving at EKU, Bohannon steered away from the idea after being introduced to the world of research, thanks in part to Calie. Bohannon began doing research training with Calie during her final years at the university, which exposed her to a new found love of research, something she never would have before considered.

While in graduate school, Bohannon was given a unique opportunity to conduct her research dissertation at Shriner's Burn Hospital for Children in Galveston, Texas.

"Each day I would see these burned children, most of them much more severely burned than I had been, and it served to motivate me even more on a day-to-day basis. Witnessing the suffering that these kids and their families went through, especially after I became a mother myself, really hit home for me," Bohannon said. "When you think about a tragedy that has happened to yourself, especially when it is something that happened very early in your life, your perspective is altered when you see that same tragedy affecting someone else.

"I had so much more empathy for these families, particularly when I thought about what it would be like if this happened to one of my children. I realized that the work I was doing had the real potential to one day affect the lives of these people and improve their quality of life substantially."

Just one year out of Bohannon's postdoctoral fellowship, and in between raising two boys, she was awarded her first NIH R01 award on the first submission. With funding for research like Bohannon's, competition is heavy and the pursestrings are tight, which is why it was a surprise to her when she got the award on her first try.

"It was truly a dream come true for me, as so much hard work and personal investment went into writing that grant application. The day I received my fundable score ranks up there with my wedding day and the birth of my children as one of the proudest days of my life," Bohannon said.

Once the funding started coming through, Bohannon received her own newly renovated lab space and was able to put together a research team, and as the wheels began turning, Bohannon's dreams of helping fellow burn patients like herself started becoming a reality.

Now, Bohannon is a year and a half into her five-year R01 grant, titled Enhancing Resistance to Infection after Burn Injury with TLR Agonists. Through Bohannon's research and studies, it has been shown that priming immunocompromised hosts with toll-like receptor (TLR) agonists increases resistance to lethal infections caused by a variety of pathogens.

"This has major implications for the development of novel therapeutics that could protect high-risk immunocompromised patients (burn patients, surgical patients, cancer patients, elderly and more) against deadly antibiotic resistant infections. We have shown that this protection can last up to two weeks after treatment," Bohannon said. "We are also conducting studies currently to test whether TLR agonist treatment can improve survival outcomes when given after infection in conjunction with antibiotics, with promising results thus far."

According to Bohannon, her and her research team's studies will provide proof-of concept data for testing those TLR agonists in clinical trials, which will pave the way for the use of these immune-modulating drugs for the prevention of deadly infections in high-risk patients.

Within the next five years, Bohannon hopes to acquire tenure in her position at Vanderbilt University, and continue her research with the end game leading to development of therapeutics that will be translated to the clinical arena and save lives and improve outcomes of immunocompromised patients, including burn patients.

Her time at EKU altered the direction her life would take but her experiences there made her realize her true dreams of being a researcher.

"So many students interesting in the medical sciences and biology think they are constrained into the medical school path, not realizing there are other options out there that are just as rewarding," Bohannon said. "The research experiences I had at EKU opened my eyes to my true potential and my true passion."

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