For Isabel and Steve Boona, landing jobs at Battelle was a dream scenario. They could both work together in the field of their passion—materials science and engineering with a specialization in electron microscopy. And though a lifelong love of science has brought her much knowledge, Isabel has learned much more from life itself.
A research scientist who works as a computer engineer in Battelle’s Cyber Security Division, Isabel Boona also an ambassador for the American Cancer Society who runs a fundraiser for the ResearcHERS: Women Fighting Cancer of Ohio funding campaign. She says her efforts honor her and Steve’s shared commitment to scientific inquiry and support the current pipeline and next generation of women in cancer research. ResearcHERS provides dedicated funding for women-led research grants, a paid leave program for ACS-funded researcHERS, and Summer Healthcare Experience (SHE) in Oncology an immersive two-week summer program for young women at one of 10 highly ranked medical institutions.
The Boonas’ is quite a story. The two met in graduate school at Michigan State University, where Steve was pursuing a PhD in materials science and engineering and Isabel was studying in the same department. They’d met once after a football game, and then again at her birthday party where she’d invited all the participants in her grad program. While everyone else was enjoying the Motown themed celebration at a local restaurant, Steve spent time talking to her family and her landlady/karate mentor. “He was quite an introvert, so him interacting with my family was notable,” she said. “And he gave such great hugs.”
They began to date and Steve, three years older than Isabel, graduated from MSU in 2013 and moved to a post-doctoral in the physics department at Ohio State University. They spent their first Valentine’s Day together that year, and things were great. But six months after he graduated, while attending a Michigan State basketball game with Isabel, Steve had a grand mal seizure. “We were completely unaware of any medical problems before that,” Isabel said.
An MRI at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center revealed a lemon-sized tumor in the right frontal lobe of his brain and not long after, surgeons successfully removed it. After chemo, his prognosis was good. Isabel cut short her PhD work, and the day before graduating from MSU with a Master’s, Steve proposed marriage in front of the school’s engineering building, “Like the nerds we are,” she said. “He chose the location we first met, and I have to admit, I knew he had the ring. It just took a long time for him to pop the question. I was waiting and waiting.”
Isabel moved to Columbus to work in the electron microscopy center at OSU and pursue her doctorate. But regular doctor’s visits showed that Steve’s tumor returned in 2016 and required another surgery. “He bounced back just as fast the second time,” Isabel said.
Following a job at Owens Corning while Steve worked at OSU, Isabel was recruited and came to Battelle in 2020 and Steve followed her there at the end of 2021. The two rode in the fundraising bike ride Pelotonia several times and Steve completed a 500-mile ride to support another fundraiser in recent years. The two shared a love of MSU basketball and Steve was an avid rock collector and polisher. “He was in really good health,” she said. “I do still have 100 pounds of Ohio flint in the garage though.”
During the pandemic, the two worked at Battelle (after Steve joined the organization in October 2021). Isabel initially worked more in the office because she oversees the utilization and training on the Plasma Focused Ion Beam Microscope (PFIB) in Cyber’s FIRE lab. Then, in August of 2021, Isabel felt a lump in her chest. “It was really unnerving to go to the Spielman Center for testing a week after,” she said. “The doctor immediately asked for a secondary mammogram with dye contrast. Then, during the same visit, I saw a live feed of the ultrasound that showed the tumor already had its own blood source. I knew this was bad news because of all I’d gone through with Steve.”
A painful biopsy revealed a triple negative invasive ductal carcinoma. She started the ACT chemotherapy treatment mid-October with a surgery scheduled for the following Spring. Then, three months into her treatment schedule Isabel got a call in December of 2021. “Steve had a seizure at work while eating his spaghetti and meatball lunch,” she said.
By January, tests revealed a Grade 4 Astrocytoma in his brain. “He started displaying some cognitive decline,” she said. They tried a clinical trial in late March, but he became fully dependent on other people for his care. The day before her own cancer surgery, they learned Steve’s illness was terminal.
Isabel says she’s thankful for her supportive peers at Battelle. “We got PTO (paid time off) donations from people because Steve hadn’t been working there that long,” she said. “The Cyber group is incredible, there were two rounds of fundraising from the cyber group, and when Steve needed a wheelchair, people from Battelle came to our house and built an ADA compliant ramp for us. As part of the 2022 American Brain Tumor Association 5K race at Columbus Commons we participate in each year, Battelle matched the donation amount we raised for Team Boona.”
Steve died on Aug. 22, 2022, about a month after the final installment of Isabel’s 30 radiation treatments.
Her own prognosis promising, Isabel decided to return to work this past January on a part-time basis. To fill the hole in her life, she’s reaching out to others. “I chose to expand emotionally,” she said. “I want to live through connecting to people around me, relying on love. I look for love amid the negativity. It could be hearing the birds in the morning, the smallest of things. Having people sit there with you in your discomfort. People invite me to things and I’m saying yes more frequently. I am learning to allow people to nurture me; I was a caregiver for so long. It’s not easy because I like caring for people.”
Which brought her to the American Cancer Society. Organizers reached out to Isabel and she found it a perfect avenue to nurture future scientists. “This will not just provide funding for the next generation of doctors, but anyone wanting to improve a patient’s quality of life, so within all areas of oncology,” she said. “I think sharing our story can help people learn and empathize and be inspired.”
On May 27 at COSI in downtown Columbus, she will hold a day of remembrance for Steve and talk about her own cancer journey in support of cancer research and women in science. The event also encourages scientists and researchers to speak up about their journeys through their careers in a field still predominately dominated by men.
To donate to Isabel Boona’s American Cancer Society ResearcHERS Ohio fundraiser, click here.