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Back to His Roots
UK Professor Spends Sabbatical
Conducting Research in Hungary

Jessica Seymour with a group of young girls of the Tsachilla community. The children enjoyed playing with the UK Shoulder to Should Ecuador team and loved getting their pictures taken.

Much like the biblical principle it's based on, a sabbatical is a chance for a professor to rest every seven years and rejuvenate. Generally, professors are afforded up to six months paid leave to step away from the day-to-day affairs of university life and expand one's professional boundaries. For UK College of Health Sciences Professor Gil Boissonneault, Ph.D., PA-C, it was a chance to travel, forge relationships between UK and another university and return to his roots in research.

Setting the Stage

Boissonneault's career path has seen a number of transitions. He started college with the intentions of finishing a pre-med program and then attending medical school. But a chance to work in a human nutrition laboratory during his freshman year shifted those plans. The subject quickly grabbed Boissonneault's interest and he earned his bachelor's degree in human nutrition in 1977.

Not interested in immediately jumping into graduate school, Boissonneault (pronounced "boy-zen-no") decided to join the Peace Corps. Initially he was set to travel to the Dominican Republic, but a last minute spot opened for someone to work in a new nutrition program in Thailand. A fascination with Asian culture made it a quick decision.

"It was a wonderful experience and I would highly encourage anybody to do it. I would love to do it again," said Boissonneault.

After nearly two years, Boissonneault returned to the United States and was in graduate school within a couple weeks of his arrival. By 1982, he completed his Ph.D. in human nutrition and spent three years conducting postdoctoral research.

Transitioning into academia had always been Boissonneault's ultimate goal. He began looking for academic jobs and was particularly interested in larger state universities with the resources to support his research efforts. Boissonneault's search led him to UK and he began teaching in January 1986 in the College of Health Sciences' Clinical Nutrition program. 

He spent roughly 15 years focused primarily on teaching and research. But during this time he became increasingly interested in clinical work and once again considered attending medical school. Boissonneault learned about the physician assistant program after coming to UK and found it would allow him to apply his nutrition background and focus on the clinical application of medicine. By 2001, he completed the PA program and began working as a PA with a solo-physician family practice clinic in Mt. Sterling, Kentucky.

His transition between research, academia and clinical work was "just a natural progression in exploring life."

Though he's partly transitioned out of research, Boissonneault said it's just hard to move away from.

The Sabbatical

After finishing an eight week summer session class, Boissonneault embarked on his third sabbatical from the College of Health Sciences in September of 2008. 

His destination was the University of Debrecen in Hungary. Boissonneault's initial interest in Hungary stemmed from his interactions with Geza Bruckner, Ph.D., a fellow faculty member in the Clinical Nutrition program in the College of Health Sciences. Bruckner had professional and family connections in Hungary, and at various times brought in colleagues to work in his research lab. 

Through Bruckner, Boissonneault met Dr. Sandor Sipka during a visit to the University of Kentucky more than 15 years ago. Sipka runs an immunology laboratory in the medical school at Debrecen. Immunology, or more specifically autoimmune diseases, is one of Boissonneault's fields of study. After deciding to pursue research during his sabbatical, Boissonneault reestablished contact with Sipka and they began discussing possible projects. A few weeks later, the two had established the basis of their research project.

Besides his interest in immunology and connections through Bruckner, the chance to travel to an unfamiliar culture was a major factor in the decision to spend his time in Hungary. 

"It's a foreign culture - different from the United States, which was very exciting for me," said Boissonneault.

He spent his first two sabbaticals in the U.S., but found it far too easy to get diverted back into the normal routine of life. Being encompassed by an unfamiliar environment, in terms of location and culture, helped Boissonneault focus on his goals without everyday distractions.

Boissonneault spent the majority of his time in Hungary on the research project with Sipka, where they studied systemic lupus erythematosus and Sjögren's syndrome. Both are autoimmune diseases in which one's own immune system begins attacking and destroying the body's own cells and tissue. They were interested in better understanding the regulation of immune cells that contribute to these autoimmune diseases by looking at products of omega-3 fatty acids called resolvins.

The serious health care problems facing Hungary made it a perfect site to collect data for this research project. Similar to more isolated parts of rural Kentucky, Hungary has a relatively poor population with limited access to health care. The University of Debrecen treats patients from a far reaching region — this provided Boissonneault and his research partner access to a number of patients that would have been very difficult to replicate in the U.S.

"The University of Debrecen Medical School and Hospital has a very large catch basin for many diseases, including autoimmune diseases — just a tremendous number of patients coming through. Over a month's time, we were able to get 10 patients with each of these two autoimmune diseases coming though and easily could have got more. We never could have done that here, even at UK. We just don't have access to that number of patients," said Boissonneault.

By the time Boissonneault left Hungary in November, they completed their primary laboratory research. The next step is to analyze the data and determine if their laboratory testing was conclusive enough to warrant continuation along this line of research.

Their research was first presented at an abstract poster presentation in Amsterdam on June 13. They are planning on presenting additional data in Berlin in September.

Forging a greater relationship between the University of Kentucky and the University of Debrecen is one of Boissonneault's goals. The two schools have a formal relationship in the clinical nutrition arena, but are exploring other avenues as well. Boissonneault hopes to extend the relationship to include nutrition courses and student exchange with the medical school and eventually the College of Health Sciences.

"Our students certainly have the potential to go there and learn more about their fields practiced in an Eastern European country," said Boissonneault.

One of Boissonneault's fondest memories during his sabbatical was an unexpected teaching assignment. When he was first approached about giving a talk on nutrition at the University of Debrecen, Boissonneault was expecting to give a single lecture — which soon morphed into a 1-credit weekend course consisting of four two-hour lectures spanning a Saturday and Sunday. But the expansion of the course wasn't the surprising part.

The University of Debrecen has a limited online course registration system, so an information session about the course was held to gauge interest. Boissonneault expected roughly five students, but 20 came to the session. By the time the class actually met, 207 students registered and attended the course.

"What they (the medical school administration) were impressed with is that students were really interested in nutrition — they want to know about nutrition," he said. "It was fabulous."

Information about the course spread by word of mouth to medical, nursing, dentistry and pharmacy students throughout campus — and it became the largest elective course ever held at the university. In thanks for this contribution Boissonneault received a silver medal and a certificate of merit.


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Gil Boissonneault, a professor in the Physician Assistant Studies program, on the campus of the University of Debrecen in Hungary.

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Boissonneault holds the silver medal he received for his contributions to the University of Debrecen.

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Boissonneault, pictured with the laboratory team he works with at the University of Debrecen.

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Lecture hall at the University of Debrecen before Boissonneault begins his lecture on clinical nutrition.

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Boissonneault with the certificate of merit he was given for his contributions to the University of Debrecen.