Heather Bullen’s legacy: courage, interdisciplinary approach, research, and students

Western & Southern Open
Dr. Kristi Haik (left) and Dr. Heather Bullen

"This is a special day to honor and celebrate the life and work of Dr. Heather Bullen."

By Ryan Clark
NKU Marketing + Communications

Ten years ago, NKU professors Heather Bullen and Kristi Haik started the Interdisciplinary Summer Research Celebration. This year, during the tenth anniversary, the celebration will adopt Bullen’s name.

It’s deserved, of course, and an honor, NKU staff will say. But Bullen should be here now, helping organize the event. It’s still hard to believe she’s gone.

"She was my best friend," Haik says. "And she was such a good person - she was close with so many people. We all loved her."

It all started when the pair met for coffee, just shortly after they were both hired in 2004. Kristi Haik studied the brain, Heather Bullen studied chemistry. Both hailed from Michigan, and both loved to be silly and laugh. They became fast friends, and even more important for NKU, they became collaborators in research.

In eight years, they helped shape what ‘interdisciplinary’ could mean in education – chemistry and biology, coming together, to serve a common goal. Bullen, a personable, outgoing scientist, became the face of the chemistry department, colleagues say. She was awarded more than $3 million in STEM grant funding during that time, and she and Haik brought undergraduate students along in their research, every step of the way.

Then, Bullen’s passing defined tragedy. Less than two weeks after giving birth to her son Vonn, she was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. She fought courageously for 18 months, and along the way she wrote down her thoughts in an online journal. Frequently, she talked of her husband and son. Of course, she talked about her NKU family, too.

“I am thankful that I can still do what I want to do (except maybe snowboarding) and seeing my friends and students at work makes me happy,” she wrote on Nov. 23, 2011.

Her thoughts were never far from her students and work. “So this week will be busy… getting scans, pestering surgeons, teaching, preparing a bunch of research posters and talks and heading to California (oh and enjoying March Madness and hoping my Spartans kick some butt),” she wrote in March, 2012.

She earned her doctorate from Michigan State University, which is where she also met her husband, Brad. And yes, she loved snowboarding – but she equally loved college basketball, and she would cheer for her Spartans in the NCAA Tournament until she was hoarse.

Overall, Bullen took on about 40 undergraduate students in her time at NKU. “I am already going to have five students doing research this summer. Yes that may seem insane ... I know it is, but these students are my support and cheering squad ... they keep me grounded each day,” she wrote in April, 2012.

Three months later, she was gone. She was 35.

A Legacy of Giving Back

On Wednesday, from 4-6 p.m. in the Student Union ballroom, the celebration of research is a testament to what Bullen and Haik achieved. But, her colleagues say, Bullen leaves behind so much more.

In winter, 2011, Haik and Bullen were awarded a $300,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health to study whether nanoparticles – something scientists were interested in using for possibly helping patients with brain diseases, like Parkinson’s – were actually instead toxic for the brain. That research concluded this summer, Haik said, and will be published in 2016. The study will show they were able to create an inexpensive screen to test the toxicity of the nanoparticles before they are used.

Shanda Harris (left) and Jordan Gillum

Bullen Scholarship Fund

After her passing, the Chemistry department set up a scholarship in Dr. Bullen’s name to reward first generational STEM students for their leadership and academic efforts at NKU.

If you wish to contribute to this fund, donations can be sent to the department at the address:

Dr. Heather Bullen
Scholarship Fund
NSC 204F
Highland Heights KY 41099-1905

keith walters Walters

“She was an amazing scientist, and a great teacher, but she was also so nice, and such a great friend,” Haik says. “When I was interviewing for the department chair, she came that day and got me and said ‘Let’s go get coffee.’ And we never really had time to do this, but we did because she knew I was freaking out. She was so considerate.”

Friends remember her as the perfect listener. Need a pick-me-up? “Don’t take things too seriously,” Bullen would say. Faced with a tough decision? “Growing up sucks,” she’d laugh.

“I was always in awe of Heather,” says Chemistry lecturer P.J. Ball. “Her ability to juggle so many responsibilities, to make so many meaningful connections with students, and to handle an enormous amount of pressure with her research and teaching responsibilities.

“As a friend, she was the person that brought the fun,” Ball continues. “She was unique in her ability to maintain a healthy balance of work, family, and friends. She was one of my biggest cheerleaders and gave me confidence to do things I would have never tried without her encouragement. However, it might have been during the hardest moments of her battle with cancer when she inspired me the most. She approached every hurdle and setback with a fighting spirit and an incredible amount of courage.”

Keith Walters, chair of the Chemistry Department, remembers the exact moment when he knew Bullen would come to NKU.

“I was on the search committee,” he says. “I was driving her around everywhere, and we were having a conversation about what makes NKU special. I talked about the students and the research, and I said we were here to change lives.”

He remembers Bullen agreeing. “That’s exactly what I’m looking for,” she said.

“And I knew at that point, we were going to get her,” Walters says. “She was interviewing other places, but I knew she wanted to come to NKU. And I knew she would do well.”

Walters said she excelled, not only in her research and teaching, but in representing the department. She would not be satisfied with the status quo. She pushed department officials to apply for equipment funding they previously wouldn’t have done before. “And she succeeded,” Walters says.

She pushed the limits of what others thought undergraduate research could be. “If no one had ever tried it before, she never hesitated,” he says. “She said, ‘Let’s try it.’ She gave students a lot more opportunity then they could find elsewhere.”

And she worked with others outside the department – like Haik. She loved inviting students and co-workers to her famous Halloween parties. “She was transdisciplinary before anyone ever knew what that meant,” Walters says.

It made it all the more difficult, when, in 2012, one of Walters’ first tasks as department chair was to interview candidates for Bullen’s replacement.

Celeste Morris Morris

Passing the Torch

It just so happened that one of those candidates was Celeste Morris – one of Bullen’s former students. Morris, like Bullen before her, could have worked at her choice of universities.

Walters remembers bringing her into his office.

“I asked her, ‘What is it going to feel like? What is it going to feel like to replace Dr. Bullen?” he says.

“Celeste just said, ‘This is exactly what I’m meant to do.’”

It was all he needed to hear.

“The legacy of Dr. Bullen,” Walters says, “is Celeste Morris. The legacy is the passion Dr. Bullen instilled in people like Celeste. The inspiration will last forever.”

Celeste Morris – now Dr. Celeste Morris, NKU assistant professor in the department of chemistry – remembers Dr. Bullen the professor, but wants everyone else to know Dr. Bullen, the mentor and friend.

“This celebration of student research is a special day to honor and celebrate the life and work of Dr. Heather Bullen,” Morris says. “Heather was an extraordinary professor, attentive mentor, and cherished friend. While there are things that I wish I could ask her daily, today, I want her to know how she was loved — I want to thank her for inspiring me to find my passion: mentoring others myself. I want to thank her for the blessing I was given to learn from her and to be her friend. I want to tell her how grateful we all are that she shared her life, joy and energy with all of us at NKU.”

But Morris knows Bullen would’ve hated all this attention.

“She wouldn’t want us to get caught up in thanking her,” Morris says. “She would want us to do what she did — spread joy and inspiration!”