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MMBIO Honored Graduate: How Epigenetics Shaped Aaron Bohn

When Aaron Bohn (MMBIO ’24) started his undergraduate education as an engineer, he never anticipated switching to biology and looking into epigenetic diseases, which relate to gene expression. Yet after someone close to him was diagnosed with a genetic disease, Bohn needed to know how to help. The search for an answer left Bohn “hooked on molecular genetics” and he never looked back.

Bohn has always sought to understand things at a fundamental level. He grew up taking things apart to see how they worked and played with Legos and other engineering toys. Molecular biology, Bohn believes, is the best discipline in the life sciences for getting to the core of life. This reductionistic mindset served him well in his new-found biology passion.

A pale man with brown hair and glasses in a blue lab coat smiles.
Photo by Megan Mulliner

Bohn’s Training Montage

Mentored by Dr. Steven Johnson, Bohn worked on nucleosome positioning and how histone modifications affect transcription rate. Histones are the structural support that keep DNA and chromosomes from unraveling, while nucleosome positioning refers to the DNA makeup in relation to the histone. The location and density of nucleosomes dictate which traits a person manifests. The project looked at how altering histones changes nucleosomes and the displayed traits.

Bohn hopes that his work in the lab will help to improve techniques to precisely manipulate gene expression in living cells. Altering gene expression would lessen the symptoms of those with genetic diseases because the diseases develop from DNA misreading. Bohn’s work will help medical professionals better understand the mechanisms behind the diseases and develop better treatments for those suffering from these conditions.

A pale man with brown hair and glasses wearing a blue lab coat pipettes liquid onto a petri dish.
Photo by Megan Mulliner

To further incubate his latent biological development, Bohn also secured a Havard research internship under Dr. Shannon Tessier with the BYU Summer Premedical Research Internship Program (SPRI) where he worked with heart cell cultures measuring the damage done after cryopreservation. This research is essential for transplant hearts to make it to patients in time. Thousands of people a year die waiting for an organ from a hospital across the country; cryopreservation serves as a potential solution. The cells need to be able to withstand the frigid temperatures, or the organs aren’t viable transplants. Bohn’s contribution delved into the toxicity level of the chemicals used to protect the heart when frozen.

Bohn had no prior experience in toxicology, cardiology, or tissue cultures. While initially hesitant on how to start, he adapted quickly and discovered through the research that he wanted to pursue a PhD. “Seeing that I could take up a brand new field, brand new techniques, and brand new literature and actually get something done over the four months I was there, showed me I can go a lot of directions in my PhD,” Bohn shared. “Fundamentally, that's what research is. It’s just diving headfirst into a question.”

BYU’s Impact 

As the lone science graduate in a family centered around the humanities and business, Bohn appreciates the mentorship he received from professors and graduate students. “It's made all the difference to just talk to them about my struggles and bounce stuff off of them,” Bohn mused. “It's part of what I think makes BYU special—to see how willing all the professors are to just meet one on one with you and give you the mentorship you need.”

A pale man with brown hair and glasses in a blue lab coat pipettes
Photo by Megan Mulliner

The end of Bohn’s time at BYU has caused him to reflect on his life. Auditing Dean Bridgewater's science and faith course opened his eyes to a new way of living. “I didn't expect the skills, mindsets, and approaches that I learned in my science education to apply as much as they have to my spiritual life,” he enthuses. “I definitely came in with my scientific knowledge and understanding as a totally separate realm to my pursuit of spiritual knowledge.” Bohn has come to understand that "these concepts are more intertwined.”

Bohn plans to use his epigenetics knowledge in a biomedical-focused PhD. He will be attending Princeton University to study in their Molecular Biology graduate program. He wants to move his research from the lab to impacting people’s lives. One day, he hopes the solutions he helps to discover will provide clinical diagnoses.