SALISBURY, N.C. (WBTV) - Provided to WBTV by the Salisbury VA Medical Center: As a child growing up with Cystic Fibrosis, Grace Hodge was no stranger to a doctor’s office. With her first hospitalization at three years old and a feeding tube for years, Grace, a graduate of West Rowan High School, has grown up with a near constant reminder of the fragile nature of health and an awareness of how a life-long illness can impact every aspect of her day-to-day activities. In that way, it makes her achievements all-the-more remarkable.

Cystic Fibrosis is a progressive, genetic disease that primarily affects the lungs and pancreas, causing increased mucus. It can cause malnutrition, poor growth, frequent respiratory infections, breathing problems, and chronic lung disease.

As an undergraduate at North Carolina State University, Grace found new passion exploring the world of research. She focused on finding cures for various diseases at a cellular level, when it became clear that her childhood dream of becoming a pediatric pulmonologist was not within reach.

Through her mother, employed at the W.G. “Bill” Hefner VA Medical Center in Salisbury, she also learned about the brand-new VA South Central Appalachian Network for Research Development (VA SCAN-RD) program, led from the Charles George VA Medical Center in Asheville. She applied to the program for a chance to learn more about her future career choice – genetic researcher. Grace received twelve weeks of training in the Summer of 2022 through VA SCAN-RD’s Summer Research Program (SRP). During that time she learned basic research concepts and received expert mentoring from VA researcher, Dr. Miranda Orr. Grace plans to return this summer as a second-year SRP participant, to continue her research training and growth in this research frontier, as part of Dr. Orr’s lab.

Program Co-Director, Dr. Jessica O’Leary, explained the focus of VA SCAN-RD is improving the “limited access to research opportunities for underserved, minority, and rural Veterans” across the South-Central Appalachian region. By educating future researchers about the limitations and specific challenges in this region, the Summer Research Program leaders hope to build their connections and opportunities.

Grace was presented other opportunities to participate in various research studies about Cystic Fibrosis over the years. But she was always reluctant to participate, out of fear that she would not receive the new and possibly helpful treatment. Her condition existed in a virtual no-man’s land, where her lung function wasn’t weak enough to qualify for many studies, but not strong enough for others. When asked what she would tell her younger self about participating in a research trial, Grace remarked that she would be more empowered to find those opportunities that met her needs. In recent years, she’s participated in studies looking at aspects of topics like dental health when living with Cystic Fibrosis.

Grace’s mentor, Dr. Orr, herself, found the VA through a Career Development Award through the Basic Laboratory Research and Development program. Grace’s face lit up when she was asked about Dr. Orr. “She’s amazing and such an inspiration!” It’s clear that pairing Grace with Dr. Orr through the VA SCAN-RD Summer Research Program has made an impact on Grace Hodge’s career and future.

With a focused drive, borne out of her own hurdles, Grace’s fate may include eventual placement on the cover of a scientific magazine, for finding a cure to the condition that inspired her passion for research, Cystic Fibrosis. Grace clearly embodies the “why” behind the Veterans Health Administration’s Summer Research Program for students, preparing the next generation of America’s Veteran researchers.

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