Bhooma was born to Lakshmi and Rajagopalan Aravamuthan, just in time to be acknowledged in her father’s PhD thesis. Her mother is a talented painter and musician, with her artistic talents displayed in national forums in India. Her father, after growing up without running water, spent 25+ years as an endowed chemical engineering professor before retiring this year. She is a product of their love, grit, and determination to succeed.
Bhooma was broadly interested in neuroscience from a young age, but that passion crystallized as an undergraduate when she learned that her uncle had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. She began looking for labs doing translational research in Parkinson’s disease and found one at Oxford. While applying for MD/PhD programs she, on a lark, applied for a prestigious George C. Marshall scholarship to fund a research degree at Oxford. When she was awarded the Marshall Scholarship, both the NIH and Washington University in St. Louis (WashU) graciously funded a somewhat unorthodox training program: Bhooma did her DPhil (Oxford’s terminology for PhD) in the labs of Tipu Aziz at Oxford and Judie Walters at NIH. She then did her MD in St. Louis as a part of WashU’s Medical Scientist Training Program. To this day, she continues to take a deep breath before beginning to explain her training pathway to others.
During her DPhil, Bhooma began combining human subjects and animal model-based research to answer clinically relevant questions about neurologic disease – an approach that is evident in her current work. Using diffusion tensor imaging under the guidance of Heidi Johansen-Berg at Oxford, she demonstrated the ability to trace anatomically relevant connections from the subthalamic and pedunculopontine nuclei in the human brain. She subsequently studied the spike-timing relationships between these nuclei and the motor cortex in the parkinsonian rat brain under Dr. Walters’ guidance at the NIH. She combined these data in her thesis to hypothesize ideal deep brain stimulation targets and stimulation frequencies for people with Parkinson’s disease.
She continued her study of pedunculopontine nucleus electrophysiology while obtaining her MD at WashU, recording from awake macaques during vestibular perturbations in Dora Angelaki’s lab. She used this experience to consider the role of the pedunculopontine nucleus in falls in people with Parkinson’s disease, bask in the advice and guidance of yet another strong woman mentor, and definitively learn that she never wanted to work with macaques again. Entering the clinical portion of her medical school training, she remained resolute in pursuing a career as an adult movement disorders physician scientist.
However, formative experiences with pediatric neurology changed her mind. Her floor attendings were Doug Larsen and Anne Connolly, both expert clinicians and renowned educators. Doug suggested that she shadow Jan Brunstrom in the Cerebral Palsy Center and Anne suggested she meet Mike Noetzel at Pediatric Rehabilitation Rounds. After working with kids with cerebral palsy (CP) and their families repeatedly during her intern year, Bhooma committed herself to a career focused on understanding movement disorders in people with CP. Eager to learn about the effect on basal ganglia circuitry following hypoxic-ischemic injury to the developing brain, she joined the lab of Mish Shoykhet as a second year pediatrics resident. She recorded single units in the basal ganglia of young rats following cardiac arrest, intercalating these overnight recording shifts with night shifts in the hospital.
She carried this focus with her to Boston Children’s Hospital where she began her child neurology training. She quickly developed ideas and methods to quantify dystonia in CP. As an NINDS R25 recipient under the mentorship of Seward Rutkove, she optimized electromyography and nerve conduction study analogues of spasticity and dystonia in rodents following neonatal hypoxic-ischemic injury. She used this data to write for the newly re-configured CNCDP-K12 award, then in its second year, which she was awarded. After neurology training and a movement disorders fellowship in Boston, she returned to WashU as faculty in 2018 to join the CP Center that first piqued her interest in the field.
Following this already promising trajectory, Bhooma’s star has meteorically risen. She is now widely regarded as a national expert in dystonia in CP. Her work has been featured in flagship journals including Annals of Neurology, Neurology, and Pediatrics and continues to span human subjects and animal-model based approaches. She methodically elucidates the features clinicians use to diagnose dystonia in people with CP and then uses these features to characterize dystonia in her newly developed mouse models of neonatal brain injury. She uses diverse techniques including machine learning-based pose estimation, chemogenetics, and calcium imaging to dissect the pathophysiology of dystonia in these animal models. In addition to the 2022 Dodge Young Investigator Award, her work garnered her the 2022 American Academy of Neurology Jon Stolk Award in Movement Disorders, the first time this award has been given to a pediatric neurologist. She has presented her work in diverse and illustrious forums including at the recent NINDS/NICHD Workshop on Cerebral Palsy and at a briefing to the United States Congressional Neuroscience Caucus.
Bhooma is also a respected thought leader in the CP field. Her work on CP diagnosis and increased need for neurologist involvement in the care of people with CP has helped ignite renewed interest in CP at CNS. Her scientific leadership is evidenced by her co-chairing the Scientific Planning Committees for CNS and the American Academy of Cerebral Palsy and Developmental Medicine (AACPDM) in 2023, perhaps the first time these positions have been held by the same person across these two societies. As an advocate and member of the AAN Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Anti-racism, and Social Justice (IDEAS) subcommittee, she champions disability rights on behalf of her colleagues and the families she cares for in clinic. Much of her recent work has focused on partnering with people with CP and their caregivers to define the research agenda and to give them a voice as partners in “community driven research.”
In addition to her scientific accolades, Bhooma has already become a supportive mentor for an unprecedented number of undergraduate students, medical students, and clinical fellows, who flock to her burgeoning research group to capture some of her positive energy. With a never-ending list of ideas for new innovative research projects, she sets high expectations for her trainees who have uniformly had highly productive and rewarding research experiences. Her trainees describe her as being “fully dedicated to their success” and “always making time for them, even if it means meeting late at night on Zoom with her adorable kids playing around her.” Clinical trainees also find humor in her obsession with the Queen square reflex hammer, often quoting her famous Twitter rant about it being the little black dress of reflex hammers that never goes out of style.
Bhooma repeatedly begins her talks by stating that dystonia in CP is her “professional love”, but a bio about her would be incomplete without recognition of her personal loves. She often claims that her work-life balance is achieved only because they are, by nature, both intertwined. She is happily married to Dan Weber, an adult epileptologist, and is proud mom to twin sons and a daughter, Singam, Neel, and Andal. Though her children were not born in time to be acknowledged in her doctoral thesis, Bhooma is surely proud to acknowledge them here.