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Nursing doctoral student Kayla Jones was a volunteer long before arriving on Rocky Top for classes this fall.

Jones began volunteering at the Norton’s Children’s Hospital in Louisville, Kentucky—two hours away from her hometown in Columbia—when she was in grade school. Touched by some of the young patients she met, she began raising money to fight pediatric cancer. She even wrote a young adult novel about a girl fighting cancer to help in raising funds for pediatric oncology.

Now Jones is taking her desire to help young cancer patients a step further: she is beginning a doctoral program in the College of Nursing with the goal of doing research that will improve cancer treatments. 

“I began this journey when I was only in the sixth grade. I felt that I was supposed to give my birthday money to take and purchase gifts for children battling cancer at our local children’s hospital. After this, it was a never-ending cycle of scheming up how I could do more and more for these kids that I met who inspired me so much.”

In 2013, after several years of volunteering at the hospital, Jones—then only a sophomore in high school—created Kayla’s Rise Above Cancer Fund to raise money to create a more comfortable environment for young patients. With some of the donations, Jones was able to assist in the renovation of the oncology unit at Norton’s Children’s Hospital to help children feel more at home. “I feel like the atmosphere that a child is in every single day, especially with cancer, is important,” said Jones.

Jones signing a book from her launch and fundraising event in 2015 that raised over $10,000
Jones signing a book from her launch and fundraising event in 2015 that raised over $10,000

Over the years, she has raised more than $40,000 for Norton’s Children’s Hospital. 

In 2015, Jones combined her love for writing and her desire to raise money to fight pediatric cancer by penning Kadee’s Hope: A Family’s Fight Against Childhood Cancer, a young adult novel about a girl finding strength in her family and faith as she battles cancer. The book was named an INDIES Book of the Year, an award for independently published books. 

For her efforts, Jones was named Children’s Hospital Foundation Young Philanthropist of the Year in 2015 and Young Philanthropist of the Year by the Greater Louisville Chapter Association of Fundraising Professionals in 2016.

Jones recently graduated from Lindsey Wilson College in Columbia, Kentucky, with a bachelor’s degree in nursing and minor in women’s studies. Her degree, coupled with experience working as a pharmacy technician, patient care technician, and nurse ex-tern, has helped her develop a deeper understanding of health care. 

A child that receives treatment at Norton's Children's Hospital from Kayla's town
A child that receives treatment at Norton’s Children’s Hospital from Kayla’s town

“My goal is to focus more solely on research and finding ways to give children an easier life,” Jones said. “People think that once a child is given the treatment they need that they will be better, but in reality, that’s not true. Children still have doctors’ visits and monthly checkups, all the while they and their parents still have to fear for the cancer to come back. I want to push for better treatments—which is why I find research to be important, as it is always evolving.”

Jones applied to several PhD programs, but felt that UT was the perfect fit.

“I wanted to attend somewhere that would cater to my specific research interests of pediatric oncology. The first person I was connected to was Nursing Professor Sandra Thomas. From the beginning, she was prompt in responding, considerate, and she answered all the questions I had. Her whole demeanor was welcoming, and she provided me with in-depth information about what I would expect in the program. She also introduced me to Associate Professor Lisa Lindley’s research on pediatric end-of-life care, which is related to the specific interest I have in pediatric oncology research.”

Jumping right into a doctoral program after completing your bachelor’s degree can be intimidating, but Thomas is confident that Jones is ready.

“Kayla already knew as a teenager that she wanted to make a difference in the care of cancer patients—-not necessarily by giving them direct care but by discovering new ways to improve their care through scientific research,” she said. “Her passion was already evident in her extensive volunteer work and fundraising for cancer patients. I envision a long and successful career trajectory for Kayla after she completes the PhD program.”

Jones is the recipient of a J. Wallace and Katie Dean Graduate Fellowship from UT’s Graduate School.


Alexa Neff (

Amy Blakely (, 865-974-5034)