After Fighting Cancer, Havens Uses Medicine to Serve Others

lauren havens

Everything does not happen for a reason. Lauren Havens, MCAS ’18, has stood behind that belief throughout her time at Boston College.

Havens was just 16 years old when she was diagnosed with spitzoid melanoma, a rare form of adolescent cancer. The diagnosis, which ultimately kept her out of school for about two months, was initially devastating. The stressful wave of AP classes, SAT scores, and college decisions looming on the horizon had seemed like the biggest problem in her life, but now she was faced with this new challenge. But she faced it head on, and with treatment the cancer went into remission. Even though some side effects still linger, she believes they her of her purpose. While she was accepted to BC and continued on her academic path as she would have before, her life was permanently altered by the experience.

Most importantly, it gave her a different perspective and enhanced her understanding of how precious life is. Her doctor’s appointments, including one with an oncologist every six months, remain a constant reminder of how quickly everything can change.

“Why not take advantage of all of these opportunities because what do I have to lose?” Havens said.

After going through treatment, Lauren knows what it means to struggle. Throughout her treatment, she was constantly supported by the doctors and medical professionals who cared for her. She was inspired by their medical expertise and skill, but more so by how they treated her while she was going through that difficult and frightening time.

“The experience of my doctors really caring about me as a person gave me direction,” Havens said.

Fast forward about six years and countless hours of hard work later, Havens is continuing to take advantage of each opportunity as a senior here at BC.

She recently received an American Society of Microbiology Undergraduate Research Fellowship BC grant for $4,000 through one of the largest organizations of microbiology in the United States, the American Society of Microbiology (ASM). This is the latest achievement in her years of pursuing scientific research. Since the beginning of her sophomore year, she has worked under professor Tim van Opijnen, an associate professor in the biology department. She studies how strep viruses attach to nasal cells. By characterizing around 33 strains of the strep virus, they can identify virulence factors that will allow them to find out how to develop new, stronger antibiotics. Soon, she plans to delve into how the virus affects cells in the lungs.

“She has a lot of energy and I have helped her in the experience but I also know that I can count on her to help me,” said Federico Rosconi, a postdoctoral fellow and Havens’s mentor in the lab.

As part of the fellowship, she will be attending ASM’s 2018 Microbe Academy for Professional Development from June 7 to 11 in Atlanta, where she will present her research.

Getting to this success has been a long, arduous process for Havens. It began the spring semester of her junior year. Her days consisted of poring over research papers and journals in the hope of gathering more information on the nature of the cells coupled with careful scrutiny of their behavior. Carefully using a genetic identification method called transposon sequencing to determine the presence and absence of genes in a genome, she hoped to learn what had made certain strep strains resistant to antibiotics. If she could pinpoint an answer, she’d be one step closer to combatting these resistant strains. Havens and her fellow researchers found themselves frequently frustrated by the intricacies of the process. Just when they thought their efforts were finally paying off, the cells would surprise them and force them to rethink their whole process.

“Science is a lot of failure before you get a success,” Havens said.

But now, with the new grant money and her success in the research thus far, she is closing in on her goals and continuing to develop new ideas and solutions. Her motivation for this research goes far beyond simple success and achievement. In many ways, it goes back to those doctors who helped her make it through her sickness. She doesn’t just want to research for the sake of researching, she wants to give back. At BC, she’s made every effort to use her medical research interests to serve others. During her sophomore year, she went to Chiapas, Mexico, as a part of the Arrupe Service Immersion program where she had time to interact and listen to locals from the community and hear their stories.

“I think that human interaction is so important and a lot of times people are so focused on getting all of those things that you are supposed to be getting that a lot of times the genuine human interaction is really downplayed,” Havens said.

Lauren has been an active member of GlobeMed on campus since her freshman year. She’s valued her time leading small groups in discussions on global health issues. GlobeMed has enhanced her interest in advocacy, global health equity, and sustainable development and a previous grant from GlobeMed National was what allowed her to travel to India where she worked with an OBGYN who ran a clinic on Sundays that focused on rural development and health outcomes such as education, poverty levels, and access to clean water.

“These experiences were so crucial to communicating information to each other and establishing trust as foreigners,” Havens said.

Havens described a particular instance during the trip when she witnessed Mahila Mandal, a gathering in India where respected women in the community are able to share their experiences and influence others in their discussions about hygiene, health, and gender discrimination issues.

Havens, who attended one almost everyday during her trip to India this past summer before her senior year, was able to learn how methods in India are being used to make women agents of their own change. All of these experiences with service have enhanced her understanding of the human element in medicine and affirmed her commitment to helping others through her research. 

Her summer experience in India showed her which populations she wants to work with in the future. Before traveling, she was told that the antibiotic resistance in India was so severe that she couldn’t take certain antibiotics since they would not have any effect. Lower- to middle-income countries are hit the hardest by antibiotic resistance because they can’t afford the necessary medications until it is already too late to implement them.

“This opened my eyes to the excitement of doing scientific research and providing the backbone that doctors rely on,” Havens said.

She sees the problem as something that can be fixed, and not just something to be sad about. Combating antibiotic-resistant diseases and figuring out ways to get the necessary medicine to impoverished areas is an ambitious goal that would affect many lives.

Havens dreams of becoming a doctor—she’s especially interested in public health and sustainability in working with the homeless and refugee populations with a specific focus on women’s health. She’s interested in pursuing clinical research and said that working at Boston Health Care with Homeless patients was particularly influential in this realization.

“Women’s health cuts at the intersection of other groups because when you are looking at women’s health you also have to acknowledge the LGBTQ population and how that intersects with access to health and quality care,” Havens said.

She has taken this interest to every aspect of her work and continues to bring together her wider-ranging interests in medicine, service, and international aid together.

“I was really impressed with her ability to connect the intersections across really all her course work,” said Kristin Heyer, a theology professor who has taught and mentored Havens.

It is this authentic desire for change fueled by her own personal life experiences and passion for social justice that distinguishes Havens from others in her highly competitive field.

“I’m not in it for the prestige,” Havens said,” Most times community doctors are not paid as highly as other doctors but that’s not really what I’m after anyways so I don’t really care so much.”

Featured Image by Sam Zhai / Heights Staff