Fulbright scholarship takes VCU grad to Australia and the cutting edge of medical research

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Less than a year after her graduation from Virginia Commonwealth University, Laura Hayward is filling Eppendorf tubes with DNA and centrifuges with tubes in a lab down under.

The 23-year-old is looking for a way to make life-saving treatments accessible to everyone. By manipulating and sequencing DNA, she hopes to improve the tools doctors use to diagnose and treat patients with cancer or other diseases.

She doesn’t yet know all of the answers to make her experiment a success, but this only motivates her.

Hayward used to fear what she didn’t know.

And when she came to VCU as a freshman in 2010, she didn’t know what she wanted to do with the rest of her life.

So, she started asking questions. No matter what she didn’t understand or how much temporary embarrassment it brought, she kept asking questions.

That simple tactic took Hayward from confusion to clarity, from the classroom to the laboratory, and from Richmond to Brisbane, Australia, where the Fulbright scholar is working to fashion technology in an effort to improve personalized medicine.

“This has definitely been a life-changing experience,” said Hayward, a 2014 graduate of the Department of Chemical and Life Science Engineering, part of the School of Engineering. “I have grown as an individual and been able to explore a part of the world that seemed too out of reach.”

From student to scholar

Hayward is one of several recent VCU graduates who received Fulbright scholarships to conduct research abroad in their respective fields.

The grants allow students in fields ranging from science to the arts to tackle projects around the world and experience other cultures.

Hayward arrived in Australia last August. She is working in the lab of Matt Trau, Ph.D., professor and deputy director of the Australian Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology at the University of Queensland.

Hayward initially had big ideas for her Fulbright research. But because her fellowship lasts only 10 months and science is not that quick to produce Eureka moments, she has been concentrating on a more feasible, but no less important, project.

She is investigating ways to improve the bead technology used in next-generation DNA sequencing machines.

In sequencing, fragments of DNA are attached to tiny beads and become amplified. The beads are placed into wells in a sequencing machine. Molecules are then added to the wells, releasing protons and changing the pH, or hydrogen ion concentration, of the wells’ contents.

The chemical reaction that takes place allows scientists to analyze genes and see mutations that could lead to disease.

The beads used in this process already can’t be seen with the naked eye, but Hayward is trying to make the technology work at any size. If the beads can be different sizes, then the sequencing machines can as well, hopefully leading to more affordable equipment all around.

“The hope is that this research will decrease the price of sequencing enough that more patients can afford it and have access to beneficial personalized diagnostics,” Hayward said. “It can potentially prevent individuals from suffering through general and painful treatments.”

Hayward’s original idea for her Fulbright project was similar but much more ambitious. Instead of improving an already existing tool — as in the case of the  beads — she sought to invent a new tool.

Each case of cancer comes with its own biological markers, which can often be used for identifying the presence of and characterizing cancerous cell or tumors. Researchers use detection devices, or probes, to find and measure these biomarkers.

Researchers currently use probes created from stiff, unyielding materials such as gold and silica nanoparticles or tiny crystals called quantum dots.

DNA, on the other hand, is more flexible and can be controlled and manipulated at the molecular level. A probe made from DNA to locate one biomarker could even be remodeled to target a different marker altogether.

This versatility would allow physicians to tailor cancer diagnostics and treatments to each individual patient’s genetic situation.

Cancer manifests differently within each person. I believe that personalized medicine will revolutionize health care...

“Cancer manifests differently within each person,” Hayward said. “I believe that personalized medicine will revolutionize health care, because it attacks cancers with the characteristics that make them so deadly, using specific, adaptive strategies to diagnose specific, adaptive cancers.”

In Hayward’s initial proposed experiment, she would create a DNA probe to target a protein on the surface of cancerous cells called epidermal growth factor receptor, or EGFR. She would design the probe so that it would recognize the target in the same way a key fits in a lock.

To do this, she would have folded long strands of DNA molecules into shape and used smaller pieces of DNA as staples to keep the desired form. It’s a practice researchers call “DNA origami.”

The probe also would have included a mechanism that would flash fluorescent to make it easier to see during testing.

“Unfortunately, the nature of science and Murphy’s law prevents anything from working the first time or even the 10th time,” Hayward said.

And given the time constraints, it made more sense to change her project.

Out and about down under

Hayward’s explorations haven’t been confined to the lab.

She has made the most of her time in Australia, visiting beaches, snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef and scaling mountains. She skipped sleep one night to climb nearly 4,000 feet to the peak of Mount Warning to catch the sunrise.

She has visited the Opera House in Sydney, gone tree surfing in Melbourne and plans to travel even more before she returns to Virginia in June.

“Apart from the heat and humidity, Australia is a magical place,” she said.

Hayward admits that she pined for winter while reading her friends’ social media posts about the snow back home in Virginia.

“I have been in a never-ending summer starting last August,” she said. “It was a bit odd to spend Christmas day swimming in a pool and lounging in the sun, but in a good way.”

The daughter of a retired Army officer, Hayward grew up with the travel bug. She was born in New York and grew up mostly in Yorktown.

She also has lived in Hawaii, Pennsylvania, Belgium and Saudi Arabia. Her interest in learning about other cultures, along with her research background, made her a perfect fit for the Fulbright program.

She was intrigued when she first heard about the scholarship, but she had no idea how to go about applying.

Help along the way

Like other Fulbright recipients, Hayward worked closely with the VCU Honors College National Scholarship Office, which assists students in every step of the application process. (See information box.)

The National Scholarship Office works with faculty to identify and encourage candidates to apply for the Fulbright, Rhodes and other major scholarships. The office then helps students and faculty through the competitive process.

“There was a point where I almost quit without completing my application,” Hayward said. ”I was writing draft after draft of my personal statement without making any progress.”

She sought input from friends, family and mentors. She brainstormed with anyone and everyone and relied on the staff at the National Scholarship Office for continual guidance.

She also has been backed by her research mentor, Stephen S. Fong, Ph.D., associate professor and associate chair of the Department of Chemical and Life Science Engineering in VCU’s School of Engineering.

“My main role is pretty simple—providing a good research context by providing opportunities and projects,” said Fong, whose lab has produced three Fulbright recipients in the past four years. “Everything else is up to the students.”

Hayward worked in Fong’s lab for two-and-a-half years. She credits her time in his lab as helping her realize that research into improving personalized medicine was her calling.

“I would not be in Australia right now if I had not worked in Dr. Fong’s lab. He has been an incredible mentor,” Hayward said. “With Dr. Fong’s help, I broke down the barriers of self-doubt.”

With Hayward’s help, Fong’s lab published a paper, “Ex Vivo DNA Assembly,” in the journal Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology in October 2013. The paper describes the lab’s success in a genetic engineering method to assemble DNA that saves time and money.

That research led perfectly into Hayward’s work in Australia.

And she hopes her experience in Australia leads perfectly into the next chapter of her life.

Back home and back to school

Hayward hopes to attend medical school starting in August.

She eventually wants to be a pediatric oncologist and work at a research hospital where she can continue her inquiries into improved personalized medicine.

Four years at VCU and her experience in Australia have taught Hayward many lessons she can use in the future. Perhaps the most important is what helped her choose her undergraduate major and put her on the path to medical research in the first place.

Now I’m not afraid to take risks and ask questions that push the currently established boundaries.

“Now I’m not afraid to take risks and ask questions that push the currently established boundaries,” Hayward said. “I have seen how the research conducted in my lab has helped cancer patients, and it just reinforces my belief in the necessity of this technology.”

In addition to her academic and scientific prowess, Fong said it was Hayward’s maturity and integrity that made her a perfect fit for the Fulbright program and has put her on the road to future success.

“She’s well equipped to be part of a new generation of physicians that is trained to utilize recent genetic and nanotechnology advances into medicine,” Fong said.

Feature image at top: Hayward snorkels the Great Barrier Reef.


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