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Laura Hayward (CLSE ’15): Medical discovery, across the world and back

Laura Hayward is working to improve health care — in the lab and in clinical settings.

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Following graduation from the VCU School of Engineering’s Department of Chemical and Life Science Engineering (CLSE) in 2014, Hayward worked for 10 months 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. This experience was supported by a Fulbright scholarship, the highly competitive, merit-based program that funds international educational exchange. Stephen Fong, Ph.D., associate professor and vice chair in CLSE, encouraged her to seek out the Fulbright opportunity.

“The VCU School of Engineering taught me a different way to think,” Hayward said. “It taught me to problem solve by looking for solutions from different angles and perspectives. Because of this, I was not limited in possibilities. I think this is why I sought out the opportunity to do a Fulbright.” Hayward also said that the low student-to-professor ratio in the school, especially in CLSE, allowed her to develop strong relationships with professors and benefit from their advice.

Hayward’s work focused on investigating ways to improve the bead technology used in DNA sequencing machines. DNA sequencers are next-generation scientific instruments that allow researchers to analyze genes and detect mutations associated with disease. The sequencers work with fragments of DNA that are attached to tiny beads, enlarged and then placed into the machine. When molecules are added, a chemical reaction takes place, providing data on genes and disease-friendly mutations. Hayward’s investigations sought ways to make the process feasible under a wider range of conditions and reduce the cost of genetic sequencing.

Hayward turned her attention toward clinical applications when she returned from Australia, working as a medical scribe at Johnston Willis Hospital and the John Randolph Emergency Center. Today she is in VCU’s post-baccalaureate undergraduate certificate in health sciences program and preparing her application for medical school. Hayward said that her desire to work directly with patients grew out of her laboratory experience.

“The lab where I worked in Australia had strong and direct connections with oncologists who relayed the problems and needs of patients in their clinics. I realized there that I did not want to hear that information secondhand. I wanted to have a direct connection with patients so that I can use research as an outlet to come up with creative solutions to their problems,” she said.

She encourages current students to plot their journeys with a sense of the full range of possibilities available to those studying science and engineering.  

“Seek out opportunities that interest you, and if traveling is what you’re interested in, then the Fulbright and other national scholarships are a great way to explore while also building your resume,” she said.