Student & Faculty Research

A Person of Action

Meet Lauren Williams, a future doctor and Elmhurst’s fifth Fulbright Scholar. She’s in Thailand teaching English and creating artwork to promote HIV prevention.

Even as a kindergartner, Lauren Williams wanted to be a doctor. She showed up at a career day event wearing a lab coat and a stethoscope. At the same time, she had inklings that she might become an artist, so she also wore a black beret and brought along a palette.

Williams continued to straddle the sciences and the arts as an outstanding undergraduate at Elmhurst College. She majored in biology with minors in chemistry and art. She produced provocative paintings that hang in faculty offices in the Schaible Science Center and elsewhere on campus.

She graduated in May, and in October she flew to Bangkok, where she will receive four weeks of intensive language training and cultural orientation before she begins teaching English to secondary school students and completes a yearlong art project in Thailand as a Fulbright Scholar. Her Fulbright Teaching Assistant award includes funding to spend 20 hours a week creating paintings that will highlight HIV prevention for teenagers, the group at highest risk for the disease in Thailand. The paintings will be donated to UNAIDS, a group that promotes HIV prevention and care.

Administered by the U.S. Department of State, the Fulbright program is one of the nation’s most prestigious academic honors. Established to promote cultural understanding, it awards grants for graduate study, advanced research and teaching abroad. Williams is the fifth Elmhurst student to receive a Fulbright award, and the third in the past four years. The College’s recent success is the result of a concentrated effort to offer dedicated advising to help top honors students compete for nationally competitive scholarships and fellowships, according to Professor Mary Kay Mulvaney, director of the Honors Program.

While at Elmhurst, Williams visited Europe for an in-depth look at health systems there. She also spent a term doing field work in Australia that included living in the bush among Aborigines. Upon her return from Thailand, she plans to attend medical school, then practice medicine in her hometown of Fairfield, Illinois, about 275 miles south of Elmhurst.

Giving back to the community
Fairfield Memorial Hospital, a 54-bed facility serving a farm region, offered to pay her medical school costs if she would return to practice there. Williams said she looks forward to serving the town, which has a population of about 5,000. “I think that it is a career in which I could utilize my creativity and innovation rooted in the arts, but at the same time stay focused in a field I love, the sciences,” she said. “I’d also be giving back to the community that played such an instrumental role in my development. I really like the small-town culture and the people.”

Williams took her first art class at Elmhurst, and didn’t start painting until she was a soph-
omore. One of her paintings hangs in the campus office of Katrina Sifferd, an assistant professor of philosophy. Sifferd recalled that Williams sparked spirited discussion in her introductory philosophy class while respecting the opinions of others. “She has a friendly, unassuming, yet sharp-as-a-tack demeanor, which is what you would want in a medical professional,” said Sifferd. “She is easy to talk with and gives very straight answers.”

Early on at Elmhurst, Williams’ drive and ambition impressed Frank Mittermeyer, a professor of biology and the director of the Patterson Center for the Health Professions. As a freshman, Williams talked her way into Mittermeyer’s junior-level course on comparative health care systems, which enabled her to travel with the class to Europe during the summer of 2008. “She’s not just a thinker or a dreamer. She’s a person of action,” Mittermeyer said. “Lauren wanted to go to Europe, and it took gumption for her to make it happen. She’s got passion not only for medicine but also for art. She’s a very strong person. If she keeps going down this path, she’s going to be a great physician.”

For two years, Williams worked with her academic advisor, Stacey Raimondi, an assistant professor of biology, on Raimondi’s research that focuses on what triggers the aggressive growth of breast cancer cells. “What she has been doing here is what she would do at a major research institution,” Raimondi said. The professor, who has a Williams painting in her office, predicts the Fulbright award and her previous international travel will sharpen Williams’ skills as a doctor. “Those experiences will help her relate to her patients,” Raimondi said. “She’ll have  to deal with different kinds of people with different backgrounds.”
Mittermeyer’s assessment went further. “I think she could be a leader in health care, someone who is innovative in the delivery of health care service. I think people like her will help us get out of the mess we’re in now and improve health care in our country.” Williams herself projects a more modest outlook. “I just want to be in a career that is constantly evolving and thus forcing me to adapt,” she said. “I’m not concerned with leaving my mark on mankind. I just want to be in a job that I love and that positively impacts the community around me.”

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