For Lauren Haacke, her undergraduate research into traumatic brain injuries with the Virginia Tech School of Neuroscience is not a major she chose by chance.

It’s personal. Dealing with traumatic brain injury dominated much of her life since a first-year high school cheerleading stunt gone wrong during practice: a fellow cheerleader landed knees first onto Haacke’s temple in February 2013. The injury was “invisible,” but debilitating.

“I was told I’d recover in a couple of weeks, but my symptoms only worsened over the next couple of months,” said Haacke, a senior from Lorton, Virginia, who has earned a bachelor’s degree in experimental neuroscience in the Virginia Tech College of Science.

Haacke suffered short-term memory loss. She had to relearn how to hold conversations. She had to relearn how to read and write again. Noise and light became near unbearable. She was diagnosed with several chronic illnesses, including postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS), which negatively impacts a person’s autonomic nervous system. From March until June 2013, she vomited every day. Before the accident, she was headed toward a pre-med track. After the injury, she wanted to understand brain injuries and the possibility of regenerative cell treatment in the central nervous system.

“The doctors that were treating me were doing the best that they could, but they were guessing,” Haacke said.

Now, seven years later she is graduating from the School of Neuroscience as winner of a Fulbright Scholarship and with the honor of being named the 2020 Virginia Tech Undergraduate of the Year.

“Lauren’s personal experience with traumatic head injury has been motivating her to find answers through research,” said Harald Sontheimer, executive director of the School of Neuroscience, the I.D. Wilson Chair in the College of Science, and director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC’s Center for Glial Biology in Health Disease and Cancer. “She is not only smart and driven, but has an infectious enthusiasm and a magnetic personality through which she inspired people around her.”

Haacke joined Sontheimer’s lab in the fall of 2018 as part of a $2.6 million study to help determine if traumatic brain injuries cause changes within the brain that lead to epilepsy. The three-year study is funded by the nonprofit Citizens United for Research in Epilepsy and the U.S. Department of Defense.

One of her most memorable study-science, do-science moments came when she toured the Roanoke lab of Michael Fox, a professor with the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and also the Department of Biological Sciences in the College of Science. “They have virtual reality technology to conduct analysis on neurons and they were able to count very minute details of dendrites on the cell and [using the VR goggles] you could make the neuron as small as you finger or literally cover the entire wall,” Haacke said. “It was like you were next to that cell and I’ve never experienced anything like that.”

Among her other undergraduate highlights was presenting a research poster at the 2019 Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) Meeting of the Minds Conference at the University of Louisville. Haacke was among six Virginia Tech students to do so, with her poster focusing on protein expressions within the brain during viral infection-induced acute seizures. She also was among the founding class of the Virginia Tech chapter of Nu Rho Psi, the National Honor Society in Neuroscience. Haacke served as treasurer.

Haacke also founded Synapse at Virginia Tech, a nonprofit organization that develops sustainable, community-based support systems for survivors of traumatic brain injuries and their families. Haacke has led the new group in providing social support to survivors and partnered with local health clinics to give Virginia Tech students the opportunity to connect with brain injury patients, said Annie Laib Jenkins, an academic advisor in the School of Neuroscience. “The efforts inform her embrace of the Virginia Tech Ut Prosim motto, launching her leadership capabilities and her quest for continual discovery,” added Jenkins.

Added Kristin Phillips, an assistant professor and director of the School of Neuroscience’s unjdergraduate program, “Lauren is an exceptional student, but it is her compassion and commitment to serving others that defines her. She is the true embodiment of Ut Prosim.”

Lauren Haacke of the Virginia Tech School of Neuroscience poses in a lab coat in the laboratory of Harry Sontheimer

Lauren Haacke of the Virginia Tech School of Neuroscience poses in a lab coat in the laboratory of Harry Sontheimer
Lauren Haacke of the Virginia Tech School of Neuroscience, was working on research related to epilepsy in the lab of Harald Sontheimer of the School of Neuroscience in 2018.

Haacke’s next step is to work with Dr. Radhika Puttagunta at the Rehabilitation Centre for Spinal Cord Injury at Heidelberg University Hospital in Germany, through the Fulbright Scholarship. This residency represents a full circle for Haacke, who was born in Heidelberg on a U.S. Army base where her father was stationed. There, she will help research efforts that would bring the regenerative initiators found in peripheral nerve cells to spinal cord cells, where currently no such regenerative properties exist.

“If we can use the same factors in the body and mimic what happens in peripheral nerves and bridge that gap in the spinal cord, we could see if that repairs the break,” she said, adding that tests will be done on mouse models. (Previous efforts on gecko lizards proved successful.)

Her long-term goal is to earn a Ph.D. in neuroscience from the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences, a Bethesda, Maryland-based federal medical school that specializes in traumatic brain injury.

“It’s such a hot spot for brain injury research, and a lot of the [researchers there] are actually doing brain injury research and working on thre identification and development of regenerative medicines,” Haacke said. “Some people are looking for biomarkers in concussions, and others are looking at memory reformation. To be able to go there would simply be the best.”

Haacke is not fully past her brain injury, which has been complicated by the POTS diagnosis. Symptoms arise daily and without warning.

“I still struggle with chronic migraines and nausea, but being part of the School of Neuroscience motivates me each day,” she said. “And working in the Sontheimer lab and contributing to these amazing research projects as an undergraduate is an achievement I would have never thought possible.”

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