Laura Avena ’14 is a cancer survivor from age 4, an accomplished volleyball athlete, and an internationally competitive chemistry student. It’s a path forged through blood, sweat and tears.
Avena comes from Cesis, a small, medieval town about 90 km from Riga, the Latvian capital. When she became old enough to enter school, her doctors insisted she be excused from physical education. But her parents would have none of such limitations and signed her up for volleyball. When doctors forbade her to participate in intramural contests, “My dad just said, ‘Fine, who cares? You will still participate in national tournaments!’”
A bout with leukemia inspired an initial interest in oncology, but by ninth grade Avena had fallen in love with chemistry. “I started reading chemistry books almost as novels. Whenever I had free time, I went to the laboratory, did experiments, or solved more problems.”
By 2009 she was competing on three national teams—two beach volleyball teams and Latvia’s national team for the International Chemistry Olympiad in Cambridge, England. It made for a grueling schedule. “Someone was constantly yelling at me, because if I went to a practice, I missed a lab or lecture. If I went there, I got hard conditioning for missing a practice.” That year she and her volleyball teammate competed in the European and World competitions, once losing only to the gold and silver medal-winners.
By this time, both chemistry professor Ron Brisbois and then-volleyball head coach Steph Schleuder had begun recruiting Avena to Macalester. “I am very pleased for the college and the Chemistry Department that the email messages Laura and I traded over almost two years helped persuade her that she could have a balance between athletics and academics at Macalester,” says Brisbois. “Laura has demonstrated the kind of enthusiasm for chemistry and physics that I think is inherent with successful, professional scientists.”
“She has that fighter mentality and is not the type to give up on anything, which explains how she has been able to overcome the challenges that have come her way,” says head volleyball coach Annie Doman. “Her competiveness and work ethic are great assets to the volleyball program.”
Avena is majoring in both chemistry and physics and this summer she has held a paid research position working with chemistry professor Paul Fischer.