A beautiful DeMarini bat is what senior biology major Courtney Howard remembers most about childhood softball tournaments with her dad. They would wander through the tournament in between her games and inevitably wind up staring at the most stunning $300 bat she had ever seen. Her dad always wanted to buy it for her, but the price tag was a little steep.
Certain things should never be required of anyone. One of them is burying your dad when you’re in high school. Howard knows firsthand the gut-wrenching and raw pain that brings. She remembers with brilliant clarity the conversations she had with her dad while he was fighting melanoma skin cancer – saying goodbye to him, anticipating life without him – and she’s determined to spend her life fighting the disease that took him from her.
“No one should have to go through what my family went through,” she says. “I want to be able to give people three more months with their family, three more years, 30 more years.”
Howard has a passion for biology that developed from the loss she experienced as a teenager. This summer, she’ll take her first big steps toward a career in cancer research through an internship at Oregon Health & Science University’s neurology research center at Doernbecher Children’s Hospital. She’ll work under Dr. Stephanie Krasnow in the Daniel Marks Lab, which is focused on cachexia – a condition that occurs when the body begins wasting away in preparation for death during terminal illness due to skyrocketing metabolism.
She will spend much of her time in the lab performing in vivo studies with mice and rat colonies. She’ll also conduct in vitro studies, examining cells extracted from these colonies in cultures. Howard says she will likely implant the colonies with the virus and study their sleep habits to determine abnormal behavior, which could mean some all-night observations in the lab. She laughingly recalls telling Dr. Krasnow during her interview that late nights are not an issue for a college student.
Following her internship, Howard will finish her senior year, and after graduation she hopes to begin working as a laboratory assistant before going back to school for her PhD in molecular biology.
The opportunity to intern at Doernbecher arose during the fall 2014 semester when her neurology class, led by professor Jim Smart, took a field trip to hear a presentation from Dr. Krasnow. Following their visit, Howard contacted Krasnow about a summer internship while she and her Bruin softball teammates were on a road trip in Texas, and she quickly had her interview set up for the following week.
Though Howard is steadfast in her aspirations for a career in cancer research, she was far from convinced during her first years in college.
“I want to be able to give people three more months with their family, three more years, 30 more years.”
“I wasn’t sure I wanted to stick with biology when I first came to George Fox,” she recalls. “I didn’t want to work with tapeworms or other creatures like we were doing in my early biology classes; I wanted to understand organisms on a microscopic level. I started thinking about changing my major to journalism, but then I took a genetics class and everything changed. I fell back in love with biology inside of that classroom.”
What she did always know for certain was that she belonged on the softball diamond. Many of Howard’s earliest memories were made on the baseball field watching her dad play. He had a short-lived career playing semi-professional baseball and instilled the same love of the sport in Courtney and her sister. After he passed away, the softball field is where she felt her closest connection to him. While her sister gravitated toward pitching, Courtney naturally found herself on the other side of home plate in catcher’s gear.
“He never had the chance to see me start as a catcher when I was in high school or to see me play in college. I remember I was having a terrible at-bat recently, and I was so frustrated. I looked up and I saw a number nine in the clouds, which was my dad’s number,” she says, smiling. “I know he has the best seat in the house now.”
Howard’s dad was diagnosed with melanoma when she was 14 years old. After an intense round of treatment, he beat it and went into remission. A few months later, it came back and spread so devastatingly throughout his body that her family was faced with the decision of treating it or letting him live the rest of his days peacefully without chemotherapy and radiation.
“I watched my dad – my superman – get sick and tired and weak,” she says. “There wasn’t a good treatment option once his cancer metastasized, so we decided not to treat it to allow him to have the best quality of life.”
He passed away several months later, forever altering the lives of those he left behind.
“That was when I realized that I needed a different kind of Jesus than the one I thought I knew my whole life,” Howard says. “I needed someone who wasn’t going to get ripped away from me.” She started spending time with some Christian mentors at her high school, became more involved at her church, and then made the decision to attend George Fox University, in large part so she could continue growing in her faith.
“Before my dad passed away, he bought me the DeMarini bat we’d both been coveting since I was a little girl,” Howard recalls. “He had my stepmom deliver it to me on the softball field after he was gone. He bought all of us necklaces that say ‘I’ll be in your heart.’” He had the opportunity to say goodbye to us, and we had the opportunity to say goodbye to him.”
Howard knows that having to say goodbye to your dad when you’re 15 years old isn’t fair. It isn’t fair for anyone to lose someone they love to cancer, and she’s determined to fight this disease so other families don’t have to experience what hers did. “I feel like the doors are opening to this career path I’ve been hoping for,” she says. “It’s so exciting to see things falling into place, and I can’t wait to see where it leads.”