As a young girl, Viviany Taqueti followed her doctor father as he made rounds in the two hospitals he built in the jungles of Brazil. Sitting on the banks of the muddy, mighty Amazon River, Taqueti decided that she wanted to be like him, a person who improves the lives of others and who believes that you can do anything you set your mind to.
Today, she sits near the banks of the Charles River, a petite 25-year-old who just earned her M.D. from Harvard Medical School and who has learned not to think much about the obstacles to becoming a physician, scientist, teacher, and writer — all at once.
“Viviany is a gifted and highly accomplished scholar, holding tremendous promise as a future leader in academic medicine,” says Andrew Lichtman, an associate professor of pathology in whose laboratory she worked. “She gives 100 percent to 10 things at once.” Her father enjoys hearing words like that.
Like her parents and older sister, Taqueti saw the United States as a place of opportunity. That’s what brought the family to Danbury, Conn., when she was 7. None of them spoke English. Private schools were out of reach so Danbury High School would have to do. Taqueti graduated as salutatorian and class vice president in 1998.
“As I grew up, I came to focus on the idea that science would provide a good foundation for medicine,” Taqueti recalls. “It would give me a nice balance between the humanistic brand of medicine my father practiced and the structured scientific brand I would learn in medical school.”
During summers at Harvard she did research ranging from studying the evolution of spider-web-decorating behavior to the role of global chromatin structure and domain regulation in viral-induced expression of human interferon. She graduated summa cum laude in biochemistry in 2002, having made the dean’s list during all terms, winning a John Harvard Scholarship, and achieving membership in the Phi Beta Kappa Society. She also was president and editor in chief of Harvard Science in Review, the College’s oldest science publication.
Taking research to heart
One of the classes Taqueti took, “The Neurobiology of Disease,” was taught by Edward Kravitz, George Packer Berry Professor of Neurobiology. “She asked thoughtful, intelligent questions that went far beyond the information-gathering questions of most other students,” he says. “We allow students to ask questions of patients who participate in the course, and Viviany was careful and sensitive in so doing. She did so exceptionally well that, two years later, I invited her to be our teaching assistant at Harvard Medical School and then to serve as a student assistant in a discussion series for faculty called ‘Seminars in Brain and Behavior.’”
Taqueti applied for and was admitted to the Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology (HST) program, which trains students in both medicine and science.
To take advantage of what HST offered, Taqueti took a year off from medical school and, with support from a Howard Hughes Medical Institute fellowship, she worked in Andrew Lichtman’s laboratory at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. There, she researched ways that the body’s immune system can cause life-threatening damage to the heart. Results of the work were published in the Journal of Immunology. Taqueti was the lead author of the article. She also presented the findings at a national medical meeting.
“She gave an incredibly professional presentation,” Lichtman recalls. “Until I heard it, I assumed that a student would not be able to describe what we did in such an elegant and clear way.
“Viviany also helped me with a textbook and a review article that I was writing, participated in developing lessons for teaching students, and worked with disadvantaged people in the nearby community. I was amazed that she could juggle so many things at once and do all of them superbly.”
The community work mentioned by Lichtman involves the Family Van, a traditional service provided without charge to needy people in poor neighborhoods. “The van helps to overcome monetary and cultural barriers, and to reduce the intimidation and confusion that many people feel in trying to deal with Boston’s massive health care system,” Taqueti explains. “When I heard about it, I had to find time for it.”
Helping people who had or were at risk for heart disease, diabetes, HIV, and obesity, “gave me a way to keep a strong human connection while working in a research lab,” she says. “The people I met there taught me much more than I taught them.”
To show others what goes on in the Family Van and to gain financial support for it, Taqueti put together a book containing photographs she took and experiences that she and others had. That effort was a continuation of her pursuit of writing, a subcareer that includes becoming the first intern at the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine in 2002. “I enjoy writing both focused science reports and general stories that tell the world how science and medicine work,” she says.
Before Commencement, Taqueti sandwiched in a month in Mozambique, where she participated in an effort to conserve a national park (Gorongosa National Park) and to improve health care for the local people. After Commencement, she begins her residency in internal medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, a Harvard affiliate.
What happens after that? “I don’t know,” she says. “But from this fantastic environment there’s no limit to where you could wind up.” Especially when you don’t sweat the obstacles.