As a child, Heather Ward watched how her dental hygienist mother cared for her patients, and became intent on one day having her own.
By the time she was at Duke University’s medical school, Ward was dedicated to working with patients who had mental illness, including on the landmark EAGLES trial, which showed it was safe for providers to help people with schizophrenia quit smoking.
During her residency at Harvard Medical School’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital, she found herself again digging into the high prevalence of smoking among people with schizophrenia (over 60%, three times the rate in the general population). She showed so much promise that she was named the first chief resident of research in her department.
“This sort of career path is not for everyone, but for Heather it is a natural fit,” said Katherine Burdick, vice chair of research in the hospital’s psychiatry department and a mentor to Ward.
Colleagues often describe Ward using the same word: “tenacity.” During a prove-yourself period for a young scientist, Ward conducted research and saw patients in a pandemic — while pregnant. She landed her current role as a research fellow at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center because she walked up to research mentor Roscoe Brady at a talk he was giving on smoking and schizophrenia, and told him, “this is it,” he recalled.
Brady and collaborator Mark Halko, a McLean Hospital neuroscientist, watched as Ward “picked up the ball and absolutely ran with it.” Not long after joining the lab, she pitched a new approach to an old question: What if brain imaging could help them figure out how smoking might alleviate schizophrenia symptoms and improve cognitive function? And what if they used non-invasive brain stimulation to replicate those effects?
Now is the time — thanks to advances in neuroimaging, interest in alternative smoking cessation therapies, and abundant Harvard resources — for Ward, “fearless” and “hungry,” to pursue the idea.
— Isabella Cueto