Senior Completes Two Theses on Women’s Health, Plans to Work in Medical Equity After Graduation

Grace Keegan standing in front of a door

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Biology of Global Health and Spanish double major Grace Keegan (C’21) is an unstoppable force. In addition to completing two theses that focus on women’s health, the senior has been an advocate for health equity on and off Georgetown’s campus. She plans to continue to work in this field after earning her medical degree from University of Chicago. 

The Evolution of Mentoring

When she first came to Georgetown, Keegan enrolled in the Foundations of Biology course taught by Manus Patten. After visiting his office hours, Keegan found that she and Patten shared similar interests in theoretical evolutionary biology.  

She stayed in touch with the professor throughout her first and second year on the Hilltop, eventually joining the Patten Lab at the end of her sophomore year to study selfish genetic elements.

In their research paper that will be published this summer, Keegan and Patten discuss a hormone called hCG, the molecule that signifies pregnancy in pregnancy tests, as a selfish genetic element. 

Keegan says that though this research is theoretical, she enjoys that she and Patten are helping to develop our understanding of evolutionary processes and that “it pays tribute to all of the central advancements that Darwin and other evolutionary biologists made to describe these processes behind the progression of life.” 

“It also challenges previously accepted truths about evolution and gene development,” says Keegan. “Our work is expanding upon that knowledge to better understand that there’s more going on to these biological processes than we might have originally thought, and that by improving our understanding of human evolution we can better understand health and medicine.”

In addition to working on her research publication with Patten, Keegan also serves as a teaching assistant for his Foundations of Biology class. She says that work with the professor during her time at Georgetown has shaped her experience as a student and researcher. 

“Dr. Patten has been so important to my time at Georgetown,” she explains. “Over four years, he has helped me identify and develop my interests and connected me with opportunities to explore a future in academia. I also appreciate that he has been invested in me as a person and has been incredibly understanding about stressors in my life outside of class and research.”

Patten, who teaches several biology and programming courses at the university, says Keegan’s talent and work ethic were apparent from when the senior first stepped on campus.

“Distinguishing oneself at Georgetown particularly in the biology department is not easy, but I can say with confidence that I have not known anyone in that time as smart or as dedicated as Grace,” he says. “She has been my student, my advisee, my teaching assistant, and my research mentee across the last four years, and I feel fortunate that my job has brought me together with someone so impressive.” 

A Pair of Publications

Alongside her work with Patten, Keegan also serves as a teaching assistant to Anne Rosenwald, a professor in the biology department. Rosenwald has been a mentor to Keegan throughout her research on campus, including her second thesis with oncology professor Priscilla Furth on breast cancer which will be finished later this year and contribute to future publications by the Furth Lab on which Keegan will be listed as co-author. 

Keegan began working in a breast cancer lab in her hometown of Chicago, later joining Furth’s lab in the Lombardi Cancer Center where she began studying genes related to breast cancer development in aging mice as a model for breast cancer in post-menopausal women. Specifically, they are driving breast cancer by upregulating two genes in order to identify other genes that might be indicative of cancer or could be used for gene therapy. 

Furth says that Keegan is “a natural researcher.”

“Grace tackles analytical challenges with curiosity, adaptability, logic and straight forward thinking that reduces complicated questions to more easily handled conceptual breakthroughs,” she explains. “Her work on breast cancer risk in my laboratory helps bridge the translational divide between genetically engineered mouse models and human disease.”

A Passion Past Research

Though she did not intend to focus on women’s health when she started at Georgetown, Keegan says that she realized that this was not only the focus of her research in her labs, but in her extracurricular activities as well. 

During her junior year, Keegan worked with Dr. Christopher King, chair of the Department of Health Systems Administration and a leader in health care disparities research in Washington, DC. This resulted in her co-authoring the article “Health Disparities in the Black Community: An Imperative for Racial Equity in DC,” which offers recommendations to healthcare organizations, medical services, and lawmakers in D.C. to help reduce these disparities.

She also played an important role in the founding of the Georgetown University Students for Health and Medical Equity (GUSHME) her freshman year and was elected president her sophomore year. As the current president, Keegan oversees the club’s mission to educate and advocate for the expansion of health equity while engaging in service projects that address the socioeconomic determinants of health in the DC community. 

The group has brought fresh produce to food deserts, provided legal counsel to patients at a free medical clinic, outfitted a mobile cancer screening van and delivered hygiene kits to high school students in Wards 7 and 8 of DC.  

Keegan has also worked as an exam room coordinator, medical interpreter and diabetes educator in the Arlington Free clinic since her first year, which she says give her “the opportunity to play an active role in helping vulnerable populations obtain the basic need of health care while motivating me to continue this work in my future.”

Rosenwald says that she knows Keegan will continue to go far in her work towards making health care more equitable.

“Grace is extremely talented, and succeeds in whatever she turns her hand to,” she says. “How she has time for all she does is incredible, yet she’s always calm and smiling. She has a deep desire and a specific plan to effect change for healthcare access and equity. It’s a big problem, but Grace has the drive and passion to carry out her plan.”