When Early College High School student Leéna Boone showed up at Dr. Harry Kestler’s microbiology laboratory at Lorain County Community College during her freshman year of high school and all but demanded a spot in his heralded research class, her physical discomfort and her youth were meaningless in the face of her sheer desire to learn and to contribute.
Now 16, Boone, a Grafton resident, is so much more than a high school junior.
“She’s our little superstar,” says Kestler, professor of microbiology in the Division of Science and Mathematics at LCCC.
And she is an example of how LCCC’s offerings can help propel a motivated student to astonishing heights. In her short academic career, Boone, who first enrolled in LCCC classes through the College Credit Plus program at the age of 12, has already served as president of the school’s student chapter of the American Society for Microbiology (ASM). She has also presented her research on the mechanisms of resistance to HIV infection at national, statewide and local conferences. At the ASM conference in New Orleans in 2017, she was one of the youngest presenters, and she won first place at the Microscopy Society of Northeast Ohio conference in Oberlin last year.
“My dream is to make a difference,” she says. “It’s cliché, but I want to do medical research that leads to advancements and actually helps real people.”
Her own experience with the lasting effects of her accident has taught her the value of such medical advancements.
When Boone was 10 years old, she was sleeping in the backseat of a car driven by her sister on a rainy day. When the car rear-ended another vehicle at high speed, the whiplash broke multiple bones in her nose and face and caused serious nerve damage; the sudden awakening caused post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I almost lost my life,” she says. “It’s affected me a lot, on an emotional level and on a physical level. But one of the things I pride myself on is doing the best I can and working harder to accomplish things other people might not be able to do.”
From a very early age, Boone demonstrated a genuine love of learning. She was always driven to succeed in school and she was especially gifted in language arts. Her mother would bring her 500-page books, and she’d read them, cover to cover in a matter of days.
None of that changed as a result of the accident.
“In all that suffering, Leéna never stopped being that academic superstar,” says her mother, Renee Boone. “Her grades never slipped. It was amazing. As an adult, I couldn’t imagine being in that much pain, yet excelling so much at what she was doing. It was what drove her.”
When Renee Boone learned about College Credit Plus, a state-funded program that allows students in grades 7 to 12 to begin their collegiate pathway before finishing high school, she knew it would appeal to her daughter who, without hesitation, told her mother, “Sign me up!”
There were logistical challenges with the commute from Grafton to LCCC. And taking a full day of seventh- and eighth- grade classes, followed by evening classes at LCCC, was exhausting, given her medical difficulties. But Boone, a first-generation college student and one of seven children in her family, relished the opportunity.
“She pushed herself and did beautifully,” her mother says. “And when she got a letter about entering Early College High School, it was a no-brainer.”
When Boone entered high school, she enrolled in LCCC’s Early College High School program to continue earning college credits toward an associate degree. During the fall semester of her freshman year, looking for a productive way to pass the time in a study hall period, Boone was challenged by her science teacher, Mark Jaworski, to do an outline of a biology textbook.
She outlined 16 chapters in a single week.
“I wrote so much,” she says, “that I actually sprained my wrist.”
Prior to that, Boone had assumed English would be her study area of emphasis, but she began to find herself drawn to science.
“It was like a light switched on for her,” her mother says. “It was like she found home.”
Impressed with Boone’s work, Jaworksi recommended she ask to be admitted into Kestler’s LCCC research class, which includes a diverse group of about 25 high school, traditional college, post-baccalaureate and medical students.
“She just came and said, ‘I’m here, and you’re not getting rid of me,’” says Kestler. “I would never say no to anybody who had that much determination. That was the youngest person that I ever took in, and I’m not at all regretful about that decision.”
Boone has wowed Kestler and her research peers not just with her knowledge but her poise, organizational skills and her eagerness to push herself. Kestler is a renowned figure in the world of AIDS research — he has been credited with creating the first live attenuated vaccine for AIDS — and Boone, following his lead, has made finding a cure for HIV her ambition. She currently leads a team of students researching a particular receptor in HIV detection.
Boone is typically the first to volunteer to stand before a group of strangers and present the research group’s findings. That’s how she ended up representing LCCC at the American Society of Microbiology conference, where she held her own among college-age presenters from universities such as Harvard and Berkeley. And this year, she was selected to present her entire lab’s research at the ASM’s international meeting of microbial scientists in San Francisco.
“I believe she is headed in directions that will astound us all,” says Kestler.
Looking to the future
Boone has come so far already, but a recent improvement in her medical situation provides the potential for an even brighter future.
Her only option previously for managing her strength-sapping soreness was energy drinks and over-the-counter ibuprofen. But when she turned 16, she was able to begin exploring other solutions. In January, she had a procedure done through University Hospitals that essentially reset her nervous system. For the first time since the car accident, she is no longer experiencing chronic pain.
For her, the years since the accident have reinforced the value of the medical research she is doing at LCCC. And for those who have tracked her academic progress, the recent improvement in her condition invites considerable optimism for what lies ahead.
“Look how far she came with that pain,” her mother says. “Without that barrier, you can imagine so much more.”
Already, Boone has advanced further in her education than any previous generation of her family, so her expected graduation from Early College High School in spring 2020 will be a major cause for celebration. But she is dreaming big, both in her research project and in her academic goals. She plans to apply to Ivy League schools and Case Western Reserve University, among others.
“All the time I’ve spent in the lab has changed the course of my life,” she says. “I couldn’t even imagine my life without this experience. It has basically changed what I want to do, the experience I have, and how far I want to go.”