UCLA Spotlight


Joaquim Havens, Genetics

  • By Marisa Osorio, Stuart Wolpert, Cynthia Lee
  • Published Jul 3, 2000 8:00 AM

When Joaquim Havens reflects on the wonderful path his life is on, he credits an unexpected person.

"She's taught me more than I've taught her," he says of his 9-year-old daughter, Madison, who is mentally disabled.

Havens' journey to UCLA was one of struggle, determination and hope. Raised in Los Angeles, Havens worked in his family's boat business and never imagined going to college. At age 21, he was married and living in Greece, scrubbing boat bottoms for a living, when his daughter was born. Within a year, the young father was back in Los Angeles, going from doctor to doctor seeking answers as to why Madison wasn't developing properly. No one could tell him. "It turned into a cause," recalls Havens. "I had exposure to all kinds of physicians—good and bad. Becoming an advocate for Madison, I really saw a need for physicians with a better understanding of genetics."

Determined to learn more about the nature of his daughter's undiagnosed illness, Havens joined the Naval Reserves and trained as a field medic, volunteering at several children's hospitals during his military stint. Gradually, he allowed himself to think of becoming a doctor and enrolled in a community college and later transferred to UCLA.

Havens excelled in his studies, focusing on molecular genetics and in particular on genetic diseases in children. Among other honors, he was one of the first beneficiaries of the Edith and Lew Wasserman Fund for Undergraduate Support, an award that acknowledges extraordinary achievement of a transfer student. The scholarship, among others, allowed Havens to design the first model for gene-therapy treatment of a genetic disorder called glycerol kinase deficiency, which often leads to mental retardation in young boys.

When he enters Harvard Medical School in the fall, Havens hopes to specialize in pediatrics and continue genetic research. Of the university that set him on course for that bright future, he says, "They care at UCLA. This place really gave me the opportunity to make a difference in kids' lives."