Never too late to do what you were born to do

GCCHeliosScholar_20130522_0020Convincing your kids you have to do your homework before you play with them? A tough sell, especially with four active little ones clamoring for your attention.

Yet for the past two years, that’s exactly what Debbie Healey has done. “I want my kids to see you have to do your work before you can play,” she said.

Her reward for holding fast to her “work first, play later” rule? A 4.0 GPA and a prestigious scholarship. This spring, Healey became GCC’s most recent Helios Scholar.

The scholarship gives her a paid, eight-week summer internship in biomedical research at the prestigious TGen research facility in central Phoenix.

Healey will work 40 hours a week in a lab under the mentorship of a TGen pathologist. She will live the life of a research scientist, examining tissue samples, analyzing slides and comparing types of cancer cells. She will also participate in workshops and seminars, produce a scientific poster, and have an opportunity to hone her presentation skills.

Her success has been a long time in coming.

When Healey was a child, her father was a mechanic and her mother, though a quadriplegic in a wheelchair, was highly functioning. Healey, passionately interested in math, science and biology as a kid, had always planned to go to college right after high school.

But it wasn’t that simple.

In 2001, soon after she graduated from high school in Newberg, Oregon, her mother was diagnosed with leukemia. She died when Healey was only 19. The loss hit the family hard.

Not long after, Healey had a son, and had to get a job. For nine years, she worked as a grocery store cashier. Plans to go to college were shelved indefinitely.

Two years ago, after a divorce, she moved to Arizona, home of family members and a fiancé she had originally met years earlier, when she was 15. With their support, she was finally able to proceed with her long-stalled education.

After so many years, she wasn’t sure where to begin, despite her earlier interest in science. She first considered a dental hygiene program, which had a three-year waiting list.

Then, when she started taking prerequisite classes at GCC, her high-school passion for biological science came alive again. Her fiancé, disappointed she had missed the chance to go to college earlier, encouraged her to embrace her ambition this time around:  to do what she had always wanted to do, despite the time that had passed.

She realized she’s a problem solver. “I see a problem and I want to be a part of figuring it out, no matter what it takes. I think that’s what has drawn me to the field of biotechnology,” said Healey.

So she picked up where she had left off, and pursued her interest in science.

She’s on track to finish an Associate in Applied Science in Biotechnology at GCC later this year.

Small classes and personal attention at GCC has made all the difference for Healey. The GCC program exposed her to a lot of laboratory equipment and procedures, readying her for her role in the TGen lab.

This fall, she plans to transfer to the Cellular and Molecular Biology program (CAMbR) at ASU West.

She sees biotechnology as always challenging, with something new and exciting to learn. “I realize that you don’t always get a definitive answer in science, and that 99 percent of your experiments may be failures, but that one percent that can make a difference makes it all worthwhile,” she said.

She’s still deciding what specific research area she’ll pursue, but it’s likely to lead to a career with a pharmaceutical company or a microbiology lab in hospital. She’s leaning towards molecular cell biology and microbiology, possibly a role in cancer research.

Personal experience is a strong motivating factor. Remembering the loss of her mother, Healey said, “Having the chance to work on cures that could give someone the chance to spend more time their loved one would be one of the most rewarding experiences I could think of.”

She spends most of her spare time with her children. “Being able to see them learn and experience things for the first time isamazing,” said Healey. She strives to do her best so she can be the kind of person they can respect and look up to.

“Debbie is a mature student with a non-traditional path to college, said Dr. Tuohy. “We’re very proud of her achievement, and she has a bright future ahead of her.”

Healey says she is excited to take in and learn everything she can from this remarkable scholarship opportunity. Her advanced knowledge and skills, positive work ethic, curiosity and hunger for learning will make a positive difference, wherever she lands professionally.

The journey has been challenging. But Healey believes hard work pays off and you won’t always be handed things. “When you have to pay for school yourself, you respect it more and you want to do well,” said Healey.

It’s a lesson she wants her children to learn. When her 9-year-old son broke the radio-control car and computer he got for Christmas, he had to pay for repairs out of his own pocket. Now he takes better care of them.

Healey encourages other young women to stick to their goals – even if it takes time. “Eventually you get there, and it’s worth it in the end,” she said.

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