Heather Clancy’s young life hasn’t followed a straight line.
There were several zig zags before she arrived at the University of Colorado’s Aurora campus for a Ph.D. program in cellular biology — changes in her major at SUNY Cortland, her career path after graduation and her larger life goals.
At 24, she left a good job doing quality assurance testing at Chobani, the Greek-style yogurt giant headquartered in Norwich, N.Y., to fulfill an ambition to learn more. She made a leap of faith out west.
Today, she’s studying a gene that contributes to spina bifida, a potentially deadly neural tube defect characterized by exposure of the spinal cord or the brain. It’s research that could have major public health implications down the road.
“I think a common thing for people who like science is to only consider medical school,” says Heather, a former biology major who attended Westhill High School in Syracuse, N.Y. “For a long time, I thought that was my only option even though my heart wasn’t really in it.”
She succeeded through those moments of change, but that isn’t to say transition always was easy. Persistence, perspective and family support were crucial. So was her experience at Cortland, even though she initially didn’t want to consider the College. She thought it was too close to home, but her parents only asked that she visit.
“It ended up that Cortland was the only place I applied because it was the only place I wanted to go,” she says. “The setting was everything I thought college should be. People were outside, they came up and talked to me … it just felt very welcoming.”
When she’s interested in something, Heather says she’s completely invested, whether it’s running or a Zac Brown Band song or a school-related topic. And that initial impression of Cortland’s campus was reinforced by her experiences in the classroom, three in particular.
She considers them pivot points in her education.
BIO 110: Principles of Biology I
With far-reaching interests from fashion to fitness — yes, she’s a distance runner who sews her own clothes — Heather initially declared kinesiology as a major. That meant taking an introductory biology course for non-science majors taught by Associate Professor Mary Beth Voltura.
“I fell in love with bio,” she says. “I think I asked so many questions that people started calling me Question Girl, but I just really enjoyed it because my brain was stimulated.”
Some national surveys indicate that as many as 80 percent of college students will consider changing their major. Heather was one of them, and she discovered passion and purpose in biology.
BIO 401: Invertebrate Zoology
She traces a deeper interest in developmental biology back to the zoology course she took with Professor Peter Ducey, a mentor who she still leans on for life advice.
“The way he taught the course was story-based,” she remembers. “It wasn’t, ‘Memorize this anatomy, blah blah blah.’ That made it interesting to me.”
She enjoyed the material so much that she led small study groups for classmates in Memorial Library.
BIO 312: Genetics
The idea of taking a traditionally difficult course on a Friday afternoon might not appeal to most people, but Heather looked forward to learning about genetics because she’s a twin.
She eventually earned a summer undergraduate research fellowship to investigate how plants produce Vitamin C. Heather and classmate Alexander Meyers traveled to England under the guidance of Associate Professor Patricia Conklin, who taught the genetics class.
“It’s really cool when you’re a student and an international audience treats you as a colleague,” she says. “That experience made me think for myself and fit in within the science community. It was a great introduction to research.”
Life After College
Heather knew her heart wasn’t in medicine, so she opted to work instead of chasing medical school aspirations.
The job at Chobani was a dream. She was working for a name-brand company. Better yet, she was applying the microbiology topics she studied in college by testing water, air and food ingredients for quality assurance purposes. Heather joked that the job involved “glorified babysitting” of plants, but she genuinely enjoyed the work and the company.
After two years, she had a choice to make: put down roots in rural upstate New York or pursue more education. Heather knew she wanted to learn more.
“I started thinking about my experience at Cortland and what topics really interested me,” she says, mentioning genetics and developmental biology. “When you go to work for two years, you have time to think about what you want to do at work every day.”
The route to her current home in Aurora, Colo., however, wasn’t without complications.
Heather applied to only one Ph.D. program, at the University of Colorado at Denver, but initially was chosen only as an alternate candidate for an interview. If she didn’t hear back by a certain date, it meant she wasn’t admitted.
“The date passed,” Heather says. “I assumed I didn’t get in or there wasn’t room for me.”
Undeterred, she decided to move to Colorado anyway to take graduate courses as a non-matriculated student. It was an attempt to prove that she could handle doctoral-level work. She emailed a program director for course recommendations. Instead, Heather received an invitation for a Skype interview the next day.
Most students have weeks to prepare for such interviews; Heather had less than 24 hours.
She immediately called Ducey, her mentor from SUNY Cortland, and he offered honest, genuine advice. He told Heather not to try and overly impress the interviewers with an expert’s level of intelligence because it was likely that they knew more. He told her to think beyond the application materials she initially submitted and highlight qualities they might not know about her.
Most importantly, she remembers, her former professor told Heather to be herself.
The next day’s interview was engaging, fluent and natural. Heather lists it as one of the most memorable experiences of her entire life. She spoke at length about her work experience at Chobani, an area where she was the expert. The admissions committee promised a decision within a week.
After the interview ended, Heather played a song by Zac Brown Band to put her at ease. But she was startled by a Skype notification less than a minute later. It was the committee calling back with a unanimous decision to offer her a spot in the Ph.D. program at the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical Campus.
The moment brought tears.
Heather moved west in August 2015 and expects to work on her research past 2020. She often reflects on the path that led her there.
It wasn’t straight nor was it without obstacles. But she paved it herself.
“You get what you put into something,” she says. “And I would do it 1,000 times over if I had to do it again.”