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From Welfare Mom to Cancer Researcher
by Jennifer Post Stoudt

Once a single mom on welfare, Heidi F. Devlin, Ph.D. ’95
teaches her son that with perseverance, anything is possible.

In 1988, Heidi F. Devlin ’95 wasn’t making it as a waitress. The 28-year-old, single mother of a two-year-old quickly found herself on welfare struggling to make ends meet, until a caseworker made a suggestion that would change her life.

“ My caseworker suggested that I get some kind of training,” says Devlin. Despite being terrified at the thought of going back to college after being out of high school for 10 years, Devlin enrolled in the travel and tourism program at Reading Area Community College (RACC). “I was so scared. I thought everyone would know what they were doing and I’d look like an idiot,” she says.

Fifteen years later, the once down-on-her-luck welfare mom is now Dr. Heidi F. Devlin with a Ph.D. in cell and molecular biology from Pennsylvania State University.

When she started her journey, Devlin says, “I would study like heck because I was scared of failing. Then I started seeing results and people actually were coming to me for help. It built my confidence and I started thinking I could do something different.”

After taking a general biology class at RACC with Dr. Donald Daniel, Albright professor of biology, Devlin found her “something different.”

“ He was so energetic, so insane,” she says. “He would get the class all fired up. He really lit a fire in me, so I switched majors and started taking biology courses.” Following Daniel’s inspiration, she also worked as a volunteer with AIDS patients, helping to spread the message during AIDS Awareness Week. It was this work that ultimately steered her in the direction of biomedical research. “I got to know a lot of the victims,” she says. “They were no longer just statistics, they were real people.”

After receiving her associate’s degree in applied science, Devlin transferred to Albright in 1992. “I worked really hard to get private funding and scholarships,” she says. “If there was a scholarship out there for single mothers I found it!” After two and a half years at Albright, Devlin’s loans are under $8,000.

While at Albright, Devlin’s interest in the sciences grew with the support of what she calls “an incredible science faculty.” Remem-bering Dr. John Hall, emeritus professor of biology who passed away in January 2002, she says fondly, “He was the kindest professor I’ve ever known.” But whether it was trapping Eastern wood rats in upstate Pennsylvania with Hall, tagging brown bats with Dr. Karen Campbell or learning molecular biology with Dr. Gerald Krieder, Devlin discovered she had a real thirst for knowledge.

“Throughout my years in school I’ve seen so many people quit. I wonder what they’re doing now. If they just had the passion and persevered they might have had a different life.”

– Heidi F. Devlin, Ph.D. ’95

Seeking counsel from Daniel and remembering the AIDS patients who had such an affect on her, Devlin made a decision to continue her academic pursuits and follow a career in research. Her decision left her faced with many critics. Not only did naysayers think that a single mom couldn’t handle the rigors of graduate school, but, as the first in her family to go to college, Devlin’s mostly blue collar family simply didn’t understand her desire to obtain her doctorate. “It was odd to them,” she says. “They said to me, ‘You’re going to be eligible for retirement before you graduate.’” But the determined Devlin retorted, “Well, then at least I’ll retire with a degree.” A degree, and some cutting edge research that could very possibly have a great impact on people’s lives.

One of four students accepted directly into the doctoral program at Penn State’s Hershey Medical Center, Devlin has been working for the past six years to find a way to prevent the creation of certain proteins that mutate and spread cancer in the human body. “We use novel enzymes to get rid of the protein PTEN so that we can learn more about the normal function of that protein,” she says.

Having successfully defended her thesis in January, Devlin is now a post-doctoral fellow. She will continue her research, hoping “to be as productive as I can, get as many publications published as I can and then move on to a university as a professor.”

Her journey has not been without its sacrifices, for both Devlin, and her now 17-year-old son Alexander R. Dragon. “I feel like my son has been on the journey with me the whole time,” she says. “He started with me when he was two and now he’s graduating high school this year.” Dedicating her thesis to him, Devlin says she hopes she has taught Alex that perseverance means more than anything. Her advice, to keep working and don’t give up. “They’re the key elements in being successful,” she says. “Throughout my years in school I’ve seen so many people quit. I wonder what they’re doing now. If they just had the passion and persevered they might have had a different life.”

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