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Adversity no barrier to success

Queen’s electrical and computer engineering (ECE) student Emily Heffernan has a lot going on.

[Emily Heffernan]
A student in electrical and computer engineering (ECE) at Queen's, Emily Heffernan has earned Google Lime and Hydro One scholarships. (Supplied photo)

She’s deep into her undergraduate studies, spent last summer working in biomedical computing at the Laboratory for Percutaneous Surgery (Perk Lab) and has an internship this summer with Hydro One. She’s also been named Regional Executive Officer for North America of Robogals, the popular international student organization that holds robotics and computing workshops designed specifically to encourage girls and young women to pursue engineering in academy and industry.

She’s bright, industrious and community minded but she’s been waylaid a time or two along her path so far.

“Two weeks before I was scheduled to start at Queen’s in 2013, I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease,” she says.

Crohn’s is a chronic autoimmune disease that principally affects the large intestine. It’s painful, often embarrassing and can even become life threatening if left unchecked. There’s no sure cure and people living with it have to make big lifestyle changes. It’s manageable but always lurking, always threatening to flare up.

“Obviously it came with lots of challenges: figuring everything out and being in pain a lot of the time,” Ms. Heffernan says. “Crohn’s is also hard because it’s an invisible disease. People don’t necessarily know you have it so it can be hard for them to understand.”

Still, she managed to complete her first-year courses and progress through second year. Then, during a routine checkup, doctors noticed she had a heart murmur.

“My mom has one, so I wasn’t concerned at first,” Ms. Heffernan says. “But after I went for some tests, I was referred to a cardiologist and then to a surgeon. I had mitral valve regurgitation.”

The mitral valve separates the left atrium from the left ventricle of the heart. A leaky one can cause fatigue and shortness of breath but, more dangerously, it can lead to high blood pressure in the veins leading from the lungs to the heart. It’s a condition that can cause heart failure if left untreated and the only way to repair it is with open heart surgery. The recovery set Heffernan back at least a semester.

“It’s probably something I had for years and years and they just never caught it,” she says. “Now, since the surgery, I’m back to running and doing yoga and all that kind of stuff.”

Her perseverance, hard work and academic talent have served Ms. Heffernan well this year. She was one of only 12 Google Lime Scholars selected from North America. It’s one of the highest honours Google bestows on undergraduate students and comes with $5,000, a summer retreat to Google headquarters in California and a chance at a Google internship. She also earned one of only 10 Hydro One Women in Engineering Scholarships. That one is also $5,000 and, for Ms. Heffernan, comes with a summer internship at the utility giant in Toronto.

She isn’t quite sure what she wants to do after her undergrad but thinks graduate school will likely be part of the plan when it comes together.

“One thing I’ve learned from these experiences is that there are always obstacles and barriers in the way of what I’m trying to do,” she says. “It might take a bit of time. I might have to take a detour to get where I want to go but I’ll get there eventually.”

To fellow students who are living with disabilities or facing health issues at Queen’s, Heffernan has some advice.

“It can be really overwhelming and it’s hard to feel understood,” she says. “But it’s really important to take advantage of the resources available. Admitting that you need help can be one of the hardest things to do but it’s important to understand that it’s okay to ask for it. If it’s going to help you to get where you want to go, it’s important to do that.”