Governor General’s silver medal 2022: Heather Kelly discovers a passion for healing through research

Trying to catch Heather Kelly can be a bit tricky. It seems the UFV Biology standout student and soon-to-be graduate is always on the go, spreading her knowledge and passion for scientific research with the world.

Immediately after she was able to squeeze in an interview in early June, she was off to the UFV Undergraduate Research Excellence Awards, where she gave an inspiring speech on behalf of all students being honoured that night.

Kelly was recognized for a $6,000 Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) award to fund her fall research and $1,000 research excellence award for biology. The next day, she flew out to San Diego to attend a conference to present the inventive fish cell line research she has been helping work on for the past three years.

And when she is not speaking at conferences or excelling in the classroom (she maintained a near perfect 4.32 GPA), she is busy with her multiple extracurricular hobbies. There’s the Biology and Chemistry Student Association where she is the academic vice president; the Student Leisure Outdoor and Wilderness Club where she is president and organized hikes regularly; and the Big Brothers and Big Sisters of the Fraser Valley where she is a mentor to a teenage girl.

Even Kelly doesn’t know where she finds the time.

“I don’t know! I find that I actually don’t have too much free time,” Kelly says with a laugh. “But I still make sure to do the things that I enjoy or that motivate me, whether that is volunteering, conducting research, or spending time outdoors with friends and family.”

Kelly’s motivation to strive for greatness academically started at a young age. Although nobody in her family was focused on science in their studies or career, she was always competitive with her older brother when it came to achieving top grades. Her interest in the sciences stemmed from her time spent outdoors exploring nature.

It was in high school where Kelly discovered her talent and interest in the sciences, winning the Governor General’s Bronze Medal at Westview Secondary School in Maple Ridge.

Four years later, as Kelly is graduating with a bachelor’s degree in biology, she earned another Governor General’s award, this time a silver medal at UFV, awarded to the top graduate in a bachelor’s degree program.

“I was so excited,” Kelly says. “It was just so amazing to get the news and find out that UFV had recognized my work.”

Kelly entered UFV in the fall of 2018 under the prestigious President’s Entrance Scholarship. After her first year taking chemistry, calculus and biology courses, she responded to a Twitter ad seeking a volunteer in Dr. Lucy Lee’s research lab. That opportunity turned into a three-year intensive research experience, where the group studied lipid nanoparticles in fish and their effectiveness in combating viruses in aquaculture under the guidance of Dr. Justin Lee.

“We started investigating their use in fish before the pandemic had even started, and we are seeing the potential,” says Kelly. “Now, they’ve become so popular because of their use in the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.”

Like many graduates this year, the pandemic altered almost half of Kelly’s time at UFV. Although there were challenges associated with remote learning at times, Kelly says the correlation between the coronavirus and the fish cell line research in Dr. Lee’s lab was an invaluable experience that will further the advancements of medicine.

Kelly also believes staying close to home and attending UFV was the ideal academic learning environment for her. The smaller class sizes and personal attention, she says, were instrumental in her development. She is very appreciative of the support she has received throughout her education from friends, family, and UFV faculty. Kelly knows that her support system was an integral part of her success.

“I had such a close kind of connection with my professors, that I felt I could go to any of them for advice, and I did,” Kelly says. “It really allows you to do so well in your schooling, and I don’t think I would have had any of the same opportunities if I had gone anywhere else.”

After graduation, Kelly will continue her research in Dr. Lee’s lab as part of the NSERC funding. She will continue presenting about the innovation uncovered in the lab. Although she is currently passionate about the potential for curing people through scientific research, Kelly envisions a future helping heal people in her community face-to face.

“My end goal is actually to go to medical school,” she says. “I hope to become a family doctor in the future.”

“I want to use the knowledge I’ve gained from my science background to help those around me.”

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