July 28, 2014

Distinguished Facaulty Award Research II: Debbie Heyl-Clegg

by Amy E., Published March 22, 2010

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Debbie Heyl-Clegg

Debbie Heyl-Clegg

Debbie Heyl-Clegg's kids joke that Mom never relaxes.

And while it's not strictly true (she carves out time every night to walk the dog, watch the 11 o'clock news and catch the first part of the Tonight Show), Heyl-Clegg admits she gets restless when she doesn't have anything to do.

"I've always been kind of an overachiever in the sense that I always strive to work as hard as I have to be 'successful' in whatever I do," said Heyl-Clegg, recipient of this year's Ronald W. Collins Award for Research II (5+ years).  "I don't know what to do with myself if I'm not busy all the time."

Heyl-Clegg and the other Distinguished Faculty Award winners were recognized at a March 24 reception in their honor, which took place in the Student Center Ballroom. The award includes a plaque and a $3,500 stipend.

Heyl-Clegg's drive to excel and her tendency to fill every waking hour with something productive have contributed to an impressive body of work in 18 years at EMU. Her research focuses on developing small amino acid chains - called peptides - that can be used in pharmaceuticals. She's currently exploring how and why the protein amylin causes damage in the pancreas of people with Type II diabetes.

Amylin is a protein that's secreted by the pancreas, and secreted in higher levels by people with Type II diabetes. It forms plaque in the pancreas, which leads to cell membrane damage, but researchers aren't sure how that damage happens.

 "We try to design inhibitors and study its mechanism of action so we can interfere in that process," she said.

Since she was hired in 1992, Heyl-Clegg has produced 18 percent of the chemistry department's publications and given 12 percent of its outside presentations. According to EMU Chemistry Department Head Ross Nord, Heyl-Clegg's publication rate is more than three times the rate required for a departmental rating of "exceptional," and exceptional ratings aren't given often.

"It means a lot to have been nominated by my colleagues, who are the ones who know how hard we all work in this career path, in all aspects of the job--teaching, research, and service," she said. "There are so many more demands on our time than most people realize, and its difficult to carve the hours out of the day to focus on research - including obtaining funding, presenting and publishing."

Meanwhile, Heyl-Clegg has mentored 37 graduate students and 52 undergraduates. Four of her students won the Graduate Dean's Award for Research Excellence, and dozens of current and former students wrote letters supporting her nomination for the Collins Award. Reading their letters, she said, was the best part of the nomination process. The award reinforces the importance of investing so much time to train, guide and advise students.

"She's been able to hone her research program, such that students can step in and make very valuable contributions. And she puts in endless amounts of time mentoring them," Nord said. "It's the development of a program with students in mind so that students can succeed, and the end result is her program succeeds."

Heyl-Clegg said she's always liked the challenge of problem solving. By middle school, there weren't a lot of other girls excited about math and science. But her mom had a science degree, and Heyl-Clegg relished being a little bit different. She liked competing with the boys.

By the time Heyl-Clegg got to college, she knew she wanted to go into science. She just wasn't sure which path to take. Chemistry won out because it seemed central to all of the others.

"The most important thing about my college experience was I went to a small school - Lafayette only has 2,000 students - and I got a lot of individual attention. I got to know my professors really well. The thing that's the same as here at Eastern is the undergraduate research experience. I did two different undergraduate research projects and that's what really inspired me to go to graduate school."

Now she's on the other end of that relationship, watching students get excited about science and engaged in the research process - and enjoying their growth.

Before EMU senior Josh Osborne met Heyl-Clegg, he just wanted to earn a degree in chemistry and get out of academia. Working in her lab encouraged him to push what he thought were his limits. Eventually Heyl-Clegg convinced him to give a mini-lecture at undergraduate symposium, and Osborne realized he actually likes explaining things to groups of people. Now he's looking for a PhD program.

"I can kind of see myself (in the students)," she said. "You know, you move from being the mentee to being the mentor, and I can see the parallels... And it's a lot of fun to be with them. I'm not that old but they do keep me young."

 

Amy E.

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