VIU grad serves as 'role model' for mature students

December 4, 2008 - 3:59am

Anything is possible.

Just ask Sandy Neal, a former stay-at-home mom who made a quantum leap from raising kids to studying jellyfish.

Neal is a research assistant for renowned scientist Dr. Andy Spencer in a Biology lab at Vancouver Island University’s Nanaimo campus. They conduct pure research using some of the earliest multicellular organisms, including jellyfish and flatworms, to better understand nerve cells and how they work.

“In the future, applied researchers could use our work to answer questions related to human concerns in the fields of health and medicine, including Parkinson’s disease,” said Neal.

Six years ago, Neal never imagined she’d be a university graduate or a scientific researcher.

When her 23-year marriage ended in 2001, Neal was at a crossroad. With only a high school diploma and brief work experience in retail, she faced a bleak future. “I needed to challenge myself intellectually and create a whole new life,” she said, “but I didn’t know where to start.”

Casting aside fear and uncertainty, Neal met with VIU (formerly Malaspina University-College) advisors who helped her map out a strategy. Her first step was upgrading high school science courses in chemistry, physics and biology through the Adult Basic Education program.

From there, she enrolled in VIU’s Bachelor of Science degree program as a Biology major, and excelled in her studies. After her third year, Neal won an Undergraduate Summer Research Award from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Council of Canada, paving the way to summer employment at the Bamfield Marine Science Centre for Dr. Spencer.

She also worked at the Pacific Biological Station with scientist Dr. Simon Jones on a project examining enzymes in the saliva of sea lice. At graduation in June 2008, just after turning 50, Neal received the Biology department’s Most Outstanding Student Award.

“Sandy underwent a considerable metamorphosis during her tenure here at VIU,” said Biology Professor Tim Goater.  “She developed the confidence and independence to excel during her studies, especially in her research. She is a phenomenal role model for all mature students who are considering a return to school after several years.”

Spencer describes Neal as one of the most careful and meticulous researchers he’s ever worked with. “She has a healthy work ethic. As a mature student with family responsibilities, she learned to be industrious and efficient with her time.”

Neal said a lack of confidence was her greatest challenge when she returned to university at age 44.

“Initially, I was unsure of my ability to keep up with the younger students, however, they were great,” she said. “They accepted me as an equal and treated me with a lot of respect, as did all of my professors. I formed some great friendships with both students and faculty while managing to excel academically. Going back to school demanded an intense effort but it was extremely fulfilling and boosted my self-esteem.”

For anyone thinking about heading back to school, Neal’s message is clear – it’s never too late to learn something new. “Think back to a time when you were happiest,” she said. “What did you enjoy the most? Build on that.”

A significant measure of Neal's success comes from her children, 26-year-old Jason and 22-year old Leslie. “They’re really proud of me,” she said. “I've taught them never to be afraid of life challenges, or stepping out of their comfort zone.”

It’s a lesson she learned early on from her parents who told her ‘anything is possible.’ “For the first time in my life, I truly believe it,” said Neal. “I’ve discovered if you work hard at something, you will succeed.”


Editors note: VIU is now accepting applications for degree, diploma and certificate programs that begin in September 2009 . Call the Advising Centre at (250) 740-6410 or visit for information.

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