Nov. 5, 2019

Scholarship delivers gift of hope

Award helps guide PhD candidate through personal and professional adversity

For PhD student Hongwei (George) Liu, the 2018 Anne M. Gillis Graduate Scholarship — created through Giving Day at the University of Calgary — 
was a validation of his difficult choices, and a reward for his determination following the toughest year of his life.

Dr. Hongwei (George) Liu, MD, came to Calgary to pursue his dream of becoming a clinician researcher. Things were going well initially — he found work he enjoyed, researching connections between heart disease and mental illness. Then came 2016.

Liu’s father passed away and two months later, his supervisor departed and the research project ended — leaving him with professional uncertainties at an already difficult time.

“I felt my life hit rock bottom. I wondered every day if I was making the right choices,” says Liu, who was a cardiologist at a hospital in China for five years before arriving at the Cumming School of Medicine.

“Was it the right choice to give up a stable medical career to pursue a PhD? How do I justify leaving my family behind to study in another country on the other side of the world? How do I continue my studies without a supervisor? Would I succeed in building a career in clinical research?”

The days that followed were a struggle. “I didn’t want to move, didn’t want to eat,” says Liu, who considered returning to China to resume clinical work.

To chart a new path Liu used exercise, candid conversations with his girlfriend and classmates and — with the support of his family — a renewed focus on pursuing his PhD. He started by searching for a new supervisor and, after four months of studying and interviewing, was accepted by Dr. Stephen Wilton, MD.

Under Wilton’s tutelage, Liu’s research uses the APPROACH cardiac registry database, to help improve the quality of life for recovering cardiovascular patients.

A new direction for his research was followed by his first successful scholarship application. Liu worked hard to earn one of a limited number of awards for third and fourth-year students and was thrilled when his resilience paid off.

A donation by Dr. Anne Gillis, MD, as well as other donors through Giving Day created new scholarships for grad students engaged in cardiovascular research. Following the toughest year of Liu’s life, the award meant much more than the thousands of dollars it would provide. 

“It helped me feel like this part of my life is meaningful. It’s given me more confidence. More expectations for my life,” Liu says. “I’m very grateful.” 

“It changed my philosophy. I don’t know what kind of a scientist I will be but I would like to one day donate some of my earnings to help students that were in the same position as me. There are always students who are in difficult situations. We shouldn’t forget that.”

Dr. Anne Gillis, MD, is a professor in the Department of Cardiac Sciences and deputy director of the Libin Cardiovascular Institute of Alberta. Dr. Stephen Wilton, MD, is an associate professor in the Department of Cardiac Sciences and Community Health Sciences. He is a member of the Libin Cardiovascular Institute of Alberta.

Introduced during UCalgary’s $1.3B Energize campaign, Giving Day happens each April. Support your passion and make a difference in your community. Learn more about campaign at ucalgary.ca/campaign and Giving Day at givingday.ucalgary.ca