Independence Through Achievement

Recipient of Don and Norine Lowry Award for Women of Excellence looks forward to bright future

Over the summer, Helen Ma enjoyed ordinary pleasures. She spent her days buried between the pages of books and in the company of friends and family. But for Ma, summer was also a time of transition and anticipation of a new chapter of life that was about to begin: the pursuit of higher education.

Before beginning her studies at the University of Alberta, the 17-year-old received a notification that would impact her academic journey and, ultimately, her sense of self. Helen was one of five women selected for the Don and Norine Lowry Awards for Women of Excellence in 2017, a student award administered by Edmonton Community Foundation.

“It’s a real honour to be selected. It shows many people support me and feel like I’m worth supporting,” says Ma. “An award of this calibre targeted towards a specific group is so important.”

Ma, who uses a motorized wheelchair, has spinal muscular atrophy, a genetic disorder that affects the control of muscle movement. She articulated a desire for greater independence, which the award and her educational pursuits are steps toward.

“Independence, for me, is being able to succeed on my own terms,” she says. “I want to be independent, which is, primarily for me, achieved through education.”

Ma is no stranger to scholastic achievement. She graduated from high school with an impressive average of more than 95 per cent, becoming valedictorian of her graduating class. The previous summer, when most students were eager to spend time away from school, the then 16-year-old immersed herself in scientific research through a summer STEM program offered by the University of Alberta, geared toward female high school students.

After exposure to a wide range of career options in the sciences, Ma emerged from the program considering a career as a genetic counsellor, a burgeoning field of healthcare professionals who provide information about genetic disorders and help individuals make informed decisions.

“My condition is genetic, so I think I could bring a lot to the table and give a fresh perspective,” Ma says.

Don and Norine Lowry say they established the fund for women just like her. “Helen Ma exemplifies the type of woman we want to help,” Norine Lowry says. “It’s truly a privilege to help her in a small way.”

Don Lowry echoes this sentiment. “Helen has put courage, motivation, and determination in a league of its own,” he says. “We value that drive for continual improvement.”

The Lowrys created the award in 2013 with the support of EPCOR, where Don served as president and CEO until his retirement. Applications are open to Edmonton-based women of all ages, pursuing post-secondary studies in a wide range of fields including healthcare, water, energy, accounting and beyond.

“We felt that there are still many inspiring women who don’t have the same opportunities or support and have more difficulty getting into the professional workforce,” says Norine.

Over the lifetime of the fund, 14 women have received awards, which are managed by Edmonton Community Foundation.

“They’ve got resources, people, and experience that really know how to do the best in this area,” Don explains. “They also provide us guidance, help and support.”

The Lowrys, who have two daughters working in professional environments, say the award is a legacy they hope to leave for future generations of women in the city.

For a young woman like Ma, who considers the award life-changing, she imagines what future professional success might convey to others who need the support that was provided to her.

“If I were able to achieve a degree of professional success,” she says, “I think it would show other individuals who have genetic conditions or parents who have children with genetic conditions that it’s not something that takes away their ability to change the world; their ability to give back to society.”