Ivy Leaf - Spring 2014
By Conner Gilbert
NCAA Division III athletics utilizes a marketing campaign designed to promote its biggest asset: the student-athlete.
Across the country, Division III schools are encouraged to advertise the slogan “Discover, Develop, Dedicate” to the campus and the community. The NCAA aims to showcase the well-rounded nature of Division III student-athletes, who “pursue their interests and passions beyond the classroom and field of play to discover themselves,” “are encouraged to develop into well-rounded adults,” and “dedicate themselves to achieving their potential.”
If ever a Penn State Altoona student-athlete embodied those ideals, it is Mary Elizabeth McCulloch. McCulloch, currently a junior at the University Park campus, excelled in all areas during her freshman and sophomore years at Penn State Altoona. In her two-year varsity swimming career with the Lady Lions, she became one of the top women’s swimmers in program history. In the classroom, she dedicated herself to success and has achieved excellence.
But McCulloch’s most impressive accomplishments lie in the field of community service. While most students’ volunteerism takes them to local food banks, shelters, or community events, McCulloch’s endeavors took her across the world.
Prior to her freshman year of college at Penn State Altoona, McCulloch spent time as an exchange student in Ecuador. Upon her arrival there, she marveled at the beautiful geography, which includes parts of the Amazon rainforest and Andes mountain range, as well as the Galapagos Islands. But she also saw a contrasting side of the country: a large portion of the country’s population which was buried in poverty and despair.
“Being poor in Ecuador is different than being poor in America,” McCulloch explains. “There is a harsh caste system, and because of that, the poor receive very limited medical care and have no health insurance.”
In particular, McCulloch saw many special needs children, who she says are often treated as castoffs in Ecuador.
“Ecuador has many special needs orphanages, which are something that we don’t think about having here in America,” she states. “In Ecuador, having a special needs child in your family is really looked down upon. It’s seen as a weakness to one’s family, so many families try to hide that. Many special needs kids are abandoned at churches, and that’s how the orphanages started.”
McCulloch worked at one of these orphanages, where she met children with nonverbal cerebral palsy. While the children showed an extreme deficiency in motor skills, she saw a strong desire in each of them to communicate with their caregivers and visitors.
“There were fifteen kids with cerebral palsy at the orphanage where I worked, and every day it became evident that they were coherent,” McCulloch says. “They had trouble moving their muscles and getting their brains to tell their muscles what to do, but by sitting down and asking them yes or no questions, they would nod their heads yes or no, and you could learn a lot about these children just by asking a long series of these questions.”
Mary Elizabeth with several of the children from the orphanage and some of the Ecuadoran military. The kids had a day out and went to a nearby military base, and the soldiers were happy to entertain the children.
McCulloch knew that there had to be a better way to allow these children with cerebral palsy to communicate. When it was time to return to the United States and begin her college career at Penn State Altoona, she wanted to devote herself to finding a way to improve the lives of the Ecuadoran kids she met.
“I thought that if I could make something that could ask these questions for me and let the kids be able to respond with more than a ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ it would really help them communicate.”
When she began her collegiate career at Penn State Altoona, McCulloch chose bioengineering and pre-medicine as her educational tracks. Having always wanted to be a doctor, she dedicated herself to understanding her field, and she shined in the classroom. She also joined the varsity women’s swimming team, and she quickly emerged as one of the best swimmers on the squad.
But with all of these things going on, McCulloch did not allow herself to forget about the children in Ecuador. Utilizing her knowledge of engineering and science, as well as seeking the help of various professors and her father—who himself spent two years as a student at Penn State Altoona in engineering—she developed a concept for an assistive speech device that could allow children with nonverbal cerebral palsy to communicate more efficiently. McCulloch created an idea for a device that would essentially speak for the children, correlating different ranges of motion in their legs with a large bank of responses from which they could select. The responses would then be conveyed through the device back to the person who asked the question through a small speaker. As her idea gradually transitioned from the abstract to the tangible, McCulloch was eager to return to Ecuador for a trial run.
In the meantime, McCulloch credited swimming with balancing her life and putting things in perspective for her. When she was in the pool, she explained, she could leave her stresses and worries outside and simply concentrate on swimming. Her practice and competition schedule also forced her to manage her time more efficiently.
“Swimming put structure into every day by making me set certain times to study and to do research for my device,” McCulloch explains. “Our coach, Greg Scallen, was supportive of me and always preached striving for excellence in academics and in the pool. When I got to practice or a meet, I was able to leave school and stress outside and concentrate on giving it my all alongside my team. Then I could go back to everything else when it was over.”
McCulloch’s focus while swimming helped her achieve big things for her team. Her two years as a swimmer at Penn State Altoona were highlighted by an Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference Women’s Swimmer of the Year honor in 2013 and winning three different events at the conference championship. She also set a new school record in the 50-meter breaststroke.
“My motivation was to do the best I could do in the pool regardless of how my day outside of it went,” McCulloch states. “If something bad happened, I would leave that at the door. Everyone on your team is depending on you. If I don’t try my hardest, why should I expect them to try hard?”
After two years at Penn State Altoona, her education track took her to University Park to complete her work in bioengineering and pre-med. At Altoona, she posted a 3.93 grade point average. Her studies were, and continue to be, motivated by her desire to make a difference in the lives of the Ecuadoran children she met.
“I need to understand the math and physics basis for the things I want to do. I’m not just thinking about getting a grade; I really do want to go into a third world country to be an engineer and a physician,” McCulloch explains. “I need to thoroughly understand engineering, physics, and the technology related to medical devices. It puts a holistic approach to me going into medicine.”
McCulloch has returned to Ecuador to work with children with nonverbal cerebral palsy, and she has continued to hone the design and function of her assistive speech device. She hopes the device, which is relatively inexpensive to assemble, is something that she can perfect and eventually distribute on a wider scale.
“Not being able to program the device on my own, I always need computer programmers to help me with that part of it,” McCulloch states. “But I’m always working to make the device better. In Ecuador, I’m able to get input from the orphanage’s caregivers about what the device needs to be able to do, which is phenomenal.”
As she continues the development and testing of her assistive speech device, McCulloch has also been on several medical missions to the Dominican Republic though the Hershey Medical Center. On top of all of her volunteering, she continues to perform well as a student. When considering her busy schedule, McCulloch would not have it any other way.
“I feel that I need to get everything out of all the activities I do in college because I won’t have those opportunities later,” she says. “I swam because I knew I wouldn’t be able to swim the rest of my life in a competitive sense. There are so many other opportunities in college, and I want to take advantage of all of them.”
McCulloch credits her parents with helping to keep her focused, giving her advice when she needs it, and supporting her in her efforts.
“My parents are one of a kind. A lot of parents probably wouldn’t let their daughter take off and go to Ecuador or the Dominican Republic,” states McCulloch. “My parents have always been there to help me along the way and give me wisdom and encouragement to do my best. When someone tells you to do your best continually, you believe that you can.”
In September 2013, McCulloch was recognized by the Eastern College Athletic Conference as its Division III Female Scholar-Athlete of the Year. She won the award because of her excellence in swimming, her studies, and her volunteer work, selected over hundreds of other female student-athletes who were nominated. While McCulloch knows that her quest is far from over, she was happy to gain a little bit of encouragement along the way.
“Sometimes you’re working so hard and you don’t think people appreciate it, so it’s nice to know that someone else is saying ‘good job,’” McCulloch states. “To attend the ECAC Honors Dinner with Fredina [Ingold, director of athletics at Penn State Altoona] and receive my award really made me appreciate all of the gifts that Penn State Altoona gave me. The encouragement I received from my professors, my coach, and the whole athletics department is a testimony to Penn State Altoona.”
Balancing the many projects in her life is not easy for McCulloch, but she presses on with a drive to try her best and the motivation to help others. As a swimmer, she is able to easily find a relatable metaphor.
“When you’re in the pool and your body tells you that you need to breathe, you have to rise above that and keep swimming because your team is depending on you,” she asserts. “The best thing I learned throughout all of my experiences in college is to do the things that need to be done. Some days you don’t want to do it, but you do it because you have to.”