At the age of 11, Cayce Connolly knew exactly what she wanted to do with her life ― find a cure for cancer or better yet, prevent it from happening in the first place.
"My little brother was diagnosed with T cell lymphoma at just 4 years old," recalls Cayce. "I saw how chemotherapy and radiation treatment ravaged his tiny body. I remember seeing clumps of red hair on my pillows and thinking, 'I have to figure out why this is happening to my baby brother.
Cayce's brother was declared cancer-free three years later. But that drive and determination stuck with her, eventually leading her to seek a degree in molecular genetics at MD Anderson's School of Health Professions (SHP). Then, tragedy struck again. Another devastating health diagnosis threatened the possibility of her graduation.
"I was in crisis mode," she says. "My finances were tied up in my loved one's treatment. I didn't have anyone to help me pay for tuition or for my car or for my life. I thought I might have to drop out."
As a last resort, Cayce applied for a $1,000 scholarship. That year, a generous donor gave $10,000, requesting that the donation go to one person instead of being split among multiple recipients. That person was Cayce.
"If I hadn't gotten that scholarship, my life would have gone in completely different direction," she says. "I know how meaningful a scholarship can be. It can be the difference between being able to finish on time and finishing at all. Not only does a scholarship provide financial support, but you also have the support of the people who chose you for it. They believe in you."
Today, Cayce leads a team at AutoGenomics, a biotechnology company in San Diego, California. She wants other young clinicians and laboratorians, especially other women, to have the same type of support she enjoyed at SHP.
In July, Cayce created the Cayce Connolly Endowment at MD Anderson's School of Health Professions. The $25,000 endowment will provdie students studying cancer genetics with $1,000 scholarships in perpetuity.
"I hope my genetic research, or someone I influence or even someone who gets this scholarship will eventually prevent cancer from happening," Cayce says. "Maybe they'll be the ones to figure it out. I'm just glad to be on the journey."