The first time she stepped foot in a real laboratory, Ka’Dedra Andrea Creech didn’t know what to expect. Sure, she’d watched plenty of Dexter’s Laboratory, but she knew the Cartoon Network’s interpretation of scientific experimentation couldn’t compare to the real thing.

“When I walked into the lab my freshman year at the College, I was just like, ‘So this is what it feels like!’” says the senior biology and Spanish double major who’s also minoring in chemistry. “I was just so excited.”

And if she hasn’t gotten a feel for a real, live laboratory yet, she certainly will this summer: Chosen to be part of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s highly competitive Exceptional Research Opportunities Program, Creech is spending 12 weeks in a research lab at Yale University.

“I was matched with a professor there who studies type 2 diabetes, which is something I’ve always been passionate about because it’s prevalent in my family,” says Creech, whose great-grandmother, grandfather, great-aunt and uncle have all suffered from the disease. “I am excited to get into the lab and see what everybody’s working on. There will be all different levels of experience in there – from post doc to undergraduate and everything in between,” Creech says. “I don’t want to get bogged down in my own research. I want to look around and see what they’re doing. That’s something I’ve never really been exposed to before.”

What she has been exposed to before, however, is research.

“I started researching my freshman year and I haven’t stopped since,” laughs Creech, who has been researching pediatric cardiology with faculty at the Medical University of South Carolina since 2014. “I just really love research. I don’t really know why. If I try to explain it, it won’t sound right. I guess I feel like I’m contributing to mankind’s database of knowledge,” she says.

Creech feels grateful to be making that contribution. Her time at the College hasn’t been easy: There were times she didn’t know where she’d get her next meal or how she’d afford to wash her clothes. She even questioned whether she was going to be able to stay in school at all. But then she received the J. Gorman ’43 and Gladys Thomas Alumni Scholarship.

“That scholarship changed everything for me. I cannot even begin to tell you how much that scholarship has helped me. It let me focus on my studies and not be so hungry. It is everything,” says Creech, who applied for the scholarship during her sophomore year. “It was a really hard time in my college career. I still get emotional about it.”

Alumni Scholars Reception (fall 2015): Gary Thomas '83 and Ka'Dedra Andrea Creech

Alumni Scholars Reception (fall 2015): Gary Thomas ’83 and Ka’Dedra Andrea Creech

Established by Gary W. Thomas ’83, an oncologist on Hilton Head Island, S.C., in memory of his parents, the scholarship is reserved for students who are planning a career in medicine – something that Creech has been determined to do for as long as she can remember.

“The one thing that impresses me most about Andrea is her total dedication to achieving her goal for a career in medicine,” says Thomas. “She will let nothing stand in her way.”

And there have been a few things in her way.

“It’s not been an easy road. I’ve had a lot of difficult things thrown at me,” admits Creech, who – on top of experiencing financial instability throughout college – had to have surgery last semester due to the degradation of one of the bones in her wrist. “But one thing about me, I never give up. I don’t know how I did it, but I’ve never given up. I don’t know how. I always pull through.”

The confidence that Thomas has in her has helped, for sure.

“Knowing Gary believes in me goes a long way. Every time we talk, he just uplifts me three notches. I really appreciate that – there’s not too many places you find that in life,” she says of her benefactor turned mentor. “Anytime I need Gary, he’s there. Even if it’s last minute, Gary always comes through. He’s not someone who just threw some money at me and walked away – he wants to be part of my success.”

For his part, Thomas is pleased to play a part in Creech’s journey – and her opportunity to study at Yale just makes him even happier.

“I am so proud of her representation of herself, the College and the J. Gorman ’43 and Gladys Thomas Alumni Scholarship,” he says. “We could not have chosen a more deserving student.”

When Creech returns to Charleston this fall, she’ll continue pursuing her medical career dreams: volunteering for CofC EMS, resuming her MUSC lab research and applying to physician assistant schools.

“I know I want to be a PA, and I know I want to continue to do research even then, so everything I’ve done at the College of Charleston has prepared me for those things,” she says, noting how far she has come since she first arrived in that lab her freshman year. “I’ve definitely seen myself grow. I’m stronger than I ever thought I could be.”

And that kind of personal success is always a welcomed discovery – especially when you have no idea what to expect.