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Research experience leads to pursuit of grad school

By Amelia Schoeneman '12
November 24, 2010

Kosaizee Yang '11 (center) worked with Professor of Biology Eric Cole (left) to solve the puzzle of an atypical scaly pearl oyster population. The experience has helped her realize she might have a career in research and prompted her to pursue graduate school.

When Kosaizee Yang '11 arrived at St. Olaf nearly four years ago, she was not only the first member of her family to attend college, but the first to have left high school with a diploma in hand.

As she soaked up the information offered in the numerous science courses and labs she took as a biology major, Yang was drawn to the idea of conducting her own research, of solving a puzzle that others had yet to put together.

"I was very excited about conducting research because it was a way for me to discover answers through hands-on learning," Yang says.

Associate Professor of Biology and Director of Biomedical Studies Jean Porterfield encouraged her to apply for St. Olaf’s new Research Experience for Undergraduates program, a National Science Foundation-funded initiative that provides opportunities for underrepresented students who have not had prior research experience. Students in the 10-week program, which includes speakers and workshops, receive a stipend and housing on campus.

Yang’s strong application caught the attention of Visiting Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Stephanie Schmidt and Assistant Professor of Biology Steve Freedberg, the faculty members who led the effort to bring the REU program to St. Olaf. They selected Yang from a group of 60 applicants for one of the 10 positions available.

For her research, Yang — along with Hal Halvorson '11 — worked with Professor of Biology Eric Cole to examine scaly pearl oysters that St. Olaf students had brought back from the Bahamas on a recent research trip.

Researchers from St. Olaf have a long history with the scaly pearl oyster. On one of the first Island Biology trips that Cole led to the Bahamas several years ago, students discovered an atypical scaly pearl oyster population. The oysters on the island of San Salvador did not follow the species' normal life history pattern of beginning their lives as males and, at the point of sexual maturity, becoming females. Half the population on San Salvador remained male at the transition point while the other half became female, and researchers weren't sure why.

Yang was especially curious. "I could see Kosaizee was really eager about this research and knew she would do well working on the puzzle of the scaly pearl oyster," Cole says.

Yang and Halvorson spent the past summer examining whether an environmental adaptation or genetic mutation caused the difference in sex characteristics. Their dedication to the question impressed Cole. "Without even visiting the island, they immersed themselves in the question and were incredibly involved," he says.

Their diligence paid off. The pair was able to conclude that both environmental adaptations and genetic mutations influenced the oysters' life trajectory. Yang and Halvorson will travel to the Bahamas in January to study the oysters in their natural habitat. They will then have an opportunity to share their research findings at the Symposium on the Natural History of the Bahamas, which will be held on San Salvador Island next June.

Piecing together the puzzle of the oysters bolstered Yang's confidence. "I had to ask my own research questions, learned to trust my instincts, and gained independence," she says.

Schmidt also noticed the change in Yang's outlook. "She’s become a different, more confident person," Schmidt says.

Now Yang is making plans to study microbiology in graduate school, a future that seemed unattainable a few years ago. "Microbiology is the hardest field in biology for me," she says. "But my experience has made me optimistic about the future and pursuing a career in research."

Contact Kari VanDerVeen at 507-786-3970 or