Sanford School of Medicine School of Medicine

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Kathleen Eyster, Ph.D.

Kathleen Eyster

Biology Major Discovers
Career in Research                

By Pat Mack

Kathleen Eyster knew she wanted a biology degree. But she had no idea what she would do with it.

The usual choices - high school teacher, doctor, lab technician - were all admirable professions but they didn't call to her. So she dropped out of Southwestern Oklahoma State University. Two years later, she returned to finish her biology degree, still unsure about what do after graduation.

Then one of her science professors asked about her summer plans. "I said I was going to go to summer school and take biochemistry, which is not a fun thing," Eyster said.

The professor, Robert Lynn, Ph.D., suggested she apply for a summer research position. "You will really like research," he told her.

A career in research had not occurred to her because research at the university  was limited. She applied to the summer research program at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces and was accepted.

Her career path was revealed. "I knew I wanted to do research for the rest of my life," Eyster said.

And she has. She joined the medical school's basic biomedical sciences faculty at USD in 1988. She's received a shelf full of awards, including the Outstanding Educator Award from basic biomedical sciences in 2008 and a USD's President's Research Award in 2004. "I've spent my whole life doing research in women's health," she said.

Her most recent work involves the medical school's Obstetrics & Gynecology Department, in which she has a joint appointment.

Eyster and Keith Hansen, M.D., chair of the OB/GYN department, collaborated on a major study on endometriosis, a condition that affects five to 15 percent of women. The condition occurs when tissue, like the cells lining the uterus, grows in other places. It can cause chronic pain, irregular bleeding and infertility.

There is not a very good way to treat endometriosis. Eyster said surgery is really the only option. Chemical menopause can temporarily relieve symptoms but it's not safe beyond six months."If we can get a better understanding of the pathology and the causes of this condition, we can treat it in a safer way," Eyster said.

This fall, Eyster and Hansen are publishing what they've learned so far about the pathology of endometriosis in two book chapters. Eyster's first research interest was endocrinology. That led to work in signal transduction and now genomics. Her findings have been published in top national journals.

Ron Lindahl, Ph.D., dean of the basic biomedical sciences division, gave Eyster credit for developing a core facility in genomics for the medical school. He said Eyster also has done a marvelous job in mentoring young scientists, whether they are graduate students or young faculty members. "Her research skills have made her one of the most productive scientists in the medical school," Lindahl said.

In a field still dominated by men, Eyster loves the chance to serve as a role model for young women embarking on a career in science. But she works to let all young people know a biology degree is a good foundation for many careers. In fact, she's developed a brochure and Powerpoint presentation entitled, "101 Things to Do with a Biology Degree." The second year she made her presentation at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, a college official told her one student wasn't coming back to hear her again because he did not need to. He had heard her speak the year before. At that time, he was ready to switch his major but her words convinced him to continue seeking a degree in biology. "He had found a career path," she said. "That was rewarding to hear."

About 20 years after leaving Southwestern Oklahoma State, where Professor Lynn pointed her onto her research path, Eyster  returned to her alma mater. She even had a chance to meet with Lynn. "I had the chance to tell him that he changed my life," she said. "That was pretty cool."