VERMILLION, S.D. -- It was a long and extraordinary road that led Yun “Winnie” Zou to The University of South Dakota.
Less than a decade ago, Zou was living in the city in the mountains of China; however, prior to her freshman year of high school, her mother, Nan Jiang, was hired by the math department at USD and before she knew it, Winnie was living in Vermillion – a small community with no mountains.
"It was difficult," admitted Zou, who was recently named USD's 10th Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship recipient. "I didn't speak any English, but it was good for me. I got to make American friends but at the same time it wasn't like home," she paused, then added, "I didn't have a place with a lot of mountains."
Zou, the daughter of Xiaoli Zou, a university professor in China, and Jiang, an associate professor in mathematical sciences at USD, is used to having to climb in order to overcome adversity. Despite not being able to speak any words of English as a high school freshman, Winnie Zou has excelled in both the classroom and the research laboratory at The U. By her senior year in high school, her English and academics were strong enough that she was able to earn a George S. Mickelson Scholarship to USD and graduate at the top of her class. Moreover, without any experience in molecular biology, she caught on very quickly ascending rapidly in terms of research and experiments.
"She is unquestionably the most outstanding and brightest undergraduate student I have had in my laboratory," stated Alexandre Erkine, assistant professor in the division of basic biomedical sciences at USD. "Being an absolute novice in the area of experimental molecular biology, she showed exceptional abilities to quickly grasp many theoretical as well as practical concepts of our work."
In a short period of time, according to Dr. Erkine, Zou learned how to amplify a target DNA sequence from the genomic DNA for cloning purposes, how to manipulate genes in vitro and how to insert them back into the chromosome.
"Academically, Winnie is an exceptional mathematician and scientist," added Susan Hackemer, associate director of the Honors Program and Coordinator of Competitive Scholarships at USD. "She is driven to master complex material and only settles for full understanding. Faculty members add that her ingenuity and desire for rigor sets her apart from most other students."
Fascinated with lab work involving molecular chaperones – complicated research that involves fixing damaged proteins of cells in the body, Zou's keen interest in research is only the tip of the iceberg for the chemistry major, whose research interests are related to the development of new chemotherapeutic drug treatments for pervasive and problematic diseases such as cancer genesis. Her work was already reported during the prestigious Jacques Monod Conference in France in 2008, and Zou is a co-author of the paper submitted to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"As a freshman, they wanted someone to help in the lab," Zou said of signing up as a first-year student to work in the laboratory. "I didn't think they would take me but, instead, they were very patient and taught me everything."
Once Zou has completed her undergraduate degree at USD, she hopes to get an M.D./Ph.D. to conduct basic biomedical research. Her goal as a scientist, though, is to merge the work a doctor with the work of a researcher so information from the clinic to the lab isn't delayed and vice versa.
"This is a very demanding career path and Yun is well prepared for it," Erkine noted. "She is exceptionally organized and able to easily switch between experimental work in molecular biology and a demanding honors undergraduate program."
Zou will stay in Vermillion during the summer after traveling home to China the past several years. It’s a decision that indicates how much she enjoys the "smaller town without mountains." It also shows she has more mountains to climb in her research and education.
"USD gave me a lot of surprises," admitted Zou, who was attracted to the Vermillion campus for its size. "I have no regrets coming here. There are so many opportunities that I would not have had somewhere else."
Recipients of the Goldwater Scholarship receive up to $7,500 per year to cover the cost of tuition, fees, books, and room and board. This year, 278 scholarships were awarded on the basis of academic merit. More than 1,097 mathematics, science and engineering students, nominated by the faculties of colleges and universities nationwide, applied for the scholarship program, which is designed to foster and encourage outstanding students to pursue careers in the fields of mathematics, the natural sciences and engineering. The Goldwater Scholarship is the premier undergraduate award of its type in these fields. In its 21-year history, the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation has awarded 5,801 scholarships worth approximately $56 million.