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The Long Way Home

One USC Dornsife student’s twisting path from the Bronx to business school to the lab — to now being honored with the University of California President's Postdoctoral Fellowship

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Kwasi Connor: Sampling Mussels off Catalina Island

Kwasi Connor, a fifth year graduate student in the Marine Environmental Biology department at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences…

Video by Mira Zimet

Late one night in 2006, Kwasi Connor entered a dark, empty laboratory at California State University, Los Angeles.

Connor, now a Ph.D. candidate in USC Dornsife, had worked at the lab for two years under the tutelage of Carlos Robles, a professor of biology at Cal State LA. For those two years he had studied ecology — specifically that of mussels — while pursuing a credential to teach biology to high-schoolers.

He graduated with a master’s degree and teaching credential, just as he had planned, and was now teaching classes, just as he had planned.

Connor had only stopped by the lab that night to borrow a book from his old mentor. But surrounded by the scientific instrumentation and other tools of a trade he had grown to love, something stirred within Connor, and his plans abruptly went out the window.

“I sat down at Carlos’ desk, and that’s when I knew,” Connor said. “You just get that feeling.”

Although Connor enjoyed teaching he wasn’t destined to become a high school teacher. He was going to be a scientist.

Six years later, Connor is on the cusp of graduating with a Ph.D. in marine environmental biology. He continued to study sea mussels in the lab of Andrew Gracey, associate professor of biological sciences in USC Dornsife, examining how the bivalves adapt to the daily fluctuating environment that is characteristic of coastlines by simulating it in the laboratory.

He is slated to defend his thesis this summer.

This point in an academic career is frequently fraught with uncertainty, especially in an uncertain economic climate. Having toiled for years in the trenches of their fields, newly minted Ph.D.s scramble for the limited number of jobs open in their highly specialized disciplines. 

Connor, who hopes to one day become a college professor, sought out postdoctoral funding through the UC system.

Recently, Connor was notified that he had won a highly competitive University of California President’s Postdoctoral Fellowship.

Only a handful of these fellowships are awarded annually for postdocs to conduct research at one of the University of California campuses for a year.

It’s an opportunity to continue pursuing his research, and a great boost for his C.V.

“This is fitting recognition of Kwasi’s hard work.” Gracey said. “This is a really prestigious award and there were over 500 candidates competing for just 12 fellowships”

On a certain level, Connor always knew he wanted to be a scientist. Growing up in the Bronx, he used to pour over his grandmother’s old National Geographic magazines, thrilled by the world of Jacques Cousteau and other famous researchers.

“You look at the images and say to yourself, ‘Where do I sign up?’ ” Connor said.

And yet, Connor’s path into the world of science was anything but traditional. He moved from the Bronx to Pasadena to attend high school, then packed a single duffel bag and shipped off to study business at Morehouse College in Georgia. Despite his fascination with biology, the move made sense at the time, he said.

“I think at a young age, you’re thinking; ‘I am supposed to get a job,’ as opposed to ‘this is my true passion.’ ”

He decided to dip a toe back into science, but in his typically practical fashion: he went back to school at Cal State LA to study to become a biology teacher.

“At the same time, I knew that I needed to work,” he said. “And what a better way to learn about teaching biology than working in a laboratory?” Connor went to work in the lab of Carlos Robles, who he described as “a pillar” in his field.

While applying for the job, he told Robles about his childhood love of environmental science and biology.

“I said, ‘Shoot, that’s what we specialize in,’ ” Robles said. Robles, an intertidal community ecologist who works with mussels, said he was initially a little skeptical of Connor because he lacked a background in science.

However, Connor’s precision and hard work shone in the lab.

For one project, Connor spent a season on the shore in British Columbia injecting a non-toxic glowing green fluid between the shells of mussels, which the mussels soaked up and incorporated into their shells — making a growth ring, like the rings in a tree stump. Connor then used these rings to measure the growth of shells with remarkable accuracy, far better than can be done with just dial calipers.

“I was so impressed with his determination,” Robles said. “At the end, when Connor said he wanted to pursue a career as a research scientist, I said; ‘You’ve really won me over.’

“He’s really remarkable,” Robles said.

Robles helped connect Connor with Gracey at USC.

Like Robles, Gracey studies mussels to unlock the secrets of the intertidal organisms. But that is where the similarities end.

Robles had helped teach Connor experimental design and fieldwork while performing ecological studies. Gracey’s research, however, focuses on the molecular biology of mussels.

“He wasn’t really working in my field,” Gracey said. “He needed a lot of training.”

Like Robles, Gracey was soon won over by Connor’s hard work and love for research. Now, six years later, Gracey frets over the impending departure of the longstanding student in his lab. The two men have published three papers together: two in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and a highly cited article in Current Biology.

For one of the PNAS articles, Connor collected samples from a community of mussels every two hours for four days straight. The sleep-depriving process yielded an incredibly fine level of resolution to the data.

“I’ll sleep when I graduate,” Connor said. Somehow, that seems unlikely.

Accountant, teacher, researcher: Connor said he does not regret the twisting path his career has taken. His diverse experiences have made him into the scientist he is today — his background in accounting and teaching giving a focus and passion to his work.

For example, Gracey credits Connor with noticing that the mussels they were preparing to study in the lab went through their usual opening-and-closing cycle even while completely submerged, leading them to suspect that the cycle was driven by circadian rather than tidal rhythms — unlike previously believed.

“That was one of the flashes of genius,” Gracey said.

With the UC President’s Postdoctoral Fellowship, Connor said he plans to study the nutritional ecology of mussels; specifically, how mussels may alter their digestive enzymes depending on available food. On a larger scale, it may help in understanding how well they are able to compensate for predicted alterations to the environment as a result of global climate change.

“This is sort of a look-see exercise. We don’t know what we’re going to find,” he said. “That’s what’s so great about doing research. It never gets boring. Every day is completely different.”

Though Kwasi will be based out of the University of California, Irvine for the duration of his fellowship, he will maintain his ties with Gracey at USC on projects and papers in the future.

“I have much more to learn from him,” Connor said.

Or, as Gracey put it: “This story isn’t over yet.”