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Those who can, Duluth - Stories

Brian Kobilka | Yusuf Abdullah | Kirsten Kvalsten | Guangzhen "Po" Zhou | Lori Ogren | Ray Beier

Brian Kobilka

Brian Kobilka

Nobel Prize Honors Decades of Research

Brian Kobilka wanted to know more about cells. He wanted to know how they adapt to a new situation and how they sense their environment. The research would improve pharmaceuticals, which in turn would help people.

Kobilka's inherent curiosity, determination, and inexhaustible research led to the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, which he shared with fellow researcher Robert Lefkowitz. Their exploration began in the 1980s, but even before then, when Kobilka was a UMD student, his professors saw great potential.

"He was such a good student," said UMD Chemistry Professor Robert Carlson. "Biology Professor Conrad Firling and I set up a collaboration so Brian could combine chemistry and molecular biology research. It was the first time we set up that kind of interdisciplinary cooperation."

Over the years, Firling never forgot the Little Falls native who attended his classes. "He was a fantastic student, very brilliant, and a tremendous athlete. I talked about him in class to get students excited about research. Brian was an incredibly nice guy," said Firling. "It was very clear Brian was someone special."

After Kobilka graduated summa cum laude from UMD in 1977 with Bachelor of Science degrees in biology and chemistry, he continued his life learning and earned a medical degree from the Yale University School of Medicine.

In 1984, Kobilka applied for a fellowship with Lefkowitz at Duke University in Durham, N.C. The journey to the Nobel Prize with Lefkowitz began with tremendous scientific discoveries that gave credence to future research.

Among these achievements, Kobilka and his colleagues in the Lefkowitz lab isolated the first gene for a hormone-activated G protein coupled receptor (the beta 2 adrenergic receptor) and found that this receptor protein was very similar in basic structure to that of rhodopsin, the receptor for light. The careful study and relentless pursuit to understand the structure of the beta 2 adrenergic receptor in his lab at Stanford University led to a 2011 success in which the team produced a three-dimensional image of a receptor bound to its signaling molecule. In other words, his quest to understand cells and how they interact was realized and portrayed in a tangible 3-D model. The breakthrough captured an image of the receptor for adrenaline at the moment when it is activated by a hormone and sends a signal into the cell. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences called the image "a molecular masterpiece." About half of all medications act on these receptors, including beta-blockers and antihistamines.

The knowledge and understanding of a once invisible world will allow scientists to further develop medical treatments and advance pharmaceuticals. Kobilka and Lefkowtiz's 2012 Nobel Prize in Chemistry is well deserved.

Those who can, never stop exploring.

Photo: Brian K. Kobilka (left) receiving his Nobel Prize from His Majesty King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden.
Copyright © Nobel Media AB 2012 Photo: Alex Ljungdahl

Yusuf Abdullah

Yusef Abdullah

Leadership in Academics and Sports

When Yusuf Abdullah spoke at UMD in fall 2012, he brought an important message: "Strength and peace come from within."

Abdullah came to UMD from Racine, Wis. He was recruited by alumnus Harry Oden to play basketball. He worked with Ken Foxworth in the Student Equity Program, and he met a group of friends who encouraged him to join the Black Student Association. "At first I struggled," Abdullah said. "Very few people looked like me."

In his junior year, in a lecture hall as the only African American among 200 white students, Abdullah found his mantra. "As I sat in that classroom, I realized that my contribution was important. I was giving as much to my classmates as they were giving to me.
I felt at peace."

Abdullah graduated in 1999 with a degree in education, then went on the earn his Master of Education from UMD in 2007. He worked hard and achieved strong success in all of his career moves, beginning at UMD as assistant basketball coach and admissions counselor. He worked at Dunwoody Institute and Henry High School and now is assistant principal at Nellie Stone Johnson Middle School. He never stopped coaching tumbling and basketball.

Abdullah married Nneka Harris, whom he met early on at UMD. Nneka ('05) earned her master's degree and now coordinates the Youth Career Awareness Program at Dunwoody Institute.

Wherever he has gone, from tumbling events with a group of American Indian children, to the Minneapolis Principals' Academy, Abdullah's message, "Peace comes from within," brings strength, power, and inspiration.

Those who can, inspire others.

Photo: Assistant Principal Yusuf Abdullah at Nellie Stone Johnson Middle School.

Kirsten Kvalsten

Kirsten Kvalsten

Spotlight on Politics and Communication

There is a spirit of ingenuity and creative connectedness reflected in Kirsten Kvalsten's career. Most of the time, careers match the degree: An accounting major works in a finance department; an art major manages a museum; a math major teaches math.

But what about a communications major with a minor in theatre entering the political arena? 

"All of the UMD theatre classes prepared me for Capitol Hill, especially stage direction," said alumna Kirsten Kvalsten, who, since graduation in May 2011, has worked for Senator John Hoeven of North Dakota in Washington, D.C., as his deputy scheduler.

The demand for excellent organization, setting goals with follow through, and pristine communication are constant requirements. Even though there were challenges along the way during her college career, Kvalsten remained true to her passion for theatre and communication. 

"I love that I use the poise, organization, and vocal skills I learned as a theatre minor. One class I particularly enjoyed in college was my directing class. I feel that I can use the skills and lessons from that class on a daily basis, understanding how all the parts of the office work together to help the senator serve North Dakota. In directing, I learned how all the moving parts in a production work to create a final product, the performance. I use that mentality in D.C. as all the working parts of a congressional office work toward a particular goal. My studies unquestionably helped me to get to where I am."

Those who can, see connections.

Photo: On Capitol Hill, Kirsten Kvalsten draws upon lessons learned in theatre studies. Photo Kami Capener

Guangzhen "Po" Zhou

Guangzhen Zhou

Shaping a Bridge Between Cultures

As a young man, Guangzhen Zhou, also known as Po, worked grueling hours in factories, painting on rice paper and carving Chinese stamps. In the evening, the aspiring artist attended English classes.

After taking the English language test in Shanghai, he applied to ten schools he had randomly selected from a catalog of American colleges and universities. "Fortunately, I was accepted at UMD and offered financial aid," Po said.

With support from UMD ceramic faculty members Tom Kerrigan and Jim Klueg, Po excelled. "The thing that struck me was his determination and his energy," Klueg said. After graduating from UMD in 1991 with an M.A., Po earned an M.F.A. from San Jose State University. He married Jane Chen, whom he met while taking English language classes in Shanghai. She is now a senior physical designer at Intel Corporation.

Today, Po's passion is bringing ceramics information to and from China and the Western world. Several times a year, Po offers tours to China for artists and educators. He also teaches classes for people of all ages at his ceramic art studio, The Clayground.

Po has written numerous books and articles about ceramics, as well as an autobiography, Carrying Clay Art on my Iron Shoulder. Po's art has been exhibited widely both in the U.S. and China and expresses, as Po says, "visual power, surrealistic shock, and a sense of humor."

Those who can, embrace wonder.

Photo: A giant ceramic hand by Guangzhen "Po" Zhou illustrates greed in the piece Filling Up One's Desire.
Image courtesy of Guangzhen "Po" Zhou

Lori Ogren

Lori Ogren

Improving Lives in Africa

She's enjoyed laughter with teammates and cheers from crowds, but it's the songs that alumna Lori Ogren heard in Africa that linger most in her memories.

At UMD, she excelled in basketball, volleyball, and softball. After graduating in 1986 with a physical/health education degree and a minor in coaching, she took part in six Olympic Festivals and competed in team handball in the 1992 Summer Olympic Games. She was inducted into UMD's Hall of Fame in 2001.

In 2010, she traveled to Rwanda and Lesotho with professional golfer Betsy King and others from King's charitable organization, Golf Fore Africa. For Ogren, the trip was transformative.

There she heard the songs that have stayed with her: songs of joy that welcomed her in towns and villages, songs of gratitude from caregivers who received HIV supplies, and songs of prayer. "The harmonies reach right into your soul," she recalled.

She spent time with the people. "It was amazing to hear stories from the grandmothers who had survived the genocide in Rwanda." She also met two little girls whom she sponsors.  "When you sponsor a child, you can see the difference you are making. The whole family benefits," she said.

Perhaps because she teaches physical education in a high school in California, it's the kids she remembers most. "Children are the same around the world, filled with hopes and dreams for a better tomorrow." Ogren wants to return. "My feet are here, but my heart is in Africa."

Those who can, listen with their hearts.

Photo: Lori Ogren with Florence Ishimwe, one of two children she sponsors in Africa. Photo courtesy of Lori Orgen

Ray Beier

Ray Beier

Understanding Perspectives, Building Relationships

It's been said that happiness is achieved when what one thinks, says, and does is in harmony. For alumnus Ray Beier, this has proven to be true. "I feel incredibly fortunate to be a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers," he said.

The culture at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) aligns with Beier's values. "PwC knows that it's about understanding our client's perspectives, knowing the standards that apply, and building relationships. Listening is so critical. Appreciating a client's needs and doing the right thing is crucial to bringing value," he said.

A Duluth native, Beier majored in accounting at UMD and graduated in 1978. He then went on to earn his M.B.A. in finance at the Carlson School of Management on the University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus. While his job may, at times, involve numbers, it is extensively about people. "It's about appreciating different points of view."

Beier shares PwC's emphasis on mentoring its people. "Mentoring is a day-to-day activity." He works with younger partners to help them "understand the rules, think through and communicate the process to their client and why the suggested approach will work. I'm excited helping my younger partners, helping them convert complicated concepts into easy-to-understand language."

Beier believes strongly in PwC's future. "The partners are committed to serving the capital markets and leaving the firm better than we found it." PwC has made it a priority to hire individuals from diverse backgrounds and cultures, but with one common denominator: "Their talent," he said, "is off the chart."

Those who can, share knowledge.

Photo: For Ray Beier, success is focusing on people, not just numbers. Photo Glenn Jussen

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Last modified on 03/11/13 02:51 PM
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