By Mike Humby
To say that senior Dakota McCoy has a lot on her plate would be an understatement. While achieving high academic honors in her double majors of ecology and evolutionary biology, McCoy also makes time to compete in hurdles and javelin events on the Yale track team, performs and travels with a Yale women's a cappella singing group, and, until recently, worked in the paleontology division at the Peabody Museum. Add to this her latest achievement – receiving a Rhodes Scholarship to study environmental science at Oxford University in the fall.
McCoy grew up in Wexford, Pa., a small town near Pittsburgh, where many of the residents are huge Steelers fans. She recalls how she and her four siblings spent countless hours playing outside and participating in "fun runs", which her father organized for the entire family around their neighborhood or at local parks. Her dad would leave jugs of water at strategic spots along the way and allow his five children to run at their own pace, knowing that their efforts would be rewarded with a delicious bagel breakfast at the end of the route.
McCoy first discovered her love for organized track in the seventh grade, when her older sister ran on the school team. After entering North Allegheny High School, McCoy played tennis, was the starting shortstop on her championship softball team, and also earned her black belt in taekwondo. Although she enjoyed these sports, McCoy gravitated toward the track team because of the close-knit, supportive community it provided.
"There isn't quite anything like sweating and toiling together through eight 400m repeats to make really good friends," she said.
When it came time to choose a college, Yale was "the perfect place" for McCoy.
"I knew I could pursue high-quality Division I athletics, high quality academic teaching, and the chance to continue musical extracurricular activities," she said.
McCoy was also impressed by Yale's unique commitment to link undergraduates to outstanding professors who help them design and pursue original research.
As a member of Yale's track team, McCoy's two specialty events are the hurdles and the javelin. She loves the hurdles because of the technique, speed and mental focus it requires. She also took advantage of her softball training to become a very proficient javelin thrower, emphasizing that, "There is something awesome about exerting all your effort in a split second."
Competing at such a high level demands diligent practice and preparation.
"It's all about practicing the way you want to compete. I try to be sure to get lots of sleep, hydration, and healthy foods leading up to both competition and hard work-out days," McCoy said.
McCoy's most memorable race was the 2011 Ivy League Outdoor Heptagonal Championships, which was hosted that year by Yale. She was competing in the 4x400 meter race with three of her best friends when she was overcome by the significance of this event.
"I felt as if the storied history of Yale athletics stretched out before and after me in time and space. I was lucky enough to be part of a tradition far greater than myself, "McCoy said.
McCoy's intellectual accomplishments are quite impressive. During her sophomore year, she received the prestigious Goldwater Scholarship, which recognizes students for excellence in math, science and engineering.
"I was very surprised and felt totally honored. I almost couldn't believe I was being grouped with such outstanding scientists. I also owe this honor in large part to my mentor, Leo Buss, who encouraged me to apply and guided me through the process."
McCoy also credits her sister, Victoria who won the award as a student at Michigan State for inspiring her interests in math and science.
The Branford College resident reached her highest academic achievement this year when she was chosen as one of only seven Yale students to receive a Rhodes Scholarship. She will enroll at Oxford University in October where she will study for master's degrees in both zoology and environmental policies. McCoy said she hopes to use science to make the world a better place.
"I intend to make a difference at many levels, helping us understand the natural world, taking intelligent steps to preserve it, and communicating the beauty and wonder of science to others," she said.
McCoy comes from a very accomplished family. They made a significant impact on her academic and athletic choices. Her mother, Mary Marazita, is a professor of genetics at the University of Pittsburgh, and is also known as an expert quilter and outstanding cook. Her father, Richard McCoy, has both a JD and a PhD in physics, and worked as an attorney before becoming a transactional specialist for the computer hardware industry in Silicon Valley. Her two older sisters, Marty and Tory, each received full scholarships to Michigan State. Marty studied zoology and English and went on to earn a law degree at Harvard, while Tory majored in math and paleobiology, and is currently working toward her PhD in invertebrate paleontology at Yale. Completing the family is Tom, McCoy's only brother, a high school senior who is in the midst of choosing his college for next year, and Sammie, a 10th grader who shares her family's interests in science and sports and aspires to go into medicine.
McCoy worked at the Peabody Museum in their vertebrate paleontology division for her first three years at Yale. Some of her duties were to photograph fossils while learning the correct way to label, identify, and catalogue them. She was forced to give up this position as a senior to devote more time to completing her thesis.
McCoy also is passionate about music. For the past three years she sang in Yale's classic a cappella group, "The New Blue". As a senior, she auditioned for and joined "Whim and Rhythm", an all-senior, all-female counterpart to the "Whiffenpoofs". As a member of these groups, McCoy has traveled to Paris, London, Puerto Rico and Los Angeles and performed at a variety of campus and community events.
Music has also become a way for McCoy to deal with the demands of her hectic schedule and a great way to bond with other coeds.
"A cappella is the perfect outlet for stress from classes. I love that it unites strong friendships with the opportunity for high-quality musical expression. It is incredibly important to me, and it's hard to imagine going through life with no musical outlet," McCoy said.
As graduation quickly approaches, Cody, as she is known to her friends, places great value on the strong bonds she has formed with her peers and colleagues.
"Most of my all-time memories feature late-night conversations with my friends about philosophy, sports, cognitive science, movies and everything else under the sun," she said. "And this is what I will miss about Yale. I will miss all the people, all of my peers, professors, and coaches whom I have come to like and respect so much. The community is what sets Yale apart. Even when we are spread to all corners of the world, the Yale community persists. The friends and connections we make will last forever."