Early early career researcher

This entry is part 17 of 28 in the series Fall - 2017
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Most college students finish their undergraduate degrees around the age of 22. But Crystal Vander Zanden isn’t most students.

The 23-year-old Arizona native just left Colorado State University with a Ph.D. in biochemistry – the youngest ever from the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

The soft-spoken, unassuming Vander Zanden defended her thesis in June, after six years at CSU. In the fall, she will begin a National Institutes of Health-funded postdoctoral fellowship at the University of New Mexico, where she’ll conduct research on Alzheimer’s disease-related proteins while also teaching at a local community college.


Growing up in Glendale, Ariz., Vander Zanden was home-schooled and quickly advanced at her own pace. At age 8, she asked her mother if she could enroll in a college-level biology course and, after passing an entrance exam, took her first course at Glendale Community College at the age of 9. She graduated from Glendale High School at age 13.

Vander Zanden went on to Nebraska’s Doane College, majoring in biochemistry. She was a student researcher in the lab of Assistant Professor Erin Wilson, studying the biochemical properties of protein adsorption in bone. Her family – mom, stepdad, and younger siblings – all moved to Nebraska while she was there.

Choosing CSU for her Ph.D. was easy for Vander Zanden, who interviewed for the graduate program when she was 17. She fell in love with Fort Collins and the campus, and with the close-knit biochemistry department.

“People were laid back, but still doing fantastic science,” she said.

Before she turned 18, Vander Zanden began her doctorate work under the mentorship of Professor Shing Ho. With Ho, she learned “how to think as an independent scientist,” to come up with her own questions, and to “figure out what’s interesting about the data you’ve just collected.”

Ho said when Vander Zanden first joined his lab, she was put on a project about halogen bonding. Soon after, he asked her to change focus to a new study – on which she would eventually write her thesis – for determining hydroxymethylcytosine’s role in DNA recombination, the process by which damaged DNA fixes itself. This switch required Vander Zanden to learn techniques outside the expertise of Ho’s lab, and to create an entirely new research direction.

“It took determination and real courage as a scientist to take this leap of faith, and I could not imagine any other student of her age, or any age, taking on such a challenge,” Ho said.

A compassionate individual and a source of intellectual and emotional support for many, Vander Zanden has earned the respect of students, faculty, and others around her, Ho added. “It has been a genuine honor to have played a part in helping Crystal find her passion in science and in teaching these past six years.”


During her time at CSU, Vander Zanden received a National Institutes of Health pre-doctoral fellowship and the College of Natural Sciences Graduate Student Excellence in Teaching Award. She was a teaching assistant in two courses, including physical biochemistry – among the most challenging undergraduate courses.

Vander Zanden said she routinely had 10 or more students crammed into her office during office hours. And that’s where she discovered how much she enjoys teaching.

“It was an awesome thing to teach students until they actually understood something, and they felt empowered within themselves,” Vander Zanden said.

She doesn’t take education – and its opportunities – lightly.

“Education is one of the only means we have in our society to do better than our parents,” Vander Zanden said. “It’s an amazing thing, and I want to be a part of that.”

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