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Wexford woman earns Rhodes Scholarship

| Sunday, Nov. 18, 2012, 10:42 a.m.

As an intern at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh, Dakota “Cody” McCoy showed Penny the Amazon parrot a ball and tried to teach it to say the word.

Instead, the parrot squawked. After the bird made different squawks for other objects, McCoy realized it was not dumb.

“Penny was teaching Cody how to speak parrot. That made her think about how animals think and behave,” said her father, Richard McCoy, 57, of Wexford.

The Rhodes Trust announced on Saturday that McCoy, a Yale University senior, can further her studies of animals at Oxford University in England, starting in October.

She is one of 32 students from the United States and 80 worldwide to receive Rhodes Scholarships, considered the most prestigious in the world and worth about $50,000 a year for two or three years. She plans to get a master's degree in zoology and study the learning of animals, their ecosystems and environmental policy.

“I'm over the moon right now,” said McCoy, 22, of Wexford. “It's a great opportunity to use my science to help the world.”

At Yale, she throws the javelin and runs hurdles on the school's track team. She reads hieroglyphics and sings alto in the women's a cappella group, Whim 'n Rhythm. She binds books by hand and knows how to do letterpress printing.

Leo W. Buss, her academic adviser, said professors occasionally meet a student who is a cut above the rest.

“I've been at Yale 33 years, and I've seen three of them. And Cody is one of them,” Buss said. “She's in a different league.”

Her parents are Richard T. McCoy, an attorney and theoretical particle physicist, and Mary L. Marazita, professor and vice chairwoman of the Department of Oral Biology at the University of Pittsburgh.

McCoy said her parents used to spend 15 minutes a day before work and school to teach their children how to read and do math. Her two older sisters would read books to her about nature.

She took calculus in sixth grade and courses at Pitt, Carnegie Mellon and La Roche universities until she went to Yale.

Her father marvels at her kindness when she was in high school.

“Before the dances, she would be on the phone, trying to pair up the boys and girls who were not yet paired up,” he said.

He enjoys her goofy side, too. She likes to wear unmatched socks and the color orange whenever possible.

“We had to find her an orange prom dress,” he said. “Trust me, that's not easy.”

She wrote three research papers at Yale that were published in peer-reviewed journals, Buss said. They dealt with how birds of different sizes respond to climate change; how a bird ate, based on a 15 million-year-old fossil; and how primates learn.

“She's behaving at a level professional scientists are engaged in,” he said.

McCoy won the Rhodes and Yale's Francis Gordon Brown Award, both once reserved for men.

“It's clear that women are the equal of men in academic fields and all fields,” she said.

Bill Zlatos is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7828 or bzlatos@tribweb.com.

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