USD professor dies after falling from house balcony

USD professor dies after falling from house balcony by David Lias A University of South Dakota professor, respected for her intellect and outgoing personality, died Saturday after falling from a balcony.

Sharon Coles, a professor at USD's School of Medicine, and a foreign exchange student she was hosting in Vermillion were decorating Coles' residence at 224 Forest Street for Halloween when the accident occurred at approximately 5:30 p.m.

According to the Vermillion Police Department, Coles and the student were stringing lights from a garage to a second story balcony Saturday.

"While they were on the balcony, they were both leaning over the railing," Police Chief Bruce Plate said, "and the railing gave way."

Coles and the student fell, landing on a sidewalk. The student, who apparently landed on her feet, wasn't seriously injured.

Coles, however, suffered head and neck injuries, Plate said. She died at Sioux Valley Vermillion Hospital.

A counselor from Vermillion High School met with the foreign exchange student and made arrangements to have her placed with another Vermillion family, Plate said.

Unfortunately, there will be no way to quickly replace the important role that Coles was playing at the medical school, according to Ron Lindahl, dean of basic biomedical sciences.

It will also be difficult, he added, to find an individual with her unique education, talent and qualifications.

Coles received a bachelor's degree from Texas Christian University, a master's degree from the University of Houston and a doctorate degree from Oxford University in England.

She had just finished her first year of employment at the USD Medical School, Lindahl said, and played a key role in helping the school receive an $8 million grant from the National Institute of Health for expanded research on the brain.

Lindahl, who was involved in Coles' hiring for her position at the USD Medical School, said people who interviewed her found her highly qualified both as a teacher and as a researcher.

"I think everybody thought she was pretty enthusiastic and outgoing," he said. "That was pretty obvious. Everybody thought she was a very good fit with the small kind of community that we have here at the school of medicine."

Lindahl said Coles was a very good scientist. "She probably had very good potential to become an outstanding scientist. She was starting to get her feet wet in the teaching this year, and seemed to be doing very well in that."

He said the current faculty at the medical school will have to pick up Coles' responsibility. And, sadly, the professor's death means some research will either have to be put on hold or perhaps not occur.

"The more difficult thing is she had several people working in her laboratory and probably most of that research cannot go on because she's not there to lead it, so eventually we'll have to find other things for those students to do," Lindahl said. "But I think we'll take our time in trying to find somebody that can replace the kinds of expertise that Sharon brought to us. We'll stand back and assess what we need to do."

A memorial service for Coles was held at 1 p.m. Tuesday at the Iverson-Siecke Funeral Home in Vermillion. The University Women's Club hosted a reception for USD staff following the service in the medical school building.

"Those that were closest to her here have been taking it the hardest," Lindahl said. "I was very touched at the private service that we had here, about the number of people that showed up and the number of people who had things to say, so I think the impact was pretty significant.

"She was a pretty bubbly, outgoing person who was trying to make things happen, and when you've got someone like that, those kinds of losses hurt, no doubt," he added. "Everybody has just pulled together and tried to help out the best they can. We will miss her."

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