Heartbreak to Hope: Southeast Grad Tapped for Cancer Research Post at Washington University

aarfall2016_niswongerglassesFor Southeast Missouri State University graduating senior Jessica Niswonger, it’s personal. She lost her aunt to cancer at a very young age.

Now, she hopes to translate that heartbreak to hope in a job she’s been tapped for starting Jan. 4, conducting cancer research in the Division of Oncology with Washington University in St. Louis.

Niswonger, of Piedmont, Missouri, will graduate from Southeast Dec. 17 with a Bachelor of Science in biology, microbiology, cellular and molecular biology, and biotechnology option.

“When I was in high school my aunt was diagnosed with cancer. It quickly spread and took her life. She was really young and had two young children, and my family was heartbroken by this tragedy,” she said. “I knew then that I wanted to use my love for science to help find a cure for cancer so that other people would be able to live longer lives with a better quality of life. I’m very passionate about this field and I know I will work very hard to accomplish great things with the help of such talented colleagues.”

Niswonger plans to conduct research in T cell engineering for immunotherapy of myeloid leukemia, working with 12 other researchers in a lab under the guidance of Dr. John DePersio in the Division of Oncology.

“This is my dream job,” she said. “I never in my wildest dreams thought I would be doing cancer research immediately after graduating. I am extremely excited about this opportunity. “

She said she spotted the position on Washington University’s website and, with the help of Joyce Hunter in Southeast’s Career Services, developed a solid application.

She says her experiences in the sciences at Southeast have prepared her for this next step in her journey. She has worked in the Microbiology Prep room at Southeast since May and has done two semesters of research in Dr. Mohammed Ali’s organic lab, developing a procedure for undergraduate students. This fall, she also done research with Dr. Jeremy Ellermeier, assistant professor of biology, in his microbiology lab.

“Dr. (Jim) Champine has always worked with me and helped me with any questions I have had, and if it weren’t for him I wouldn’t have had the experience in the Microbiology Prep Room,” she said.

Jessica Niswonger - Magill Hall - Graduation

In January, Jessica Niswonger will be conducting cancer research in the Division of Oncology with Washington University in St. Louis.

Her work in the microbiology prep room included preparing stock cultures, making media, cleaning and setting up teaching labs.  This included supervising students in the laboratory and preparing materials for delivery to satellite campuses, said Dr. Jim Champine, chair of the Department of Biology.

“I was pleased by her performance with such a weighty responsibility,” he said. “What stood out for me is Jessica’s willingness to do hard work.”

Niswonger says she is fortunate to have a number of mentors at Southeast.

“My advisor, Dr. (Rebeccah) Kurzhals has always encouraged me to take the right classes to prepare me for the future and always encouraged me to give 100 percent in my career search.

“And, I gained a lot of great experience in Dr. Ali’s lab that has prepared me to be confident in my work so that I know I can work successfully with minimal supervision,” she continued. “And, of course, my professors, especially during my senior year, have been incredible in advice over career choices, and in helping me do the best I can in fully understanding all the material I need to know to be prepared for my new career.”

She says being a woman in a male-dominated STEM field has never seemed out of the norm to her.

“I think with any position, hard work and giving all you’ve got is the best way to transcend any barrier arising from gender bias,” she said. “Having an excellent work ethic, a strong drive for the future, and a passion for what you are working towards will help you stand out in a crowd of other students.”

Ali says he can attest to Niswonger’s work ethic.

“I’m amazed how she manages time to do all this research after taking care of her classes,” he said. “She is a very diligent researcher. She is a hard worker and her results are reliable.  She learned laboratory techniques in a very short time.  She also learned how to use a Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectrometer (NMR) and analyze data collected using this instrument.  I’m preparing a manuscript based on her research in my lab that I plan to submit for publication in a chemistry journal. Based on the quality of her work I have no doubt that her work will be accepted for publication in a prestigious chemistry journal.”

Niswonger came to Southeast as a transfer student from Mineral Area College. She said she chose Southeast because of its location, its affordability and safety near the campus.

As she prepares to take the next step, she says she hopes her work could one day lead to a breakthrough.

“I hope to gain a lot of knowledge and experience from my colleagues that I can use to spark new ideas in my research lab,” she said. “Ideally, I just want to be able to contribute to helping to find a cure for cancer, so that people with cancer can go through treatments in the most successful and pain-free way possible, and remain cancer free for the rest of their lives.”