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Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2016

From irrigation pipes to Bunsen burners

Friday, March 5, 2004

Laura Jennings
(photo by Rob Hill, Mosaics magazine)
COLUMBIA -- Working on anti-cancer drugs at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., last summer is a far cry from the irrigation pipe Laura Jennings used to help lay on her family's farm near Sikeston.

Her parents, Dan and Dianne Jennings, are well aware of their daughter's career intentions don't include working on the family farm.

"My dad kept trying to get me to major in ag economics so I tried it for a little bit," Jennings said happily. "I worked for an ag economic modeling firm and decided it wasn't really my thing."

In fact, Jennings' "thing" isn't her previous majors either -- engineering -- or pre-medicine. Rather, it's biological chemistry which will ultimately enable her to work with drug development.

Throughout the summer of 2002, Jennings also worked with small-molecule drugs as an intern for Texas A&M's Research Experience for Undergraduates, a program sponsored by the National Science Foundation.

Most recently Jennings is teaching for the chemistry department at Mizzou. Her experiences in teaching and researching led her to choose a career in biological chemistry over medicine.

"I did a lot of soul searching and did a gut check, and I really love teaching and researching so I wanted to combine both of my interests, and I haven't looked back once," Jennings said.

In May, Jennings will graduate with degrees in mathematics and chemistry while maintaining a 4.0 GPA at the University of Missouri in Columbia.

As a National Goldwater scholar, Jennings was accepted to nine five-year Ph.D. programs across the United States and plans to visit six of the nine. All of Jennings' institution visits are paid for by the Ph.D. programs, in addition to the education which includes obtaining a master's degree and a $20,000-$22,000 stipend she will receive, she said.

So far Jennings has seen the campuses of University of California, Berkeley, the University of Texas at Austin. This weekend she's checking out the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif.

From Caltech it will be off to Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Yale University. She will then swing back across the country to the University of San Diego.

Jennings' love for math and science can be traced back to high school, she admitted. The 1999 Sikeston Senior High valedictorian and head cheerleader was involved in numerous school activities and managed to keep her grades up.

"My boyfriend and I joked the other day that I've had a 4.0 GPA for nine years," Jennings laughed.

Jennings' feats are pretty admirable, noted Wanda Throop, Jennings' high school cheerleading coach and biology teacher. "We have a lot of successful students, and Laura is one of the top ones," Throop said. "She is very driven and very intelligent. She has a great attitude about learning, and this may sound corny, but she just likes to gain knowledge."

Throop noted Sikeston has a strong science and math department with graduates consistently going into fields of engineering, medicine, biochemistry and bioengineering. However, it's not as common to be accepted into as many programs and as many upper level programs as Jennings has, Throop said.

"I would say Laura is not your typical math and science major," laughed Dianne Jennings about her daughter. "She was a cheerleader. She is extremely vocal -- unlike others in her major, which are usually more introverted. And she's definitely not that."

Sikeston R-6 Superintendent Steve Borgsmiller agreed with Jennings' mother.

"She doesn't fit the mold (of a math or science major) at all," Borgsmiller said. "You take a look at her, and you see she's not geeky or anything. She's an extremely hard worker and extremely bright. She's just a neat kid."

Even Jennings admits her extroverted personality is pretty unique.

"I'm probably the only chemistry -- and the only math major -- that was in a sorority. I love being Greek and loved Greek life," she said.

Jennings said her active sorority life has been an outlet to her serious studies.

"If I did math and science 24/7, I'd go crazy," Jennings admitted.

Plus, it also helps that Jennings is organized.

"I'm a pretty productive person. I plan out my day -- every hour. If have a break between classes, I do homework. I don't watch TV. I just pretty much schedule everything," Jennings explained.

Another reason for Jennings' achievements, Throop believes, is due to the exceptional support she receives from her family.

"She comes from a family that seems to be so well-balanced. They laugh together. They just seem happy. Laura is a very stable young lady. She's good at everything she does," Throop said.

Although she has until April 15 to decide which Ph.D. program she wants to pursue, Jennings said she is leaning toward attending MIT in Cambridge, Mass., because she likes the Northeast. "My parents always t

old me I could do whatever I wanted to do. It was never doubted," Jennings said.

In addition to her family, Jennings attributes her success to confidence.

"It's just an attitude of believing in myself," she theorized. "A lot of people are hesitant (to pursue their dreams) because they think, 'I came from a small town like Sikeston,' but you have to be proud of who you are and believe in yourself."