KU News Release

May 19, 2011
Contact: Jill Jess, University Relations, 785-864-8858

Graduation stories: Jennifer Kissinger discovers new species of tapeworm

More Information

LAWRENCE — University of Kansas senior Jennifer M. Kissinger has carved a niche in the taxonomy of parasites by discovering four new species of tapeworms living in the gut of guitarfish.

Kissinger, a former daycare provider, is scheduled to graduate Sunday, May 22, with distinction from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences with a bachelor’s degree in cellular biology. She wants to study veterinary medicine.

Jennifer Kissinger (photo by David McKinney/University Relations)

The road from daycare provider to making a scientific discovery required nearly 20 years.

Kissinger entered KU as a freshman immediately after her graduation from Lawrence High School in 1992. Her high school grades had been good, but her freshman year in college was not.

“I flunked out,” she says bluntly.

Looking back, she doesn’t allow much forgiveness for that year. “I think I was just plain lazy.”

Twelve years elapsed before Kissinger decided to return to school. During that time, her son, Ben, was born and she began working as a self-employed daycare provider. But the job didn’t provide health care benefits or paid vacations and after nine years, Kissinger needed options to make health insurance affordable and vacations possible.

“I had no marketable skills and I have always loved animals,” she said, so she began volunteering on weekends at Jarrett Small Animal Clinic in Lawrence. Within a year, Kissinger knew she wanted to be a veterinarian.

First she needed a bachelor’s degree.

She closed her daycare service and, despite a nagging fear of failure, enrolled at Johnson County Community College. She remembers: “I had dreams of flunking out. I felt I was too old.”

She asked her significant other and son's father, Tim Richards, to accompany her at registration, help her find her classrooms, meet her professors and calm her jitters.

Her fears melted one “A” at a time.

“I got my first A in biology and first A in algebra and I was like a little kid,” she said. “I kept getting them, so I kept trying.”

When she transferred to KU in 2006, “I was quite a bit more determined.”

She has maintained a 3.9 grade-point average and explored research and teaching opportunities while keeping pace with her job at the veterinary clinic and her family’s needs.

She discovered the tapeworms as an undergraduate participating in research in the lab of Kirsten Jensen, associate professor of organismal biology. Jensen specializes in researching the diversity and morphology of parasites — specifically tapeworms, parasitizing stingrays and their relatives.

In April, Kissinger was the only KU undergraduate to present the results of her research in the form of an oral presentation at the annual meeting of the Southwestern Association of Parasitologists at Lake Texoma, Okla.

Without Jensen’s encouragement, Kissinger says, she would not have considered giving a talk to scientists on her tapeworm discovery.

“I didn’t want to go. I was sure I was going to be a fool,” Kissinger said. “Had I not gone, I would have missed my first conference and huge part of my school experience.”

This summer, she plans to write her first scientific paper with Jensen describing the new tapeworms. Publication would make her discovery official.

A self-described workaholic, Kissinger has filled her final semester to the brim. She worked four to five days a week at the veterinary clinic; served as an undergraduate teaching assistant for an anatomy class taught by David McLeod, lecturer in biology; and worked as an undergraduate assistant for two KU scientists — Jensen and Mizuki Azuma, assistant professor of molecular biology.

“It’s my last semester and I wanted to get everything out of school that I could and I’m loving it,” Kissinger said.

Her graduation will be clouded by the loss of two family members. Her paternal grandmother died in December 2009 and her father, Edmund Kissinger of Kansas City, Kan., died in February 2010.

She plans to celebrate the day with her son and Richards, her companion of 16 years; her mother, Janet Kissinger of Shawnee; and her two sisters, Michelle and Julie and their families.

She describes her mom as “the ultimate role model in my life. She raised three daughters as a single parent and got her master’s degree. She’s the driving factor that kept us all sane” during some rough family experiences. Janet Kissinger earned a bachelor’s degree in human development in 1995 and a master’s degree in education in 2001.

Before continuing her education, Kissinger says she wants to spend some time with her son and his father “without my face in a book.”

The University of Kansas is a major comprehensive research and teaching university. University Relations is the central public relations office for KU's Lawrence campus.

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