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Dr. Anna Cunningham, 29

Assistant Professor of Biology, Missouri Southern State University

Anna Cunningham started college at Missouri Southern as an English major, but when biology professor Dr. Jim Jackson invited her to apply for a lab tech position, she took a chance and fell in love with the job. She started graduate school at the University of Missouri a month after her 2008 graduation from MSSU and now, nearly seven years later, she has a PhD in Microbiology and is back where it all started.

“This summer I teach microbiology, and it’s my dream come true,” Cunningham says. “It’s my professors here who got me to that, and I can’t think of anything more rewarding than being able to do the same thing for other students.”

Cunningham’s love for Joplin is as deep as her love for MSSU. She devotes significant time to Third Thursday, a monthly festival on Main Street in downtown Joplin. With her husband, Cody, out of town finishing his own PhD, Cunningham spends time helping young science fans through the Missouri Southern Regional Science Fair and conducting afternoon workshops and is a member of the American Association of Immunologists.


Job title and where you work: Assistant Professor of Biology, Missouri Southern State University


  • High School: McAuley High School
  • Undergraduate: Missouri Southern State University (BS, Biology – Honors; cum laude)
  • Graduate: University of Missouri (PhD, Microbiology)

City or town where you live: Joplin


1. How did you end up at your current job/profession?

I attended Missouri Southern as a student in the Biology department and absolutely loved it. I was the lab technician for numerous labs in the department and thus became very close with many of the faculty. I admired them as people and as professionals and was determined to follow in their amazing footsteps. I attended graduate school at Mizzou with the intent to obtain my PhD in Microbiology so that I would be able to teach at the college level. Upon graduation, I moved back to Joplin and began adjunct teaching at Missouri Southern and Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College. Soon after, I accepted a position as Assistant Professor at Missouri Southern. I absolutely LOVE it here and am so happy to now be a colleague of some of the most wonderful  and inspirational people that I have ever met!


2. Where do you find passion to do what you do?

First off, I should say: you have to have passion to teach. It is an extremely dynamic job. You have to dedicate yourself to education, but also to the welfare of your students. At the end of the day, you are responsible for making sure the students have the appropriate knowledge and support that will enable them to become who they want to in life. This is a big responsibility and is very difficult, but is also the most rewarding thing I could ever do. I put everything into my job. It is my hobby, and it is my passion. I love coming up with new ways in which I can present the information to the students and ways in which I can interact with the students. I am invested in the success of every one of my students: their successes are my successes, their failures are my failures. The students are so fun to interact with- they make all the hard work worth it. Plus, since I have a captive audience (!), I have the ability to goof off a little bit. Making people laugh is one of my favorite things to do. I think that this helps with my teaching a lot because the students seem to enjoy coming to class. I bring a lot of personal stories to the class that relate to Biology and a lot of times these are funny at my expense, but as long as the students get a kick out of it, I am happy! I guess this is a really long-winded way to say: I find passion to teach in the subject matter (Biology is SO fascinating and exciting and new every day – I cannot possibly get bored with it), but also in the students. They are the reason I am here and I am invested in their success. Being responsible for someone’s success will force you to have passion about what you do. It is my responsibility to make Biology approachable and fun and also to emphasize its importance to the students. Essentially, I’m responsible for putting this stuff in their head, making it stick, and making it matter. It is a big responsibility and a big rush!


3. Are you single/married, and do you have any kids?

I am married with three fur children (cats!). My husband’s name is Cody. We met in graduate school, and from the beginning there has been absolutely no doubt that he is “my person.” He will graduate in May with his PhD, and I am so absolutely proud of him.


4. What are your hobbies (when you’re not working)?

Let’s see… I guess the key here would be “When I am not working!” Ha ha! I work a lot, but I think that is because it sort of is my hobby! I love teaching and coming up with creative ways to present information to people. Designing labs, editing lectures, coming up with active learning strategies, learning new teaching techniques… all of these are actually very fun for me! Aside from that, I love to spend time with my family and friends, travel, try new restaurants or frequent my favorite restaurants, read, cook with my husband, binge-watch Netflix with my sister, shop, and cook!


5. Are you involved in any charitable organizations?

I used to volunteer at the Community Clinic of Joplin when I attended Missouri Southern as a student – I worked in the Dental Clinic which was held once a week. I absolutely loved it. In graduate school I volunteered at the Central Missouri Food Bank and also participated in “Adventures in Education,” which is a way to expose young children to different academic areas. With some friends, I ran a Microbiology booth. At Missouri Southern, I participate heavily in the Missouri Southern Regional Science Fair – recruiting donations for student awards, reviewing applications for microbiology research projects, and judging. The Science Fair is something I am very passionate about for numerous reasons, but the major one being that it exposes students to science at a young age. Science is a tough subject, but it is so fun! We structure the science fair so that the students can present their research projects (and win good prizes!) and also participate in fun afternoon science activity sessions. I think exposing students to science in a fun way is so important. Even though these students may not pursue science as careers one day, science is everywhere and it is so, so important to have a basic understanding of it as an adult. Seeing science as fun will help the students retain interest in the field as they head into adulthood – which is wonderful for society!


6. Are you a member of any professional organizations? (If so, what are they, and what is your role?)

I am a member of the American Association of Immunologists (AAI). This allows me to keep up with scientific research in the field of immunology, which was the field in which I performed my research in graduate school. Furthermore, members of AAI make contributions that fund travel and research grants for undergraduate and graduate students.


7. How would you define the secret to success?

First, let me define my idea of success: a life filled with love and happiness. That said:

My first tip is to treat everyone with kindness and compassion. A saying that I have found to be one of my favorites is (and I am paraphrasing): “treat everyone with kindness; for everyone you meet is fighting some sort of battle.” I have no idea where it originated, but I love it. I would not be where I am if it were not for those who have supported me throughout my life— treating me with kindness and compassion. My family has been amazingly supportive; my teachers and advisors at McAuley, Missouri Southern, and Mizzou have been supportive, incredibly helpful, and inspirational beyond belief. My friends have been so kind and understanding throughout everything, as well. Had it not been for these wonderful people pushing me to be my best self, I would not have had the strength to get to where I am today—which is my dream job! I treat every colleague, every student, and every acquaintance with kindness and respect because that is how I have been treated throughout my life. Kindness inspires kindness and when people feel supported on an emotional level, amazing things can happen.

Secondly, I have heard a lot of people say that it is bad to have your career be your hobby because then this makes something you enjoy into a job. However, I have found this not to be the case. The fact that I enjoy teaching and I enjoy Biology means that I don’t mind coming home at the end of the day and revising a lecture while I watch Parks & Rec on the couch! For that reason, I suggest doing what you love! You are going to have to work for a looooonnnnggg time and if you don’t love it, then you are wasting precious time (precious life!). Also, if you love doing your job, you will work hard at it, and with hard work comes success.

8. What's your favorite thing about your career?

Interacting with students! But also getting to talk about science all day and of course the time off!


9. What's your favorite thing about working in 417-land?

The people and the nature! The people are wonderful, hardworking, grateful and kind. The sense of community in Joplin makes it such an amazing place. I absolutely love it here. Also, this area is absolutely beautiful. My dad is a nature photographer and he catches some of the most amazing pictures in our back yard! Every season brings different beautiful scenery. And since it can be 70° one day and 20° the next, you never get bored or have to switch out seasonal wardrobes!


10. If you could go back and give the high school version of yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?

Stop worrying about all the small stuff (BOYS!), and keep working hard!


11. What was your “dream job” at age 5?

Actually, teaching! I used to make my sister and cousin Halley pretend that they were my students and I would use a clothes hamper as my podium. I would teach them about rabbits and great white sharks and give them assignments out of our encyclopedia!


12. List three traits that define a successful career:

  1. Hard work
  2. Happiness
  3. Never settling—constantly striving for improvement.


13.  Why are you a 20 Under 30?

I am very honored to have been nominated! I am in a group of some amazing current honorees and past alumni! I look around and am surrounded by so many amazing, successful people so it is also very humbling to believe I was even nominated! I have worked very hard to be where I am and the recognition of that hard work is very rewarding! However, I have an amazing support network and I believe that they deserve this award much more than I do! I would not be where I am had it not been for my parents, sister, husband, friends, and advisors/teachers through school telling me that it was possible for me to get here in the first place! I owe everything to them.


14. What projects do you have on the horizon at your job that you’re excited about?

I am currently enrolled in a night class that will give me the tools necessary to create a classroom filled with more active learning techniques. This class also gives me the tools necessary to create cohesive online classes so that I will be able to teach students who are unable to come to campus for class. I am also signed up for master advisor programs so that I can serve as an academic advisor for students—one of the main reasons I wanted to go into academia was so that I was able to serve as an academic advisor! I love helping people and would love to be able to help students find the best path to achieve their dream careers! Also, this summer I will be teaching microbiology—I took this class as an undergrad and it was my favorite class that I have ever taken. I immediately decided I wanted to be a teacher and teach microbiology. So this summer, I will achieve my dream! I can’t wait!


15. What completed project are you most proud of?

I would say that in terms of projects that I am most proud of completing in life, graduate school would be on the top of the list! I was one of the most difficult things I have ever done, but I am very proud of myself for completing. As well as that, it had a very positive impact on my life and my way of thinking (plus, it introduced me to my husband!).


Fill in the following blanks with five words or less:

Love makes life worth living.

A day at work wouldn't be complete without lunch with my sister!

Ten years from now, I hope I'm just as happy as I am now!

If I won the lottery tomorrow, I would pay off my family and my debt!

The best part about being a 20 under 30 is meeting other successful people!


Mingle with the winners at Highland Springs Country Club on April 23 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Find party details and purchase tickets here. 


< Austin O'Reilly | Emily Laurie >

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