Postdoctoral Alumni - Jennifer Dennis



Jennifer Dennis
Department Chair, Department of Biology and Environmental Health
Missouri Southern State University, Joplin

Jennifer Dennis completed a  master’s degree in biology in 2004 at University of Arizona, where she had immersed herself in the biology of moths and other insects. By then she was ready to switch gears and work in mammalian systems. To do that she began PhD studies at University of Kansas, where Stowers investigator Paul Trainor had a joint appointment. After three rotations, Dennis knew she had to stay in the Trainor lab.

“One of my motivations was the way Paul ran the lab,” says Dennis, who was Trainor’s very first graduate student. “He let everyone work independently without asking you what you’re doing every day or checking up on you. He treated me like a postdoc but was always available. That worked for me.”

Dennis, whose interest in developmental biology began when she was an undergrad at University of Missouri, Kansas City, was also attracted to the lab’s focus on craniofacial development. Early on, she was a co-author in a Trainor lab genetic screen discovering novel mouse genes regulating craniofacial development, work published in a 2011 Genesis paper. But her thesis work, published in 2012 in PLoS Genetics, reported that an insertional mutation in the gene Hedgehog acyltransferase (Hhat)  was a cause of holoprosencephaly (HPE), a birth defect in which the brain’s left and right hemispheres fail to divide properly, giving rise to flattened facial features and other anomalies.

“Holoprosencephaly is associated with mutations in several genes, but not all cases of HPE can be linked to these genes in patients. Our study was so exciting because it revealed a novel HPE-associated gene,” says Dennis. “The Hhat gene became a new candidate to screen as the genetic mechanism underlying HPE. It allows people not previously diagnosed to possibly understand why their children could have this condition.”    

Dennis, who defended her thesis in 2008, now teaches at Missouri Southern State University in Joplin where she recently became the youngest chair of the Biology and Environmental Health Department. Her days at Stowers still guide the way she leads her faculty and trains students. “For me, Stowers is the Taj Mahal of science,” she says. “People are so forward-thinking. It makes you feel that you, too, must always look forward. That’s where I want to go with our academic program. I want our undergrads to know that they could be headed to a place like that.”