By Mariah Cox | Bond LSC
#IAmScience because I get to spend the rest of my career being curious and creative, answering challenging questions, and making my small contribution to our collective body of knowledge.
What does competitive swimming and cancer research have in common? For Kimberly Jasmer, the intense world of competitive swimming has guided her towards obtaining her Ph.D. and studying cancer at the University of Missouri.
Learning to swim was imperative for a girl growing up on the coast in North Bend, Oregon, and she fell in love with the water. That love led to a competitive swimming career that began at the age of nine and continued for 16 years, through the third year of her Ph.D. program at MU.
But Jasmer was set on conducting cancer research since high school after her grandmother contracted breast cancer twice throughout her life.
While an undergraduate at the University of Washington in Seattle, Jasmer visited MU for a swim meet. The trip also presented her with the opportunity to speak with Steve Alexander from the Division of Biological Sciences.
“I came out here for a swim meet and set up an appointment with Dr. Alexander and he was very confused why this random swimmer from Washington wanted to meet with him. We ended up having a really great conversation and I applied to graduate school here,” said Jasmer. “Mizzou provided me the ability to do the research I was interested in and also continue my swimming career and it was one of the few places that I could do both of those things.”
Now, 10 years later after starting her program at MU, Jasmer has earned her Ph.D. in Biological Sciences and is three years into her post-doc in the Petris and Weisman labs.
During her time at MU, her research has evolved, but it always ties back to cancer research in some way. For her Ph.D., Jasmer studied a specific enzyme, Heme oxygenase 1, in the body that has the capability to promote tumor growth including melanoma if overproduced.
“Heme oxygenase 1 is considered a protective enzyme but too much can promote cancer,” said Jasmer. “You need enough to protect yourself from DNA damage caused by oxidative stress but not so much that it can lead to other unintended consequences, such as melanoma.”
After, she began her post-doc in the Weisman lab researching Sjögren’s syndrome — an autoimmune disease affecting the salivary and lacrimal glands ability to produce saliva and tears that carries with it an increased risk of developing lymphoma — she has honed in on looking for drugs that inhibit inflammation in the salivary glands to improve saliva flow and minimize the risk of lymphoma development.
Looking to the future, Jasmer has applied for a National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant that would extend her post-doc for one to two years and provide funding for the first three years of a faculty position. The grant would allow Jasmer to begin her own research on finding a radioprotective therapy, which would shield patients with head and neck cancers from the unintended consequences of radiotherapy. This research is connected to her current work on Sjögren’s syndrome because radiation can cause the inability to salivate and produce tears.
This research hits close to home because her uncle suffered from a tumor in his nasal cavity. The radiation he received caused him to lose the ability to produce tears and taste most foods. “I’ve seen the effects of radiation firsthand, and it’s hard for him that he can’t taste anything anymore,” Jasmer said.
Jasmer’s focus and intensity extends to all the goals throughout her life. In her swimming career, Jasmer made it to the national championships and qualified as an All-American for three years swimming at the college level. Additionally, she qualified for the 2008 and 2012 Olympic trials in Omaha, Nebraska.
Although she didn’t qualify for the Olympic team in 2008, she was determined to make a comeback in 2012. Before the 2012 trials, she tore her labrum but was able to recover within a year and qualified again. While not making it past the trials for the second time, Jasmer was proud of all she was able to accomplish within her swimming career.
After her second round at the Olympic trials, she decided to take a step back from swimming. After her time on the MU swim team, she hadn’t returned to the Mizzou swim deck since 2012 until last week.
“Before, swimming reminded me of the disappointment because my career hadn’t turned out as I planned,” said Jasmer. “Now it takes me back to the happy enjoyment of being in the water. When I went swimming last week, it reminded me of what I loved, which is being in the water.”
Now, as a mom, Jasmer hopes her daughter finds passion in an activity as much as she found in swimming.
“I took her to mommy-and-me swim lessons this past spring. I want her to know how to swim and be safe, but I don’t know that I care if she swims or not,” said Jasmer. “My parents had no knowledge of swimming and I think it was fun for them to learn a completely whole new world. So, if she decides that she wants to do an activity that I know nothing about, I just hope she finds something that she’s passionate about.”
Aside from swimming and research, Jasmer serves as the chair of the MU post-doc association board.
“I’m passionate about helping other people develop their own transferable skills they’ll need for their career because it’s easy to just end up doing research and not develop the rest of the skill set needed,” said Jasmer.
She also loves exercising through CrossFit and lifting weights as well as spending her time outdoors, hiking, camping and going on float trips with her friends. She has even taken her daughter Sofie hiking with her in Whistler.