From dollar store to microbiology: Student gets his dream job

Kevin Cox, a UMSL junior majoring in biology, is prepping a Seteria plant for seed harvesting at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center. As the plant dries, the bag captures the falling seeds. Cox works part time at the Danforth Center as a laboratory assistant. (Photo by August Jennewein)

A few months ago, Kevin Cox was working at a dollar store. Today he’s a laboratory assistant at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in Creve Coeur, Mo. – the first big step of many toward a noble career.

“I see myself working at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention running my own research lab, to rid the world of famine or find a cure for some disease,” said Cox, a junior biology major at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. “Microbiology is something I love doing and I want to do it for a long time.”

Cox started his part-time job Feb. 13 working in a lab studying Brachypodium distachyon. He proudly explained it’s a grass species related to cereal grains such as wheat, barley, oats, maize and rice. For now, he’s performing simple tasks such as harvesting and planting seeds to more complex tasks such as dissecting seeds to extract seed embryos.

“Nobody in the lab really has only one task,” he said. “Everybody does a little bit of everything, which is cool to me because it broadens my lab techniques.”

Cox credits many people at UMSL for helping him find his way, and opening literal and figurative doors to a career in science. He graduated from Hazelwood Central High School in St. Louis County and came to UMSL thinking about medicine. Through the mentoring program in the Executive Leadership Consortium, he received valuable guidance from Richard Navarro, a lecturer in management information systems.

“We spent time together talking about what I wanted to do after college and he showed me my passion was microbiology,” Cox said. “The University Ambassador program has helped me develop leadership skills and given me the opportunity to meet people I wouldn’t normally meet.”

University Ambassadors are student volunteers who assist UMSL personnel at various university events.

Xuemin Wang is the E. Desmond Lee Endowed Professor in Plant Science and holds a joint position at the Danforth Center. He said UMSL is well represented at the Danforth Center with alumni holding full-time positions, graduate students conducting research and undergraduate students holding part-time positions. Cox is currently enrolled in Wang’s biochemistry class at UMSL.

“By taking this opportunity to work in the Danforth Center, Kevin will enrich and broaden his learning experience,” Wang said. “The center is a first-rate plant research institute and the research topics cover a wide range of biological disciplines. Our students’ participation in the research provides them excellent training opportunities and exposes them to cutting-edge research.”

Cox understands what this position means to his ultimate goal. If enthusiasm counts for anything, he’s well on his way.

“I really hope to learn a lot and get great lab experience, which will be crucial for me down the road,” Cox said. “Most professional labs or positions require years of lab experience. I know it’s only been a few weeks since I started working here, but there’s never been a moment when I didn’t learn something new. That’s what I love about research. Like I said, this is a great place.”


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