In basketball terminology, the ball is often called a rock.
Jessica Cundiff used her skills of putting the rock in the basket to help her get a college education. This led to her current career of working with real rocks — or fossils, to be more accurate.
Cundiff, a Missouri native who attended Weatherford College and played for the Lady Coyote basketball team from 1993 to 1995, is now a paleontologist at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University. As curatorial associate, she works hands-on with fossils and the researchers who study them.
"As I was finishing my masters degree, a job for a full-time curatorial assistant position was posted for the Invertebrate Paleontology Collection and my graduate advisor encouraged me to apply," Cundiff recalled. "I had never even considered that working at a university like Harvard would be possible.
"I got the job and stayed in that position for seven years, learning what I could and completing another master's degree before my boss retired. Then I applied for his position, which is the position I now hold. I love being a paleontologist and working with museum collections."
Following WC, Cundiff transferred to Missouri State University to complete a bachelor's degree in 1998, went on to earn a master's degree at the University of Kansas in 2001, and later completed another master's at Harvard University Extension School in 2007.
Her first job in her chosen career path was as a part-time curatorial assistant in the Invertebrate Paleontology Collection at the University of Kansas.
She said among her career highlights — so far — are, "First, having the chance to work with a world-class fossil collection at one of the most prestigious universities. And second, I got to be part of a major collection move, which is a once-in-a-career event.
"The museum was able to acquire space in a science building on campus adjacent to the original museum building, and the paleontology collections were slated to move at the time I had been the curatorial associate for invertebrate paleontology, but the same position in vertebrate paleontology was not filled.
"I was asked to manage and help move both collections, which was a big task, but a very rewarding one. Both collections are now in a state-of-the-art collection storage facility and much more accessible for research and teaching."
And, just like her love of basketball from an early age, she has had a lifelong passion for working with rocks.
"I have loved rocks since I was a little kid. That interest and passion has not wavered throughout my life," she said. "I'm lucky to have a very supportive family that helped feed my curiosity and help stay on the right path to achieve my goals and dreams."
Part of that family is WC basketball legend Betty Jo Graber, or B.J., as Cundiff affectionately calls her. Graber is her great aunt.
"B.J. gave me my first basketball when I was 3 years old and took me to visit the WC gym, so I credit her with planting that seed," Cundiff said. "She has always given me good advice on how to improve my game, as well as pursuing my academic endeavors. She and Bud looked after me during my two years at WC and were my local support system, I call them my Texas parents.
"I'm very lucky to have such a great family support system. I'm an only child, but my mom made sure that I never acted like one. My parents taught me to be considerate of others and be a team player. They also made it clear that I take advantage of any opportunities that would allow me to get my education, as they did not have those same opportunities. My dad played basketball in high school and had a great influence on my game, teaching me his signature hook shot."
She is calling on that intestinal fortitude her parents taught her, as are many, as she works through the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, she has even found a positive among the negativity of the Coronavirus, always looking for ways to make challenges work for her.
"A lot of my work is hands-on with the collection, and we get lots of researchers visiting and requesting fossil for loan. This work is not really work you can do from home, but luckily one aspect of the job is digital and can easily be done from home, adding to and cleaning up specimen data in our museum-wide database," she said. "This data is shared online and available to researchers anywhere in the world. So COVID-19 has given us the rare opportunity to focus on this work and greatly improve the data we share."
And she said she will forever be grateful for her days at Weatherford College, a place that helped her figure out her direction in life.
"I had some things figured out when I arrived as a freshman, but my experience there really helped me fine tune that direction. I had two passions at that point in my life, basketball and rocks. My dreams were to play basketball in college and someday become a geologist," she said. "Little did I know that balancing both athletics and academics would be such a challenge. My experience at WC made me realize that I needed to focus my energy toward getting my degree and becoming a geologist, which later helped me figure out that I wanted to pursue paleontology in my graduate studies."
Also, being a member of the basketball team was a lesson in world geography for her as WC is known for recruiting players from around the world.
"Many of my favorite memories include my basketball teammates. I met a lot of interesting people at WC, people from different parts of the world, which is something I had not experienced growing up in a small town in Missouri," she said. "Several of my teammates were from Australia, Panama and Slovakia. It was interesting getting to know what life was like for them back home and how being in Weatherford, Texas differed.
"I remember there being an ice storm and the side of the hill next to the gym was all iced over. Several of my teammates had never seen snow, let alone experienced an ice storm, so we decided to take our laundry baskets and slide down the hill. I'm sure Coach McKinley was not happy when he found out we did this, but the joy on my teammates' faces who had never experienced it before was worth any trouble we got into. Those were life-long bonds that I made with those ladies and I still keep in touch with many of them."
She added that her experience at WC is proof that great things can come in small packages. She said without WC she wouldn't be where she is today.
"I got a great education at WC. Working at an Ivy League university, I see people only taking stock in degrees from the biggest and best schools, but you can get a great education at a smaller school," she said. "I'm very proud of being a WC alum and know without that first step I could not have achieved what was to come, making it all the way to Harvard University. If I can do it, so can others and WC is a great place to start."