Andria Ashmore is a 2011 Gilliam Fellow.
Perhaps no one is more surprised than Andria Ashmore that she has set her sights on earning an M.D./Ph.D. from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Growing up in Houston, Texas, she was more interested in the performing arts. Choral music and dance—ballet, jazz, and tap—were a central focus in her life. But in high school, Ashmore discovered that she has a penchant for a completely different kind of choreography, one that involves equations and theorems instead of musical notes or dance steps.
“Math always interested me, and I was good at it,” says Ashmore, now 26. “But the more I was doing physics and chemistry, the more I realized I was good at those, too. I joined the computer club to do programming. Then I did a project for physics class, and I did so well that they asked me to join the Science Olympiad. All of it really piqued my interest in science.”
When she entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2003, Ashmore fully expected to major in physics or math. “I thought maybe I’d become a theoretical physicist,” she says. But an introductory biology course—taught by energetic biology professors Robert Weinberg and Eric Lander—changed her perspective. “Every time they started talking about something new I’d think of more questions. I don’t know how many times I went up after class because I was so curious. I knew that’s what I wanted to do because I was always so fascinated and asking questions.”
Ashmore traces her passion for compelling questions to her family, and specifically to her maternal grandfather, an undocumented immigrant who came from Mexico with few possessions and less money. “He had to work so hard to afford even the simplest thing, but when my mom was young he bought a full set of encyclopedias,” she says. “It cost as much as their car, but he wanted to make the investment for him and his children. He read all of the volumes, cover to cover.” Her mother worked hard to get a full scholarship, put herself through college, and passed the inspiration to her own children. “She always instilled in us the idea that school comes first. Try your hardest and you can do whatever you put your mind to.”
After that transformational biology class, Ashmore began looking for research opportunities that might help define a path. She spent a summer in a genetics lab at Yale University as a participant in its Biomedical Science Training and Enrichment Program. “It wasn’t doing anything with experiment design, just lab work. But it was key, because I know that lab work can get boring, yet I still enjoyed it—I love working with my hands and seeing something come to fruition,” Ashmore says.
As a sophomore at MIT she started working in the lab of MIT biology professor and stem cell researcher Rudolf Jaenisch on a project that focused on neural stem cells. Unsure about whether her interest was stirred by stem cell biology or the neurology, she sought a more clinically focused experience at Massachusetts General Hospital in 2005. Under the guidance of Mia MacCollin, a neurologist and neuroscience researcher, Ashmore investigated the genetic basis of a rare neural disorder called schwannomatosis, which causes tumors to form around nerves. That summer, she also began shadowing a neurosurgeon. “Up to this point, I was pretty sure I was not going to go into medicine at all,” Ashmore says. “But the more neurosurgeries I saw, the more I thought I wanted to go into something more applicable to the patient. I started to think that maybe I did want to do medicine. And then I thought, ‘Uh oh, this is going to be big. This is going to change everything.’”
That wasn’t the only problem on her mind. As Ashmore moved from lab to lab, she heard discouraging news from established scientists who suggested she faced a long, miserable path. They tried to dissuade her from pursuing research and she began to question whether she could be happy doing lab research for the rest of her life. Then Ashmore spent a summer in the Columbia University laboratory of Eric Kandel—a Nobel laureate and HHMI investigator—as a participant in HHMI’s Exceptional Research Opportunities Program (EXROP).
“It showed me that research wasn’t just about the experiments and execution and lab work, but also the people you surround yourself with,” Ashmore says, noting the pivotal role played by her mentor, Luana Fioriti. “I think what saved me has been the people I’ve worked with.”
The experience solidified Ashmore’s belief in the importance of mentoring. She’s put that belief into action and, at MIT, mentored underprivileged children from nearby schools as they created experiments, executed them, and presented the results. Now that she’s enrolled in the M.D./Ph.D. program at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), she says she’s hoping to find a way to bring high school students into UCLA labs.
But for the moment, Ashmore is focused on her dissertation research on induced pluripotent stem cells—adult stem cells that have been reprogrammed so they can turn into many other tissue types—in the lab of UCLA professor and HIV and stem cell expert Jerome Zack. She wants to find a way to correct genetic immune system disorders that disable a type of white blood cells called monocytes and make their victims especially vulnerable to infections. “I’m very passionate about medicine and biomedical research, and I intend to have a lab in the future studying stem cells and gene therapy. I’m very interested in finding my place and my space in that field,” she says. “I love it because there’s always something new.”