In Pursuit of Her Dream

Ashley Charest

Ashley Charest walked across the stage at the May 2014 Commencement, shook the dean’s hand, and walked away with her diploma in hand. Then, like most of her fellow graduates, she began looking for a job. She never anticipated landing a position at a national research institute.

She wanted to continue in research and became aware of the Intramural Research Training Award (IRTA) post baccalaureate fellow program at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland. She completed an online application, uploading a resume, a transcript of her coursework and grades, a cover letter, and three references. Principal Investigators review the files of IRTA applicants looking for those who are a good fit for their lab. The competition is keen, but Ashley’s application caught the eye of Dax Hoffman. He conducted a phone interview with her in August and subsequently offered her the position. She accepted the offer and quickly moved to Washington, D.C. to join Hoffman’s team in September.

In Hoffman’s lab, Ashley is engaged in research that focuses on the role that ion channels have in regulating firing properties, synaptic integration, and synaptic plasticity in pyramidal neurons in the hippocampal CA1 area. She is learning and perfecting new techniques that will undoubtedly advance her understanding of neurobiological processes and propel her career in the field of neuroscience.

“I have the opportunity to work with brilliant post-doctorate fellows, like my current research mentors Emilie Campanac and Jakob Gutzmann, and staff scientists from all over the United States and the rest of the world,” she says.

Her Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Programs, neuroscience concentration (honors), combined with her undergraduate research experience, landed Ashley this coveted opportunity and enabled her to make a smooth transition.

“Ashley came to the lab with some relevant experience in electrophysiology, which helped her get started on her research project right away,” said Dax Hoffman. “Aside from her previous hands-on experience, I think Ashley benefited from her undergraduate research training by coming to the NIH with a familiarity of the lab environment that enabled her to quickly fit in and help others in some of the routine lab activities such as making solutions and stocking supplies as well as contributing to discussions during our lab weekly meetings. I am confident that Ashley is well on her way toward obtaining her goal of pursuing a doctorate in neuroscience after completing her work here at the NIH.”

Ashley honed her research skills in the neurobiology lab of Jim Hall, associate professor of biochemistry and cellular & molecular biology, and chair of the undergraduate neuroscience program where she spent two years studying the neural pathways of tiny crabs no bigger than her thumb. Working under the direction of Hall in what students affectionately called the ‘Crabatory’, Ashley learned how to obtain electrophysiological recordings from individual nerve cells in the brains of fiddler crabs in vivo.

“Our projects focused on determining the neural basis of vibrational communication in fiddler crabs (genus Uca pugliator), or put more simply: we wanted to find out how fiddler crabs localize behaviorally important vibrational signals produced by the animals during social interactions,” Ashley explains.

In addition to teaching Ashley invaluable technical research skills in his lab, Ashley was grateful that Professor Hall secured opportunities for her to meet with and to present her work to other neuroscience researchers by having her participate in NeuroNET.

Ashley credits Professor Hall for encouraging her growth and achievement. “I speak with sincerity and gratitude when I say that having Professor Hall as a mentor helped me become not only a better neuroscientist but also a better person. He was and continues to be an irreplaceable resource for important and constructive advice. He has always encouraged me to pursue my interests and to follow my curiosity—an essential skill for any scientist. I am absolutely certain that I would not be at the NIH today if not for him and my work in his lab.”

Like any good teacher and mentor, Hall said seeing his students succeed is his greatest reward. Throughout his career, he’s always been heavily invested in teaching at the undergraduate level as well as mentoring undergraduates participating in research projects in his laboratory. “I’m excited about the material that I teach and the research being conducted in my lab. My goal is to spark that interest in my students. Ashley is a student who evidenced keen interest and passion for research early on.”

Professor Hall said he understands students have different styles and paces of learning and tries to get to know them well enough to offer appropriate support and guidance. He also aims to influence students’ character by modeling honesty, patience, empathy, compassion, objectivity, flexibility, and a sense of humor. “Ashley was one of those students who not only performed well in my courses but rapidly progressed from novice to expert with respect to research in my lab. I also watched her mature as an individual, gaining confidence and self-esteem. The fellowship she now holds is a prestigious position that stems from her dedication, hard work, and success as an undergraduate at UT.”

“I am incredibly grateful that my undergraduate degree and research experience are having a direct influence on my current and future career opportunities,” Ashley concluded. “I never thought as a kid from a small town in Middle Tennessee that I would now be living in D.C. and working at the NIH.”

Following the completion of the fellowship at NIH, Ashley plans to enroll in graduate school and continue to pursue her dream of earning a doctorate in neuroscience, perhaps following in the footsteps of her mentor.