Molecular Biotechnology Class Energizes Graduate Student

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Sometimes it takes the right mentor at the right place and the right time for all the pieces to fall into place.

 Ashley Brauning MS Biology ’23, who aspires one day to be professor specializing in maternal-fetal immunology, found clarity in her career path during an Advanced Molecular Biotechnology course while studying for her master’s in biology at Dominican University of California. The mentor was Dr. Mary Sevigny, an adjunct professor in the Department of Natural Sciences and Mathematics.

It was an in-depth class that had a far-ranging positive consequence.

“It was the most important class I’ve ever taken in terms of problem solving in my day-to-day lab work and challenging me to think more critically regarding what I was doing in the lab,” she recalls. “It was a very difficult class, but I enjoyed having someone taking the time to explain why we do things and how techniques came to be. This was the first class that I took to where I was told ‘You’re going to end up understanding this from A to B and we’re not going to skip a single step in between,’” says Ashley, who graduated on May 13 with a Master of Science in Biological Sciences and is now headed to the University of Washington Pathobiology doctorate program.

Ashley, who attended Vacaville High School, applied for a post-baccalaureate fellowship position at SENS Research Foundation (SRF) in Mountain View after graduating with an undergraduate degree from the University of Puget Sound with a BS in Molecular and Cellular Biology with emphasis in bioethics and a minor in mathematics.

Focused on developing and promoting comprehensive regenerative medicine solutions for the diseases of aging, SRF supports research projects focused on a damage repair paradigm at universities and institutes around the world with the goal of curing such age-related diseases as heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease. 

Ashley, whose grandfather was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, was drawn to SRF’s work and focus. 

“SENS mission is not based on therapeutics,” she says. “It’s based on understanding the basic biology of aging.”

During her first interview with SENS, Ashley discovered SENS had an arrangement with Dominican whereas she could work at SENS and work toward a master’s degree at Dominican. Ashley, who was considering pursuing a PhD, thought Dominican would be the perfect vehicle for that transition.

“It would be an amazing opportunity, so I looked into it and Dominican reminded me a lot of Puget Sound. Very small community. Very student-oriented,” she says.

Ashley then met Dr. Meredith Protas, director the MS Biological Sciences program at Dominican in the School of Health and Natural Sciences. There was an immediate first impression.

“Meredith is such an amazing woman,” Ashley says. “I met with her and immediately felt so welcome and comfortable. It just felt right. She’s such the nicest and most wonderful person I’ve ever met. A great advisor dedicated to her students’ success.”

Because of the pandemic and her work at SENS, Ashley, who lives in Santa Clara, has completed most of her classes online. Nevertheless, she says she was able to gain a sense of community with her fellow students at Dominican on a computer screen though she had to play catch-up. Ashley started a semester late yet graduated on time.

Plus, there was the benefit of her Bio5200 Advanced Molecular Biotechnology class, which Ashley says is her highlight at Dominican.

“It was my only in-person class, and I loved getting to walk around campus and even when I got lost many times around the science building,” Ashley says, smiling. “I’d go to campus early to avoid traffic and sit and just read different science articles while taking in the beauty and getting lost in that.”

At SENS, Ashley’s research is focused on senescent cells and finding a unique marker for them using surfaceomics techniques to characterize the surface of senescent cells. Simultaneously investigating age-related changes to natural killer cells ability to clear senescent cells. She is the lead author for “Aging of the Immune System: Focus on Natural Killer Cells Phenotype and Functions” which was published in the scientific journal MDPI and the National Library of Medicine. She also has presented research posters, including one at the Bay Area Aging Meeting last September.

Ashley’s next step is UW’s Pathobiology program, one of few such doctorate programs in the country.

Pathobiology ties together the fundamental concepts of biology, medicine, and public health, particularly as applied to global health issues. The program applies a multidisciplinary approach as well as the latest research technologies to the study of public health problems such as viral, bacterial, and parasitic diseases, as well as other conditions such as cancer. 

Dominican has her ready for that next step in her journey.

“I ended up here kind of accidentally, but I’m very grateful and glad that I stayed for two years because I was able to publish a paper and am working on another one,” Ashley says. “It all worked out. But it was very non-traditional as most of my path has been.”

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