Summertime, and the research is happening

Transfer student Guinevere Ashley, who is working this summer in a campus lab, has found meaning and purpose in biomedical sciences research

This summer, Kresge College student Guinevere Ashley, a molecular, cellular and developmen

This summer, Kresge College student Guinevere Ashley, a molecular, cellular and developmental biology major who expects to graduate in 2016, is working in the Bhalla lab, run by Associate Professor of MCD Biology Needhi Bhalla. (Photo by Carolyn Lagattuta)

For Guinevere Ashley, dropping out of high school seemed more a question of when than if.

Raised in the small town of Gilroy by a single mother who struggled with addiction and health issues, there was little money for food and clothes — and not much emotional support. At 16, Ashley dropped out of high school in order to get a job. By 19, she’d escaped to Italy where she split her time between work and wandering the continent.

It was, she admits, not the kind of path that usually leads to the place she is today: an undergraduate at UC Santa Cruz who works in a genetics and cell biology lab with the goal of becoming a research physician some day.

Ashley, 32, who acknowledges a certain amount of self-motivation, loved her life in Europe.

“But there came a point when, even though I was happy and was making good money, I just felt like there was something missing,” she says. “All I did was play. I traveled and worked and played. I felt like I needed substance, like I needed to contribute. I felt like I needed to do something more.”

So Ashley left Italy and moved back to Gilroy. She enrolled in community college and assembled an array of part-time jobs to support herself.

While at Gavilan College, she was accepted into the ACCESS summer research institute at UC Santa Cruz, which gave her a taste of life in the biomedical sciences. The woman who’d never seen the inside of a research laboratory was hooked.

This summer, the Kresge College student majoring in molecular, cellular and developmental biology and who expects to graduate in 2016, is working in the Bhalla lab, run by Associate Professor of MCD Biology Needhi Bhalla.

There, Ashley is doing research into the checkpoints that exist in a specialized form of cell division called meiosis. Those checkpoints make sure, when sexual reproduction happens, the embryo will have the correct number of chromosomes. An incorrect number can lead to genetic defects like Down syndrome or the death of the embryo. Thirty percent of human miscarriages are attributed to an embryo having an incorrect number of chromosomes.

Wielding a worm pick and peering through a microscope, Ashley often can be found in the lab working late into the night.

Research “makes you more analytical,” says Ashley, who won a $2,500 grant to fund her summer work in the lab. “It makes you think more about everything.”

For her part, Bhalla believes students in the classroom are often told how something works but are usually not given information about how that understanding came about.

“Undergraduate research exposes students to how we actually gain scientific knowledge,” she says.

Bhalla also thinks undergraduate research is good for her lab.

“It reminds me and the people in the lab who have been doing science for several years, that there is something very exciting and novel and amazing about being the person who figures something out,” she says.