Chemical Pathways: Dean Ashby’s Experiences in Research

January 3, 2022
Research Archives

Published in our 2015-16 issue.

Dean Ashby joined Duke University as the Dean of Trinity College of Arts & Sciences this past July after serving as the chair for the Department of Chemistry at University of North Carolina- Chapel Hill from 2012 to 2015. She earned her B.A. and Ph.D. in chemistry from UNC – Chapel Hill and completed her postdoctoral work at Universität Mainz, Germany in 1994 as a postdoctoral fellow with the National Science Foundation and NATO. In an interview with Vertices, Dean Ashby discusses her research in polymer chemistry and how her experiences have shaped her perspective on science.

What inspired you to become involved in research?

“What inspired me was my first undergraduate research experience. I knew I was a chemistry major, but I wasn’t sure what I was going to do after that. I was kind of heading in the pre-health track, but not because I had made a choice, but because that was the way that the tide was going and it seemed like an obvious route. My sister, who is seven years older than I am, was in medical school when I started as a first-year student. But then in my junior year, before everybody did undergraduate research, one of my mentors suggested that I try doing an undergraduate research in the summer at a company that was in the Research Triangle Park called Rhône-Poulenc. It was a precursor to Union Carbide, which was an agricultural fertilizer kind of company, and did a lot of organic chemistry and organic synthesis. I did that and I was totally hooked. I did not love lab as a chemistry major, because people had already done these things, but loved doing actual research, where you were actually running experiments for the first time and trying to solve a problem that people really did not understand. That summer changed my entire view of what lab work and research actually was. That was the game changer for me.”

Now as the Dean of Trinity College of Arts & Sciences at Duke, how are you connected with research on campus?

“Before I came to Duke, I already had collaborations previously with folks here. I was in a part of a National Science Foundation grant that spans universities and included chemistry here. Actually, my first work with research on Duke’s campus was when I took a sabbatical at Duke from UNC in 2007 and I worked with Professor Kam Leong, who was then in biomedical engineering. He actually introduced me to a new area of looking at cellular interactions with polymeric materials. I’m a polymer synthesis person, but I did not know how to do any of the cell work, and his group did a lot of cell work in conjunction with synthetic materials. My research group is still up and running at UNC because I’ve got students finishing their doctoral degrees there. Once they are finished, I won’t start up a new lab here, but I’ll continue collaborating with people here.”

You have made increasing diversity in research a top priority. How can we improve research through promoting diversity?

“That’s a great way to phrase the question because that’s really our premise, that we learn the most from the people with whom we have the least in common. There are lots of reasons to pursue diversity that are good reasons, but as far as research is concerned, there is a key reason why you should pursue diversity, because you cannot possibly come to the best answers for really challenging, complex problems if everyone sitting around the table thinks about it the same way. If you’re not taking advantage of all those different opinions, all of those different approaches, you can be assured that the answer you are getting is not the best one that is possible. It may be a decent answer, it may be a very good answer, but you can pretty much be clear that it’s not the absolute best answer.”

What is something that you would like to see changed in research?

“I would love to see much more diversity, much more participation. I’d love more diversity in the faculty who are participating in research. I’d love to see there be more diversity in the graduate students. Duke is really good at doing a lot of interdisciplinary collaborations across departments and schools, but we can do so much more than what we are doing. That may be one place. I don’t have any control over this, but I’d love to see the general population as well as political officials who are controlling dollars that go into research appreciate the process a little more. What we do is incredibly challenging. Now, we have to do our part to do it well and be efficient, but I would love for them to appreciate what that means a little bit more.”

Could you describe a research project you were involved in that you found particularly interesting?

“I’m a polymer chemist. I have always loved organic chemistry, so I love synthesizing new materials and new compounds. I’d say one of the more exiting things that I enjoyed doing was actually part of the work that I did here when I came on sabbatical doing work with cells. What we do is we’re able to form shape memory materials, and what’s been discovered is that cells respond not just to the chemistry that’s on a surface, but they actually respond to patterns. What we were trying to figure out is ‘how do cells respond to patterns?’

“We’ve never been able to detect the cellular response to change, because all we could do was put cells on one and see what it does and put cells on another, but you could never see the switch because there was no way to switch the pattern underneath the cell and watch how it behaved when the switch happened. But shape memory materials will allow you to now put the cells on the surface, switch the pattern in the presence of the cell, and then watch what they do in the change, and they actually respond differently.

“They will adjust to the change. The fun part about this is that there are certain temperatures only in which a cell will stay alive, like your body temperature. So we had to be able to program into the material a switch. The temperature at which the pattern switches had to be right there, about two to three degrees between body temperature, and that tells you what kind of polymer, because different materials switch at different temperatures based on their ability to rotate and move. So you design materials that will switch in this very narrow window, because you don’t want to cause cell death when you heat up the surface underneath the cell.”

You have worked with a number of different bodies focused on research. What were some of the differences that you noticed among them?

“I have learned and am still learning a lot about the research that my colleagues do in the arts and humanities and the social sciences. What stands out to me is how interdependent those fields actually are and should be. First of all, I am fascinated by what my colleagues do, but I’m also so excited about the implications and what I can learn from them in my own work. Just how the different fields inform each other is fascinating to me. One of the things that I have come to appreciate is just the interdependency, the richness of the fields by themselves, but yet how much one can learn in your own field from something that seems far a field.”

Do you have any advice to give to undergraduates?

“I’ll just start by saying I love students. I envy you guys so much because you have this amazing opportunity and I really hope that every student who comes to Duke owns everything that Duke is. Duke is so great in so many ways, and it’s hard to experience everything because there’s so much going on here, but I hope that each student defines their unique way to maximize everything that Duke has to offer them in research, in the classroom, and getting to know your faculty members. That is the treasure of Duke – the faculty. You should get to know your people inside and out of the classroom where that’s possible. Things like Bass Connections, all of those interdisciplinary, team-building kinds of things – max them out.

“I don’t want you to have decided walking in the door ‘this is exactly what I’m going to do,’ because there’s so many things that you should just try because you’ll be stunned by what you may enjoy and what may be unlocked in you. Before I did undergraduate research, you couldn’t have told me that I would have loved science, because my lab experience didn’t prove that to me. So I hope that students really take advantage of a lot of different opportunities, test a lot of different areas, take some risks, go beyond your normal group of friends, and do all those things that really stretch you and make you uncomfortable so that you can find really what you love. I hope that students do that, and I hope they have a good time doing it. These are a great four years. There’s not going to be another four years like this ever. Don’t let that go by. You ought to

have a good time.”

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