CRS Scientist Spotlight on Ashley Diaz
Ashley Diaz is a second year MS-RSM graduate student in Dr. Monica Laronda's lab. Her research focus is on developing a detection method for ovarian tissue quality and follicle viability for quality assessment and control measures for ovarian tissue cryopreservation.
Name: Ashley Diaz
Position: MS-RSM Graduate Student
Mentor: Dr. Monica Laronda, PhD
Thesis: Defining the experimental approach to detect quality of ovarian tissue and follicle viability to develop Quality assessment and control measures for OTC
What brought you to join the CRS community and what is your current position?
The topic of reproduction always interested me because it’s so diverse and not only includes research. When I got accepted to the MS-RSM Program, I was thrilled to learn more about the current research that is being done in the field of reproductive science. At that time, my interest in the field were more concentrated on reproductive aging. However, the summer before I started the program one of my cousins who had been fighting her childhood cancer for 12 years passed away. My cousin was first diagnosed with cancer when she was 9 years old, which was before she started puberty. We were pretty close in age, so we always played together growing up and I noticed over the years the effects of the intense cancer treatments had on her body. I remember we had to be careful when playing sports so she wouldn’t break a bone (since her bones were fragile) and noticed that her pubertal transition was different than mine. After seeing my cousin not fully transition into puberty because of cancer treatments she endured, gave me a new perspective about the field of reproductive science that I wanted to conduct research in. This perspective made me wonder about the other children who went through the same extensive treatments, but survived cancer-free. I wondered if it was possible to preserve and restore these patient’s fertility and hormones, and luckily, I met Dr. Monica M Laronda, Ph.D. at a poster session. During the poster session, I remember being fascinated (and still fascinates me) by the projects and work that the Laronda Lab does in the field of oncofertility and reproductive biology. I am currently a MS-RSM second year graduate student in the Laronda lab.
Could you describe your research?
Originally in May 2020, I proposed to study the effects of processing ovarian tissue for cryopreservation on primordial follicle activation and integrin expression. However, my lab did not have access to bovine ovaries this past year since the lockdown, and this lack of resource impacted my experiments for my proposed Thesis project. Luckily, I started practicing processing ovarian tissue and fixing and freezing the tissue for further analysis in the first month joining the lab. Over the summer, when I came back to Chicago after the lock down, I began experiments on these tissue samples, and never got desirable results. While I was counting follicles, I noticed that I was hard to distinguish some stages of follicles, because of their abnormal morphology. I conducted immunofluorescence with antibodies which I knew stained the oocyte (DDX4) or granulosa cells (FOXL2), but never worked on any of my tissue samples. I also had some trouble extracting high quality and quantity RNA for these tissue samples to conduct qPCR to examine integrin expression. I spent months repeating these experiments trying to improve my techniques but would always get the same results. These failed experiments lead me to go back and to examine the morphology of the follicles on the tissue to investigate its quality. The TUNEL analysis from the tissue samples of my first replicates showed apoptosis in the stroma and follicles. Since the quality of the tissue samples, I was using was bad to start off with, it made sense why the further experiments were’t working. I then went back to see how long it took me to process this tissue (thankfully I had good documentation), and noticed that the long processing time could have affected the quality of the tissue. My mentor and I then decided to pivot my thesis experiment to establish quality control and quality assurance measures in ovarian tissue processing, and to establish more robust ways to investigate follicle and ovarian tissue viability.
What aspect(s) of CRS do you find most valuable?
I find the support of the CRS community very valuable. This year has been very hard on me mentally, because of the pandemic and also the loss of a couple of family members. The support from people in CRS, my lab, and my especially mentor really helped me through this hard time. For a while, I felt alone and repressed what was going on in my personal life so it would interfere with my research. But while talking to Francesca, MS-RSM students, Laronda lab members (Elizabeth, Grace, Hana, and Nathan), and Monica made me realize that I’m not alone. Even though I am away from home (Texas), I have a support system here that will be there for me if I need to talk about things, a shoulder to cry on (virtually), and advice. I am very grateful to have a kind and loving community that helps their students and members through rough patches in their life.
What has been the most valuable aspect to your training as a reproductive scientist?
The most valuable aspect in my training as a reproductive scientist is learning from other scientists to fill in gaps of knowledge in areas of ovarian biology. In my lab, every member study a different area of reproductive science, and learning how each project is somehow interwind has aided me in conducting experiments for my Thesis project.
What is one piece of advice you would give to young scientists starting in their journey in science?
Growing up I would have never imagined that I could be a scientist, because I never saw anyone that looked like me or had my last name in the science field. Throughout school I was always told by teachers the dreams and aspirations that I had were hard for someone from my background. These comments would for years (and sometimes still does) affect my confidence, and make me think in situations,” I am smart or good enough”. If I could tell young students that have a passion for science or not for science, it would be to not give up and to not listen to negative people who question their capability. I would also tell students that they are enough! I actually believe that everybody needs to hear that, so YOU ARE ENOUGH! If you have a dream and someone tells you “woah that’s a big dream”, don’t let their negative comments get to you! If you have a dream go ahead and reach it. You live this one precious life, and don’t let people who wish they could be in your shoes dim your light.
What do you think will be the next big contribution in the reproductive biology field?
I think that the next big contribution to the reproductive biology field will be having better documentation of OTC processing and patient follow-ups after OTC and transplantation. This past year in my lab, we decided to look at how different ovarian tissue graft sizes affect outcomes in patients who have undergone transplantation by conducting a systematic review. Throughout this process it was difficult gather data because a lot of the case studies don’t mention details on processing the tissue or the outcomes post-transplantation. Several case studies mainly focused on patients who either got pregnant or had a live birth but excluded details on patients that didn’t. I believe that there will be more attention to those details by those who partake in conducting OTC/OTT to help navigate research questions to improve this procedure that being conducted all across the world.
What hobbies do you have outside of the lab?
I enjoy going on walks around the city and the lake. Last summer, I would bike to school almost every day by the lakefront path. It was so beautiful and has helped my mental health during the current pandemic. On my other free time, I enjoy volunteering. Before the pandemic, I knew about the inequality that existed in the US, but my eyes really opened up during the pandemic. Some of them being access to education and food. I volunteer at a food pantry in Chicago where I prep monthly/weekly boxes filled with food and necessities to those in need. It makes me very thankful for all the blessings I have and makes me want to do something about this problem that has been existing here for a long time. Additionally, I have been tutoring virtually during the pandemic. My passion for tutoring came about back in Waco, TX and I’m thankful I get to share it to a 3rd grader virtually once a week. This is the highlight of my week, because she is beyond smart. I don’t tutor her in her grade school math level, but in her upper-level math. I love seeing her getting excited about doing difficult math problems and learning how to solve them correctly. I try to keep her engaged in school amidst the current school year of virtual learning. I enjoy making a positive impact every day.