Where Are They Now: Ashley Gard

Ashley GardAshley Gard graduated from SBE in 2009 and is now doing research at Yale University in order to increase her publication record and obtain valuable skills for her future PhD work. She currently works in the laboratory of Dr. Laura Niklason whose research focus is cardiovascular and lung tissue engineering. Ultimately, they would like to create synthetic vessels and lungs that can be transplanted into humans. It is a long but exciting process. “For the vessel work, human clinical trials will begin in Europe this summer, whereas for the lung work, we are still years out from transplanting one of our human organs into a baboon,” she explained. Gard is determined to make breakthroughs in tissue engineering, as she will be entering graduate school at either Yale or Cornell in order to start her PhD research in biomedical tissue engineering next year.

While Gard was at UMaine, she had several opportunities to do undergraduate research thanks to the professors who helped her obtain research positions on campus as well as summer research fellowships, such as the Maine INBRE fellowship at Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory. In addition to providing these opportunities, professors always offered her encouragement. “Besides those professors who gave me research experiences, there were many other professors and students who inspired me or provided me with encouragement and confidence that I could achieve whatever I wanted,” she said. She also gained valuable experience as a 4-year member of the Biology Club, where she served as both Vice President and President. Gard explained that, “The club’s members did an excellent job of providing information critical to undergraduate college, research opportunities, and cultivating networking skills.”

SBE also provided Gard with the coursework that was critical to her understanding of basic biology, genetics, and molecular biology, which has greatly helped her in tissue engineering. In her laboratory, Gard generally uses native decellularized vessels and lungs which are solely extra cellular matrix (ECM), to regrow functional organs for transplantation. They remove all traces of DNA, protein, and cells, rinse the ECM scaffold, and then recellularize the matrix with various lineages of cells native to that tissue type. The organ is then grown in a bioreactor that subjects the regrowing tissue to physiologically relevant stimuli. Watching the lung breathe in the 3D bioreactor chambers is Gard’s favorite part of her job. “I not only matured as a scientist from these research experiences, but have also gained valuable knowledge about what makes a good mentor and what I want to obtain from my PhD,” she explained. To see an article and video of what Gard’s lab is doing, click here.

Best of luck to Ashley as she continues her research on synthetic tissues.