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PhD student aims to develop novel immunotherapies to conquer ALS

Passion for volunteering in hospitals and studying neuroscience led Ashley Harkins to UMass Chan

Ashley Harkins, a PhD student in the neuroscience program at the Morningside Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, has always felt compelled to help others. Harkins, who grew up in Bridgewater, set out to become a physician but fell in love with bench science at Drexel University, where she majored in biology and minored in neuroscience.

“I find translational science attractive because of its direct pathway to helping patients,” Harkins said. “In high school and college, I spent a lot of time volunteering in hospitals. Helping people gives meaning to my life and motivates me to work that much harder.”

As a high school student, Harkins was encouraged by her grandmother to attend a summer program at Brown University. Through that program, Harkins met the Drexel professor who later encouraged her to apply to UMass Chan.

“It might sound cliché, but my favorite thing about UMass Chan is the people,” said Harkins. “The faculty, staff and students create an inviting, collaborative and supportive environment.”

Harkins is the winner of the 2022 Creative Biolabs Scholarship, an award for outstanding medicine and science students, and one of the student life co-chairs for the Graduate Student Body Council.

For her PhD, Harkins is researching novel immunotherapies for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and other neuroinflammatory disorders in the labs of Allison Keeler-Klunk, PhD, assistant professor of pediatrics, and Robert H. Brown Jr., DPhil, MD, the Donna M. and Robert J. Manning Chair in Neurosciences and professor of neurology.

“Most neurological disorders are characterized by neuroinflammation, which is challenging to control,” said Harkins. “Steroids and traditional immune suppressants broadly suppress the immune system, leaving patients vulnerable to infection and other side effects. We’re aiming to create a therapy that relieves inflammation-associated symptoms and mitigates dangerous effects and systemic suppression.”

In addition to her PhD research, Harkins is passionate about mentoring and supporting underrepresented individuals in STEM, including women.

“It is my hope that I can continue to support these groups both personally and throughout my career as a scientist,” Harkins said.

The Student Spotlight series features UMass Chan Medical School students in the Morningside Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, Tan Chingfen Graduate School of Nursing and T.H. Chan School of Medicine. For more information about UMass Chan Medical School and how to apply, visit the Prospective Students page.

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