Student achieves breakthroughs in molecular research, now prepares for medical school

By April Hunt | Emory Report | May 5, 2020

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Medical school is in senior Ashley Diaz’s immediate future, but she has already made her mark as a molecular researcher. She credits Emory for giving her opportunities to dive into science in ways she couldn’t elsewhere.

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Ashley Diaz had two major breakthroughs working at a prestigious genomic institute last summer.

For one, the Emory College senior redesigned a patented molecule that triggers the body to produce insulin when needed. Her success has allowed the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard to move onto pre-clinical animal testing for the compound, which, if developed into a drug, could lead to a new treatment option for millions of Americans with Type 2 diabetes. 

The second discovery was more personal. Diaz realized that, even with the potential to help countless people with a single discovery, she wants to know the people she helps. The culmination of her medically focused biology and chemistry research will be training as a physician, in addition to working in a lab.

She starts at the Pritzker School of Medicine at the University of Chicago on a full scholarship in the fall. She plans to pursue a specialty with immediate impact, either emergency medicine or trauma surgery.

“Emory gave me the opportunity to dive into the sciences in a way I never could have elsewhere,” Diaz says. “And, the times science has been the most meaningful for me have been when there is a direct human interaction.”

Either way, the Broad Institute scientist who mentored Diaz last summer and the Emory Healthcare neurologist who worked with her as a student and as a teaching assistant agree: Science wins.

“If something sparks her curiosity, Ashley won’t stop until she knows more,” says Emory neurologist Jaffar Khan. “The medical ideal is not just understanding what medicine is but how it all works and what the patient is experiencing. Ashley is that ideal.”

And in the lab?

“Ashley belongs with the top tier of scientists,” says Brian Chamberlain, a senior research scientist in Florence Wagner’s lab at the Broad Institute’s Center for the Development of Therapeutics. “I support her 100 percent, whatever her focus. She’s just that talented.” 

Making her mark in chemistry 

Diaz has long gravitated to health care, but with an emphasis behind the bench. She was a Howard Hughes Medical Institute researcher in high school, studying enzymes that flare after a spinal cord injury as part of the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis at the University of Miami.

Coming to Emory as a Woodruff Scholar, Diaz moved from neurobiology research to chemistry after becoming enamored with organic chemistry and Emory College’s then-new integrated and interdisciplinary chemistry curriculum.

Her blossoming interest became a passion for chemical biology, the emerging field of applying chemical techniques to the study of biological systems, leading her to double major in chemistry and neuroscience and behavioral biology.

Her passion is award-winning. She was named a 2018 Goldwater Scholar for her work in chemistry professor Bill Wuest’s lab, which seeks to develop new ways to synthesize natural product-inspired molecules to understand bacterial processes such as resistance.

Specifically, Diaz studied some of those compounds in Wuest’s lab – after she built them. In that regard, it was the perfect groundwork for her challenge at the Broad Institute.

Researchers there had already created a synthetic compound that induces glucose-dependent insulin secretion – at least in the cell. But because the molecule was essentially flat, it lacked the water solubility needed to test its potential as medicine. 

Chamberlain, who served as Diaz’s mentor at the Broad Institute, came up with the concept to alter the shape of the compound. Diaz’s job was to design the routes and conduct the synthesis, stretching the molecule in 3D so it was no longer flat. She wasn’t finished there. 

“What’s incredible is how curious she is about the whole process,” Chamberlain says. “She overcame this big obstacle, then insisted on partnering with a biologist to test whether her compound still worked as we intended.” 

Exploring medical school options

The compound did work. Diaz managed to move the project to a major milestone in nine weeks. At the same time, she completed all of her medical school applications.

Her original plan was to pursue a joint MD/PhD and possibly continue research, depending on how she develops during medical school. And while trauma medicine is the plan now, she also is interested in other fields that put her problem-solving skills to use, such as neurology. That interest stems from following Khan, who specializes in neuromuscular disorders, strokes and patients with dizziness and vertigo.

She was among 12 undergraduates chosen for a class that allows them to shadow Khan and his colleagues for a half day each week. Students interact with 40 to 50 patients a semester, then present information about aspects of the visit, from patient history to neurological examinations to underlying pathophysiology and treatment.

Khan chose Diaz to be his teaching assistant for the next session of the course, thrilled at how she helped her peers think about the assignments, the science and the patients. 

“She is more than a super smart individual,” he says. “She shows compassion, emotion and empathy. I love seeing a student blossom from someone who doesn’t just understand medicine to someone who appreciates the practice of medicine.”

Diaz thought about those experiences following Khan when deciding on a medical career. A chance encounter with an ER patient during another shadowing opportunity, though, is what she remembers most. 

Diaz was with the ER doctor when they went to tell the 19-year-old patient – who had come in just worried about a fever – that her colon cancer had returned. It was terminal.

“To see someone at their most vulnerable is rare,” Diaz says. “Yet physicians face those kinds of interactions daily. That, and the opportunity to solve complex problems, is what drew me to health care. I feel like most of the time, there is something I can do to help someone. Even with the 19-year-old patient, I could still do something, just by being there for her.”