2015 Grad Slam Winner Ashley Fong is in the Pursuit of Mending Hearts

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UC Irvine Ph.D. candidate and recent Grad Slam winner, Ashley Fong is working towards being able to use stem cells for new advance treatment options for heart disease.  Ashley, who is currently in the department of molecular biology and biochemistry in the lab of Chris Hughes, researches the heart microenvironment and how that affects the growth of stem cell-derived heart muscles.  The types of stem cells that turn into heart muscle cells are initially immature, making them unsafe and ineffective for use in transplantation or drug screening.

Ashley and other researchers' objective is to mature these potentially new heart muscle cells. They do this by transferring them to the extracellular matrix, or scaffold proteins outside the cell. Researchers and clinicians can then use the maturation strategy to develop treatments and drugs.

Heart disease is one the leading causes of death in the world and in most developed countries. By finding new treatments for this disease, it will economically improve the quality of life and potentially save the lives of affected patients.  Ashely truly believes that stem cells will revolutionize the future of medicine, "I truly believe stem cells will change the world," she says.

Ashley remembers the moment when she found her calling, "My passion and belief in stem cells began when I interned at California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) during undergrad," says Ashley.  "They are the state agency that is responsible for distributing $3 billion in state funds to stem cell research.  Being in that environment with brilliant scientists who all believed that stem cells will cure many terrible diseases was so unique and completely shaped my future. It made me realize the potential and power that stem cells have to change medicine and to improve lives, as well as, save lives from debilitating diseases."

Most recently, she gave a three minute presentation and came in first place at the Inaugural UC campus-wide Grad Slam competition where she went up against students from across the UC system.  Next on Ashley’s to-do list includes graduating this coming fall. She’ll also be traveling to Stockholm, Sweden in June to present her research at the 2015 International Society for Stem Cell Research Conference.  Ultimately, Ashley hopes to join the biotechnology industry and work for a company that creates therapies. Ashley notes, "It would be exciting to be a part of a regenerative medicine startup."

Ashley's jam packed schedule keeps her busy, but she enjoys gardening, sky diving and dancing in her free time.  She attributes her work ethic to her supportive family whose hard work and strength inspires her to do her absolute best even when things get overwhelming.

Ashely holds two fellowships, one from CIRM and a second with UCI's LifeChips program, which is part of the National Science Foundation's Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeships program. She and her team also won the 2013 Business Plan Competition at the Paul Merage School of Business.

Click here to view article on Ashley’s research in The Conversation.

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