Life at the Institute: Ashley Solmonson, Ph.D.

Ashley Solmonson, Ph.D., is a Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award (NRSA) Fellow in the DeBerardinis lab. At CRI, she studies how metabolism supports fetal growth during pregnancy and how genetic defects in metabolism can disrupt healthy development. Her work will lead to the development of better diagnostic tools and treatment options to help children and their families.

What are you researching?

I study how metabolism supports fetal growth during pregnancy and how genetic diseases of metabolism, like inborn errors of metabolism (IEMs), can disrupt that development. We know that in many cases, when IEMs are identified early and treated properly, children can go on to live happy and healthy lives. In other cases, these mutations can impair normal development, leading to congenital defects and lifelong impairments in organ function. I am hopeful that by better understanding how metabolism directs and supports developmental events throughout gestation, we can find ways to screen for and treat IEMs during pregnancy. This expands the likelihood that children diagnosed with these disorders can thrive and develop into happy, healthy kids.

How did you end up at CRI?

Training under Ralph DeBerardinis was my first choice when I was looking for a postdoc. I knew that if I wanted to go on to study metabolism in my own lab, it was essential to learn the skills of isotope tracing and metabolomics and he is a recognized leader in this field. When I interviewed with Ralph and he mentioned the Genetic and Metabolic Disease Program (GMDP) at CRI, I was immediately interested in studying inborn errors and their impact on systemic metabolism. When I came to CRI, I was blown away by the resources available here and the fantastic collaborative relationships among the different labs. I consider myself very lucky to have gotten the opportunity to train in such a world-class environment.

What about being a researcher is different than people might expect?

Being a researcher is actually a combination of a lot of different jobs and skills put together. You obviously need to know the basic science behind what you are studying but you also need to be able to communicate your science effectively. This means being a good writer, comfortable with public speaking, knowing graphic design to illustrate your science and fundraising for your lab or institution. Running your own lab also requires the ability to manage people and money well. It’s almost like running your own small business. This is the behind-the-scenes work that people don’t often think about when it comes to research scientists. Our job doesn’t stop at the lab bench.

How did you become interested in your field?

I worked as a technician in several labs after I got my undergraduate degree and used that time to hone in on what I wanted to study in graduate school. I started in a plant biology lab studying algae, but I knew I wanted to work with mammals, so I moved to a lab that studied liver growth. This is where my interest in metabolism first started. By the time I started graduate school, I knew that I wanted to study metabolism and cancer or obesity and I found a lab that would allow me to do my dissertation on those topics. After finishing grad school, I realized there were techniques I would need to learn if I wanted to continue studying metabolism in my own lab – that is what lead me to Ralph’s lab.

What do you like to do when you’re not in the lab?

I really enjoy gardening. I would love to be more sustainable and grow my own vegetables and fruits. There is something so optimistic about starting seedlings every spring and shepherding them along to becoming full-grown plants. I also really enjoy cooking. My wife is vegan, so it’s fun for me to find new recipes to try out and explore new types of cuisine.

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