Ashley Alex, '18

March 29, 2018
Summer research shapes senior's undergraduate experience

Research can become a major part of a student’s undergraduate experience at Richmond, with support from UR Summer Fellowships, and ongoing mentorship from faculty. 

Ashley Alex, ’18, took her research one step further by designing an interdisciplinary studies major around it. Alex researches with math professor Dr. Lester Caudill, and their project incorporates aspects of math, computer science, and biology. 

Alex participated in the Integrated Quantitative Science (IQS) course during her first year, which introduced her to the interplay of different scientific disciplines, and which culminates in a summer research experience. When it came time to choose a lab to conduct summer research in, she was drawn to Caudill’s. 

“I was interested in pre-med, and his research looks at how bacterial infections are spread within a hospital ward, so the project was intriguing to me,” Alex said. “The fact that he’s using a mixture of computer science simulations and mathematical equations to solve a biological problem was also appealing.” 

Alex, Caudill, and her fellow student David Painter, ’18, work together to create mathematical equations that model the population of bacteria in the body, the immune cells, and any tissue damage or toxins that may result from a bacterial infection. Then, by changing numerical values in the equations, and putting them into a software program called Mathematica, they are able to model different scenarios about how one patient could spread an infection through a hospital ward. 

“Dr. Caudill started this project because clinically you can’t study what happens if a doctor used the same pair of gloves on more than one patient, or didn’t wash his hands after treating a patient because that would be unethical,” Alex said. “If we make these scenarios virtual, we can monitor the impact without any ethical concerns; we can test out treatments and make recommendations to clinical studies of things that they could try because mathematically we’ve proven the conclusion.”

After her first summer of research, Alex was hooked. “Getting the mathematical equations correct before putting them into Mathematica was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” she said, “but once we figured that out, we were on top of the world!”

She continued her research with Caudill while also taking math courses, thinking she might major in math. But as she took required biology courses for her pre-med track, she became fascinated with topics like immunology. “I started thinking how cool it would be if I could turn my research into my major, combining math and biology,” she said.

Through the interdisciplinary studies program, with mentorship from Caudill and biology faculty, she did just that. “We came up with classes that allowed me to gain the skills that would help me get better in my research, regardless of the topic that was being taught,” Alex said.

Now, as she is preparing to graduate, Alex is looking ahead to enter a dual M.D./Ph.D. program, so that she can work in the medical field, while continuing to conduct research. But before graduate school, she’ll spend the next year working with Dr. Kandace McGuire, ’98, the chief of breast surgery at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Massey Cancer Center, where she feels that having grounded her undergraduate experience in her researchwill give her an advantage.

“My research experience has been the best,” Alex said. “I have learned skills in computational methods and analysis that can be applied to whatever data set I’m given, and I’m looking forward to using them to help Dr. McGuire with whatever she needs.”