MARC U*STAR Trainee, Ashley Tai, Finds Her Path Through CELS Involvement

By: Sarah Schechter, Communications Fellow

“I think it’s great that I found this group of people. It’s very much like a weight lifted off my chest” says junior Ashley Tai, who is double majoring in Cell and Molecular Biology (CMB) and Chinese. She began her studies as a Biology student, unsure of what she wanted to pursue and struggling with imposter syndrome. She found herself asking “Do I belong in this field of study?” With these challenges, Tai found her way to CELS Seeds of Success (SOS), which works to uplift those underrepresented in the STEM field – professionally, academically, and socially. Surrounded by a supportive group of like-minded individuals, Tai felt more confident in herself and was able to determine her path.

During the Spring of 2021, Tai applied and was accepted into the Maximizing Access to Research Centers (MARC) Undergraduate Student Training in Academic Research (U*STAR) undergraduate trainee program, which brought her to Dr. Jodi Camberg’s lab. Her research includes investigating the regulation and turnover of important cellular processes in E. coli by the protease Lon, in order to advance the understanding of this regulation, to make more specific antibiotics targeting these mechanisms. “I really love the research that I’m doing in my lab,” adds Tai. Becoming a trainee helped her to confirm that she wanted to pursue research and focus more on her CMB degree. As a MARC U*STAR trainee, Tai must also complete research outside of URI and will be studying cellular stress responses at Harvard Brigham and Women’s Hospital for 10 weeks this summer in Dr. Paul Anderson’s lab. She is excited about this opportunity to learn about the cellular stress response field and looks forward to working in the lab.

Alongside her love of research, Tai has an interest in pursuing an OD/Ph.D. in Optometry. “With eyes, it’s very tangible,” she mentions, “you can change someone’s life just by helping them see better.” Tai shadowed an optometrist at Tufts Medical Center this past winter, which only confirmed her passion for the field. “I really enjoyed my time there and it cemented the fact that I wanted to do optometry and I have that similar feeling in the lab every day,” says Tai.

Tai also stays involved with URI through multiple organizations. After finding a great group of friends in CELS SOS, she is now the acting Vice President. She also tutors students in Biology and Chemistry at the Academic Enhancement Center (AEC), is the Secretary of Student Advocacy for Disability Awareness/Action (SADA), and works as an Administrative Assistant for Assistant Dean Michelle Fontes. Tai finds intersections in the organizations and collaborates with other groups, such as the current working collaboration between CELS SOS, the Multicultural Student Services Center (MSSC), and the Alumni of Color Network (ACN) to put on an inclusive leadership conference. She recommends being proactive on campus as she has found so many involvement opportunities.

When facing struggles at URI, Tai has not only been able to rely on other students but also on faculty to provide advice and guidance. In reference to Assistant Dean Fontes, Tai says “it’s nice to have that person that is outside of academics but is still in a position of power and she helps me gain perspective on my issues that I’m going through in academics.” She also mentions that the CMB department at URI is doing a really great job of having professors who understand students. Tai feels heard and understood by her professors and knows that they enjoy teaching their students.

As Tai finishes up her junior year, she looks ahead to her goal of an OD/Ph.D. and a plan of how to achieve that. In November 2021, as a MARC U*STAR trainee, she was registered for the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS), where she presented a poster and spoke with attendees about their research. At the conference, Tai won an award in the category of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology for her presentation “Enzyme-Catalyzed Degradation by the AAA+ Protease Lon.” “It was really helpful in learning about Ph.D. programs,” mentions Tai. This will be crucial in continuing her path toward her Ph.D. and while she moves toward this plan, she uses her support system at URI to remind her that she’s not alone.