Postdoc Profile: Ashley Brown

Ashley Brown, Provost’s Postdoctoral Scientist in the Department of Biological Sciences, spoke with us about her experiences at Barnard that led her to study chemistry, and her return to Columbia (and New York).

Could you tell me a little bit about your background and the beginnings of your interest in your current field?

I've always been interested in science. A lot of my aunts were nurses, and my older cousins were in STEM fields, so I think I had a leg up in terms of having role models compared to most women—and especially, other women of color.

My initial interest was to go to medical school. I attended Barnard College, where I had Prof. Christian Rojas for Organic I and fell in love with the field of organic chemistry. I also loved doing basic research, because I thought I would be able to develop medicines that could have a greater impact on the lives of individuals who are suffering from different illnesses.

Head shot of Ashley Brown in front of a patterned blue background with text "Ashley Brown Provost's Postdoctoral Scholar"

What was it about Professor Rojas that really sparked this interest for you?

He made chemistry exciting and accessible. And I think that's not something that you experience with a lot of instructors. Also, he's just a great person. The Barnard Chemistry Department is, in general, great in terms of fostering a very supportive environment for young women to feel confident and go out and pursue careers in STEM.

What types of illness are you looking to combat with the medicines that you produce?

I’m really interested in neurodegenerative disorders. My grandmother, who had a profound influence on my life, suffers from Alzheimer's. During my graduate program, I studied bacterial-host immune interactions, more specifically bacterial peptidoglycan and its recycling mechanism. I was also able to branch out and look at this huge burgeoning field investigating the microbiome-brain interaction. I was trying to determine if bacterial wall fragments were able to induce an inflammatory response, and furthermore, if the fragments were able to translocate to the brain. I’m really interested in understudied disorders. There is not a lot of money out there for orphan diseases (ones that people typically don’t pick up), since they are probably not as prevalent in society as other diseases (i.e., cancers, high blood pressure, etc.). It would be interesting to establish a program, and have research funds coming in, and allocate it to explore those less-researched illnesses.

"I’m really interested in understudied disorders...It would be interesting to establish a program, and have research funds coming in, and allocate those funds to explore those less-researched illnesses."

It’s so interesting that, even at this stage, you have to think: How can I get the grant funding?

That’s the important thing about science. I think it’s the job of scientists to make our research accessible, so that the general public can understand, because we are often spending public funds. Also, in order for people to care about your work, you have to keep them engaged and updated.

It sucks that scientists have to prioritize studying one area over another just to secure funding. It’s the difference between getting tenure and not having a job. It’s a lot to consider.

What made you decide to come back to Columbia after doing your undergraduate degree at Barnard?

There is actually a through-line here. In undergrad, I did work on sugars (also known as carbohydrates). And then in graduate school, my advisor, Catherine Leimkuhler Grimes, was working on peptidoglycan: it’s a core molecule of the bacterial cell wall that is composed of carbohydrates. In undergrad, we were making two amino sugars that could potentially be used for lglycodiversification studies: so, different sugar-based compounds that can be appended to different medicinal compounds. But when you’re making the compound, you always want to know what you can use it for. In graduate school, I was able to not only do organic chemistry, but also do the biochemistry and molecular biology in different systems, such as animal models. Going forward, I wanted to continue in chemical biology, but I also wanted more experience in developing and designing drugs.

Not only was I looking for a good lab, but I was looking for someone who would be a good mentor, someone known for pushing students to move forward into their own paths. I have heard nothing but glowing recommendations for Professor Stockwell, so I thought that this lab was a good fit. His lab does a lot of molecular modeling and drug discovery, in terms of looking at inhibitors and inducers.

"I needed to make sure that in these next one or two years, that I would be surrounded by very inquisitive, but also very conscientious and kind individuals. I felt that here."

When I came to visit Columbia, I noted that the environment felt really welcoming. Something that I have to consider as a black woman is: What will the environment be like? Science is hard, but the hardest thing is not the science—it’s the people. I needed to make sure that in these next one or two years, that I would be surrounded by very inquisitive, but also very conscientious and kind individuals. I felt that here.

Geography was also important—I’m originally from the Northeast. One thing that I think everyone learned during the pandemic is that being close to your friends and family is essential. We shouldn’t take it for granted.

How does it feel to be part of this initial cohort?

This program is about creating future faculty, and I’m excited about the support that will help me to become a stronger faculty candidate and a more confident person. I think that the academy is becoming more collegial overall, but it can be very dog-eat-dog, especially in male-dominated fields. I’m hoping that this will be an environment where I can grow and thrive. I hope to learn what I can from my mentors so I can eventually pay it forward.

What are you looking forward to doing in New York?

I used to run all the time in Riverside Park, so I’ve been taking advantage of that. I also just love walking on the streets of New York City because there is always something going on. Even people-watching is interesting, because the people of New York are so colorful. Of course, there is racial and ethnic diversity, but also in terms of personality and thought. Everyone is on their ‘A’ game, and everyone is very different.

You don’t necessarily have to even go out with a plan for the day. You just hop on the train and see what is happening. I also love seeing the dogs at the park. They are so cute—they look like little kids with their jackets and raincoats!

Are there any other things you like to do in your free time that you care to share?

I’m a big movie fan. When I was home, I lived near a theater. So, even if it was 10:00 at night on a weekday, I would go to the theater and watch movies. In NYC, I am excited to see live performances—dance, musicals, and plays. Prior to the pandemic, I started taking painting/drawing classes. Hopefully, I can continue that either in a group or on my own.

Like most chemists, I also love baking. It’s the closest thing you can get to chemistry outside the lab. I have this really good vanilla-bean cupcake recipe, and I do it with fresh vanilla beans. I also do a nice vanilla-pudding-type filling inside.

Are there any podcasts that you would recommend?

I start off each day with the NPR’s "Up First" and the New York Times’ "The Daily" podcasts. I also like NPR’s "Pop Culture Happy Hour." I also love "Gettin' Grown"; one of the hosts has a PhD in education and the other person is a chef. They are two Black women who thoughtfully talk about different societal/personal issues and the ghettos of adulthood, which is something I very much understand as a twenty-something soon entering her thirties.