Student Profile: Ashley Gravelle Finds Perfect Fit at MSU

From an early age Wichita Falls native Ashley Gravelle knew what she wanted to do in life. When most young children express dreams of becoming movie stars, princesses, or astronauts, they tend to change their minds often, but Ashley has proven to be an exception. After graduating from Midwestern State University this May, it appears that her lifelong dream of becoming as astronaut is well within reach.

As a student at Kirby Junior High, Ashley's interest in science grew. In fact, a mural at Kirby depicting her as an astronaut, documents the dedication to her dream. Then at Hirschi High School, Ashley became involved with the Aerospace Program.

After high school graduation, Ashley decided that Oklahoma State University's Engineering Program would provide her with the best opportunities for involvement with NASA. She studied mechanical and aerospace engineering at OSU for one semester. Through OSU she received the opportunity to complete an engineering internship at NASA, which she did not enjoy.  Although unsure about her interest in engineering, she returned to Wichita Falls the following semester and enrolled in the engineering program at Midwestern, but quickly found that her true passion was chemistry.

Ashley studied chemistry at MSU until August 2008 at which point she felt the need to broaden her horizons. She then enrolled at the University of Missouri in St. Louis. She studied biochemistry there for one semester before being called home because of a family illness.

She re-enrolled at Midwestern in January 2009, and this time many educational opportunities started appearing for Ashley. Dr. Magaly Rincón-Zachary, Graduate Coordinator and Professor of Biology, played a pivotal role in Ashley's journey by connecting her with the Noble Foundation where she participated in a summer internship in 2009 and became a research technician the following summer.

Through the Noble Foundation, Ashley was connected with Dr. Elison Blancaflor, who had received a grant from NASA to send plants into space to study the effect of an anti-gravity environment. Ashley received the opportunity to do the groundwork for the study. Through her work, she found that the chemical Brassinolide enhances the gravitropic response by disrupting the cytoskeleton. This study is significant because it is a small step to helping scientists better understand gravitropic response and to reaching the goal of growing plants in outer space. "Ashley is indeed a unique student. She is an independent thinker who actively engages in her own learning and that's key to her being a top-notch student and a productive undergraduate researcher," says Dr. Rincón-Zachary.

Ashley has presented a poster giving an overview of the results of her study at several conferences, the most recent at the Texas Undergraduate Research Day in Austin. One of the most exciting opportunities that her research has provided her was the opportunity to present her poster, "Brassinolides Promote the Gravitropic Response of Maize Roots by Disrupting Actin Filament Organization," at the 26th annual meeting of the American Society for Gravitational and Space Biology (ASGSB) in National Harbor, Maryland.  At this meeting, Ashley won third place for the best undergraduate poster presentation.

Although Ashley's original plan for getting involved with NASA did not transpire, she attributes all of the decisions she made and the paths she chose to God's plan for her. She says, "When things fall into your lap I don't believe it is by coincidence." She believes that Midwestern State University was in God's plan all along. While MSU may not be as well-known as other universities listed on Ashley's transcript, she believes that the kindness and dedication of her professors here cannot be matched. She describes MSU as "a small school that does such big things."

 Ashley plans to continue to do big things as her next step is to attend graduate school at The University of Texas in Austin and to continue her study of space biology. Eventually Ashley plans to pursue her dream of becoming an astronaut, but first she would like to obtain her Ph.D. and become an educator. Through her experiences she says she has "learned to enjoy sharing what she is passionate about." She wishes to give opportunities and assistance to the next generation just as many of her professors have given to her.

Candice Fulton, Assistant Professor of Chemistry, describes Ashley as "àa very caring, young lady who puts a priority on serving and caring for others. She is one of the top students from this department and the College of Science and Mathematics.  Being accepted into the University of Texas graduate program (one of the top programs in the country), she will be a successful researcher. She is an incredible student and individual."