Undergraduate Biology Student Researcher: Laiba Ashraf

Laiba Ashraf

Laiba Ashraf is a Senior studying Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology and is pursuing a double minor in business administration and chemistry.

Laiba's Research at KU

“I'm currently working on Familial Alzheimer's Disease. For my project, I'm using C. elegans as a model organism to answer a fundamental question, which is, ‘Why do mutations in proteins that cause Familial Alzheimer's Disease in humans, when expressed in C. elegans, have negative consequences that include reduction in lifespan and degeneration of synapses?’ In other words, we're trying to determine how and why Proteotoxic stress may lead to a reduction in lifespan and degeneration of synapses in worms with transgenic Familial Alzheimer’s Disease mutations.”

How did you become interested in doing this kind of research?

“I have been interested in research for the longest time, but I remember my sophomore year, I took a Cell Structure and Function lab, and towards the end of the lab, we worked on a small independent research project. It had everything to do with cancer cells and not a lot of what I do right now, but that was really what sparked my interest in research. After that project, I started reading articles published from different labs at KU, and I started reaching out to professors whose work really interested me and Dr. Ackey was one of those people.”

Laiba working at a microscope and computer

“One notable experience from my time engaging with the Ackley Lab was the process of securing a position. Initially, when I reached out, he informed me that there were no openings available. Then I reached out again, and he was like, ‘Still no openings’. I was really disappointed and thought, "I'll never get into his lab." I decided to give it one final shot and that's when he mentioned, "Oh, someone actually left our lab and we have one opening." It was just pure luck that I ended up getting the opportunity.”

What does your research look like?

“So, my day-to-day work mostly involves transferring different worm strains on new nematode growth media (NGM) plates, which have OP50 bacteria on them to ensure that the worms are growing and developing in a healthy environment. Since C. elegans are microscopic worms, I spend most of my time looking under a fluorescent microscope.

I also spend a lot of time imaging worms after immobilization to capture their GFP expression for quantification and analysis. On the days that I do lifespan analysis, I have to be in my lab every single day, even on the weekends.”

Have you made any discoveries?

“Oh, it's a bit too early, I haven't made any findings, but I have learned a lot of life skills. I would say, the biggest takeaway, is that I learned that it's okay to fail sometimes. No human is perfect, and there are times when you're going to succeed and there will be times when you fail and failure is not always a bad thing, it can always teach you something. It's extremely important to keep an open mind no matter what the circumstances are.”

What's most challenging about your project?

“One thing that I found kind of challenging is that we have less than 50 to 60 faculty members in the biology department who are actively working on research. So, there are only a few opportunities for interested students and it gets really challenging to secure a position in a lab.

 Another thing is I feel like there are not many opportunities for international students. For example, the REU program, I really wanted to do that, and I couldn't because I didn't qualify being an international student. So, it was kind of frustrating.”

What advice would you offer to other students?

“I would recommend starting as early as you can, reach out to faculty members whose research really interest you early on, and if you do that, there's a greater chance that you can secure a position in a lab.

Try to always take advantage of opportunities that come your way, because you can always find something to learn from them. One thing that I wish I could have told myself early on when I first started this research, is to never be afraid to ask questions. I know that nobody expects you to know everything about everything, and you just cannot be perfect, and it's okay to ask other people for help.”

Laiba working at a microscope

“I would like to mention how I declared a chemistry minor-- I've been working for the PLUS program for almost four semesters now, and, right now, I'm teaching Organic Chemistry to students, and being in the PLUS program sort of made me realize how much I loved Organic Chemistry, and that led me to declare a chemistry minor.

I am currently the president of the Pi Lambda chapter of Tri Beta, which is the Biological Honor Society. I joined as a regular member two years ago, and upon attending my first meeting, I knew that this was my community, and this was exactly where I belonged. Being in an academic society like this, with students from different backgrounds and different interests provided me mentorship opportunities and an overall supportive community.”

What do you plan to do after you graduate from KU?

“I plan on going to graduate school for a PhD program. I'm sort of wanting to look at projects that are a combination of genetics and biomedical research, but since I will be graduating in December, which is not typical,  I think I will take the rest of the year off to travel.”