JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Ashton Body glows when she describes her biomedical research at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville working on using nanoparticles to deliver targeted treatments for breast cancer.
The 20-year-old Harvard junior, who is among 12 speakers at Saturday’s TEDxJacksonville “Friction” conference, started working on the project at Mayo in the summer between her sophomore and junior years at Episcopal School of Jacksonville. She was 15 at the time.
“And then I also worked year-round, so I would go in after school most days every week and finish experiments throughout the whole school year,” Body said. “And then I did it the next summer too and just kept going. So I’ve been there for quite a while.”
Body (pronounced BEAU-dee) is proud of what she and her Mayo Clinic research mentors learned from their efforts about drug resistance and cell pathways – although she said the nanoparticle treatment they were working on isn’t something that will likely be translated to humans.
“But it’s definitely something that we can take a lot of what we’ve learned from and then move forward with the new therapies into that,” she said eagerly. “We’re really excited about what we’ve found in terms of what this means for when we’re brainstorming future projects.”
Body’s high school science teacher, Marion Zeiner, said that attitude is emblematic of Body’s remarkable patience.
“When setbacks happen in research, which they do all of the time, she takes it in stride. She understands that that’s part of doing research,” Zeiner said. “I mean, I have students who after 20 minutes would like to give up, and Ashton might have been working on something for three months and then realize, ‘Something went wrong. I have to start again.’ … [But] she is very determined to get things correct.”
Zeiner, who is the director of science research at Episcopal, was with Body when she presented her project at the International Science and Engineering Fair in Phoenix during her junior year. Body placed third in the biochemistry category.
“To get to go to the International Science Fair and talk to students from about 75 different countries is really an honor,” Zeiner said. “I knew still that she was one of the best there. And I was just so proud of her.”
Body, who grew up in the San Marco and Mandarin areas of Jacksonville, said her interest in science began very young.
Her mother, a sixth-grade science teacher at The Bolles School, let Body and her two younger brothers test out her class experiments at home and play with organic chemistry molecule models like toys.
“She’s always encouraged us to be very curious,” Body said.
Body’s mother and her father, who is a financial planner, recognized their daughter’s exceptional intelligence early on.
Body said when she was in first or second grade, she wanted to help her mom grade fourth-grade math tests.
“She actually taught me how to do fractions so that I could help her grade her tests when I was really little,” Body said. “I think she’s definitely been one of the main drivers of helping nurture my curiosity and provide me with resources to dig a little bit deeper into that.”
Body took that curiosity from high school into college, where she’s now studying social anthropology with a minor in global health and health policy.
She said she “accidentally fell into the major” after some advice during one of her interviews for a different college.
She said becoming a physician is a possibility for her future and she’s thankful to have the background of her major to help guide her if she takes that path.
“It gives you a lens to look outside of just the very biological part of the disease and look at the greater social forces,” Body said. “It’s definitely changed my perspective on a lot of things. And I think it’s definitely made me a better potential physician, if I go that path, but definitely it’s opened my eyes to a lot.”
Body’s mother, Elizabeth, said she’s seen her daughter transition from being all about research as a 15-year-old to now trying to understand the big picture as a 20-year-old.
“It’s important to her to make this world a better place and to make it an equal opportunity for all and that’s probably the direction she’ll head in science or medicine. She has a big drive to do that,” Elizabeth Body said. “She definitely has the compassion and heart of looking at each person and their circumstances -- not to judge them on that but to help them have the best life they can.”
‘Using her gifts’
Elizabeth Body said Ashton learned compassion and to lead with a grateful heart early on in life when Elizabeth’s sister-in-law died in 2006 from an aggressive form of breast cancer, leaving Elizabeth’s brother with two young children to raise.
Ashton said her aunt’s death was difficult to understand as a 4-year-old but its effect on her family is why she chose breast cancer as the focus of her biomedical research.
Elizabeth said she remembers talking about the decision with Ashton.
“How important the impact could be on a family because we had gone through it ourselves,” she said. “Some little one like your cousins will be so thankful if someone could help their mom.”
Zeiner said Ashton spoke to her about her aunt’s passing and why she was focusing on breast cancer in her research.
“Ashton is using her gifts to help people in difficult situations in the future. She is a very talented young woman in so many ways, but she in her heart wants to help other people and that’s what she’s doing,” Zeiner said. “She’s just an amazing person and really very extraordinary for her age, very extraordinary.”
That desire to give back and help others – what her mother calls a “servant’s heart” – has also led Ashton to volunteer regularly, particularly with children.
She spent last summer as a camp counselor working with kids whose parents had died or who have cancer. She’s on the officers team with the Phillips Brooks House Association, a student-led nonprofit public service organization at Harvard. And she volunteers with Cambridge Afterschool Program.
“I’ve worked with the kids since freshman year,” she said. “So it’s just been a really important and also grounding part of my experience.”
Zeiner said Ashton will also be giving back to the Episcopal research class that helped her start on her impressive journey. This year’s class will be visiting her during a field trip to Harvard this semester.
And Zeiner is encouraging the students to attend Ashton’s presentation Saturday at the TEDxJacksonville conference. Zeiner said she wouldn’t miss it.
“She is brilliant,” Zeiner said. “But she has a real passion for solving a problem that is going to help thousands, millions of people in the world. That is her goal. It isn’t to make herself famous or to get into a great university. Her passion is to make a difference in the world.”
To hear Ashton Body’s presentation at the TEDxJacksonville “Friction” conference, you can purchase tickets online through 5 p.m. Oct. 20: click here. Tickets will also be available at the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena box office on Thursday and Friday.
The conference is scheduled for 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Oct. 22 in the Terry Theater of the Jacksonville Center for the Performing Arts. There will also be on-site ticketing at the Terry Theater box office that morning — if there are tickets left.
For more on the conference and a complete list of speakers, click here.
Ashton joined us last month for a chat on The Morning Show. To watch her interview, press play below: