Ashley Babyak once dreamed of being a physician. But after multiple internships at NCI at Frederick, she realized she could also make a difference as a laboratory scientist, and she now seeks to protect public health by researching infectious diseases.
Babyak spent the 2012–2013 school year as a Werner H. Kirsten (WHK) intern at NCI at Frederick, working in the Center for Cancer Research Laboratory of Molecular Immunology with mentor Katie Stagliano, Ph.D. Her focus was developing an assay to investigate a potential contributor to tumor development: disrupted binding interactions between DNA and a peptide inhibitor of the protein FOXO3.
“I loved doing research as a WHK intern, but when I finished the program, I still wanted to be a physician,” Babyak said.
However, she believes that the program laid the foundation for her eventual shift from medical practice to scientific research.
During her undergraduate studies at Stevenson University in Owings Mills, Md., Babyak completed more research internships that cemented her decision to work in the lab. Several occurred at NCI at Frederick during summer and winter breaks, when she worked in the Laboratory of Experimental Immunology with Thomas Sayers, Ph.D.
While at Stevenson, Babyak began researching parasites under the guidance of professor Matthew Tucker, Ph.D. Two projects led to presentations at the Maryland Branch of the American Society of Microbiology and the 91st Meeting of the American Society of Parasitologists. For the former, Babyak won the branch’s prestigious J. Howard Brown Award, which is given annually to one graduate student and one undergraduate student who make valuable contributions to microbiological research.
Babyak graduated from Stevenson in 2017 with a degree in biotechnology. She then worked as a post-baccalaureate fellow in the Center of Human Immunology, part of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, where she studied patients’ immune responses during clinical trials.
More recently, Babyak transferred to the Critical Care Medicine Department at the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center in Bethesda, Md. She is currently studying human and nonhuman primate immune responses to infectious diseases, especially Zika and Ebola.
On top of her full-time laboratory job, Babyak has also begun pursuing a master’s degree in biotechnology with a focus in biosecurity and biodefense. Her post-graduation goals include devoting her research to infectious diseases that threaten national security and defense, as well as eventually working for the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases.
“My time as a WHK intern was one of the most influential experiences in helping me determine my current trajectory,” Babyak said. “Being a WHK intern introduced me to the world of research and taught me more about science than I ever learned in a classroom.”
Her internship also led to the types of relationships that underpin scientific research—and that enrich lives. She remains especially close with her original mentor, Stagliano.
“Even now, over five years after I completed my WHK internship, she continues to mentor me as I grow as a scientist and begin my career,” Babyak said.