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Three labs, two majors, one Gates Cambridge Scholarship

  • Graduate study in Cambridge
    Graduate study in Cambridge  Ashley Fidler ’14 will move on into a MPhil program at the University of Cambridge as a Gates Cambridge Scholar, one of 40 such high-performing American university scholars to be so honored.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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Ashley Fidler ’14 stands out even among the high achievers that make up the student body of William & Mary.

In her final semester of her senior year, she’s carrying a class load of 17 credits while devoting 30 hours to research with three different William & Mary scientists. The hard work—and the occasional sleepless night—have paid off. Fidler was just named a recipient of a Gates Cambridge Scholarship, one of 40 awarded in the United States.

The Gates Scholarship will allow Fidler, a resident of Falls Church, to pursue an MPhil degree at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. After graduating from William & Mary with a double major in chemistry and biology, Fidler will begin study with Clemens Kaminski, professor of chemical physics and head of the Laser Analytics Group at Cambridge.

She began research early at William & Mary, reaching out to Associate Professor of Biology Matthew Wawersik in the first semester of her freshman year.

“When asked about her motivation for contacting me, I was immensely impressed by her clearly stated and well thought out rationale. Ashley not only discussed her passion for understanding how living organisms work, but she had also done her homework on my lab,” Wawersik wrote in a letter of recommendation. “Naturally, I immediately invited her to join my lab.”

Fidler is still working in Wawersik’s lab, finishing up her senior honors thesis, which deals with stem cell regulation in Drosophila; Wawersik points out that she is a co-author on a paper describing a key technique for immunostaining of Drosophila larvae that was accepted for publication in a key journal. She also presented her work at the 54th Annual International Drosophila research conference, after which Wawersik received comments from colleagues on the order of “I thought I was listening to a post-doctoral fellow’s research.”

She said she learned that her research interests would require an increased background in chemistry, and so she began working in the labs of Douglas Young and Kristin Wustholz, assistant professors of chemistry.

“In Dr. Young’s lab, I’m working on getting click reactions between proteins. So, essentially we’re adding non-traditional functional groups to the protein and we’re just throwing them together and seeing if they’ll bind together and so we can connect the proteins,” she said. “In Dr. Wustholz’s lab, we’re doing something called SERS, or surface enhanced Raman spectroscopy. We’re using that to try to make an assay to look at interactions between microRNA and small molecules. Small molecules can theoretically inhibit microRNA function and microRNAs are often overexpressed in cancers.”

Many students would have picked one area of research, but Fidler stayed the course: “I love all my research projects so much that I didn’t want to give them up,” she said. “I wanted to finish them, you know?”

She not only stayed the course, but excelled. Both chemists cited not only Fidler’s lab skills, but also her dedication. “Ashley is the first to volunteer to help her labmates and perform undesirable tasks that benefit the whole lab,” Young writes.

“Ashley has a passion for science that is infectious and sincere. She enjoys talking through problems with her peers and thrives on the fun of scientific discovery,” Wustholz wrote in her letter of support for Fidler’s Gates Cambridge Scholarship.

Established in 2000 by a donation of $210 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to the University of Cambridge, Gates Cambridge Scholarships are prestigious, highly competitive full-cost scholarships. They are awarded to outstanding applicants from countries outside the UK to pursue a full-time postgraduate degree in any subject available at the University of Cambridge. The program aims to build a global network of future leaders committed to improving the lives of others.

Fidler is the third College student to win this honor. William and Mary’s previous Gates Scholars are Matthew Oreska and Ian Ralby.