Graduate Student Spotlight: Ashley Tong

Danielle Randall
September 19, 2017

Originally from Ohio, Ashley Tong completed her undergraduate studies at Indiana University, South Bend and is beginning her fourth year at MIT this fall as a member of Professor Gabriela Schlau-Cohen's research group. Ashley's research interests lie in answering general questions such as “How can the efficiency of current renewable energy sources be improved?” and “What principles should be considered in the design of new renewable energy sources?” With diminishing fossil fuels and an increasing energy demand, the ability to harness solar energy more efficiently would ameliorate the global energy crisis. Solar panels have been the primary technology for harnessing sunlight. Most solar panels commercially available today operate with only 10-15% efficiency. Using a different approach to solar energy conversion, photosynthetic organisms have developed a light harvesting process with near unity quantum efficiency. Light harvesting complexes, which make up the antenna, transfer energy from the sun to reach a central location, the reaction center, where charge separation occurs. Moreover, these complexes are able to carry out this efficient transfer in membranes within cells despite the complex environment found in these membranes. This environment includes interactions between the light-harvesting complexes, which mediate energy transferring from complex to complex. This is the rate limiting step of the energy transport process, but has not been accessible with previous approaches. Probing the effect of the interactions between complexes on the energy transfer rates will provide valuable information about how these light harvesters achieve > 90% quantum efficiency. This new knowledge can be used to improve current solar materials or design new, more effective light-harvesting devices. In Professor Schlau-Cohen's lab, Ashley probes how photosynthetic light-harvesting complexes are able to achieve their impressive efficiency using ensemble ultrafast spectroscopy and near-native discoidal model membrane systems. These model membrane systems provide a controlled environment to effectively study how energy is transferred from complex to complex and how interactions between complexes contribute to the efficiency of the system.

As the subject of September 2017's Graduate Student Spotlight, Ashley reveals the fanatsy universe in which she'd most like to live, her three favorite fictional characters, the chance encounter that changed her life forever, and more!

1. How did you decide to do the work you are doing now?
My journey into the work I do now was a windy path. After eight years in the public food service industry, I decided to go back to school for a better career. Coming from a family that predominantly joined the working class immediately after high school, college wasn’t really an option I considered in high school. I began at IU as a nursing major, which I picked randomly because it was a career I had actually heard of, and I generally liked science most in high school. After my intro to biochemistry class for nursing majors, I realized how much I loved biochemistry and how intuitive it was to me. My biochemistry professor defined more career options within the biochemistry field, and I started a research project in her lab. My second year of undergrad, I changed my major to biochemistry. I was predominately interested in biochemical pathways and signaling in my first research project. My third year of undergrad I attended a NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) at Pennsylvania State University and was introduced to bioinorganic chemistry and my biochemical interests became refocused on metalloenzymes. I was particularly interested in learning the spectroscopy used in this field. It was my interest in bioinorganic chemistry that introduced me to the work of Joanne Stubbe and MIT. I did my senior seminar project on Professor Stubbe’s work with Ribonucleotide Reductase and decided to apply to MIT for graduate school. I was accepted to all five universities I applied to and was pretty much decided to attend one closer to home with a much lower cost of living, primarily for my daughter. However, my MIT visit was the most exciting of all my visits. Not only were there faculty doing amazing work, but I also fell in love with Cambridge. Fortunately, Gabriela Schlau-Cohen had just joined the department, and I was able to schedule a meeting with her even though she was not originally on the list of faculty to meet. I was so excited by her research and the spectroscopy that I decided, yet again, to completely reorient my focus from bioinorganic chemistry to biophysical chemistry. Now I am solving the mysteries of photosynthesis one laser pulse at a time.

2. What game or movie universe would you most like to live in?
Harry Potter: Hogwarts.

3. What’s the most interesting documentary you’ve ever watched?
Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman

4. If you didn’t have to sleep, what would you do with the extra time?
I would learn another language.

5. If you were on a 27 hour flight and could only watch one movie, what would it be?
Star Wars: Return of the Jedi

6. What bit of trivia do you know that is very interesting but also very useless?
90's hit music trivia.

7. Who are three of your favorite fictional characters?
Daenerys Targaryen, Captain Jack Sparrow, Harry Potter

8. What is the best vacation you’ve ever taken?
This past year we went to Edinburgh Scotland. Not only did I get to celebrate my birthday there, but I also got engaged.

9. Who would be the best person you could be stuck in an elevator with?
My fiancé.

10. If you were given five million dollars to open a small museum, what kind of museum would you create?
An interactive science museum that also illustrates the advances in technology and instrumentation used to conduct experimental research, such as old equipment/how things were measured 100 years ago versus how they are measured today. I would also focus on having fun events to educate the general public about specific topics such as climate change, fossil fuel acquisition, etc.

11. What are some small things that make your day better?
A good work out, coffee, chocolate, music, and finding T0.

12. What could you give a 40-minute presentation on with absolutely no preparation?
My research project and "What to expect when raising a girl."

13. What is something that a ton of people are obsessed with but you just don’t get the point of?
Nothing really, we all have our obsessions!

14. What’s worth spending more on to get the best?
Anything that you use a lot - For example, car parts, your mattress, sheets, gym shoes, pots and pans, etc.

15. What movie title best describes your life?
It's A Wonderful Life.

16. If you suddenly became a master at woodworking, what would you make?
Antique furniture. I’d probably begin with a fancy vanity for my daughter.

17. What is special about the place you grew up?
My family that lives there.

18. What did you think you would grow out of but haven’t?
Video Games.

19. What irrational fear do you have?
Driving over bridges.

20. What chance encounter changed your life forever?
A visiting professor at Indiana University encouraged me to apply for an NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) at Penn State University, which ultimately led me to MIT.

Many thanks to Ashley for these thoughtful answers! Stay tuned for more Graduate Student Spotlights in the months to come!