Ashley Hayden '19 is a first-generation college student and senior biology major at Texas A&M University.

This article was originally published by the Texas A&M College of Science.

By the time she was 15, Ashley Hayden '19 was balancing a workload that would overwhelm most adults: two jobs and the demands of her high school coursework. Since she was 11, she had been living with her divorced mom, Cathey Jo (CJ), a retired police officer whose health had been rapidly declining the past two years due to cancer, and Hayden was doing her best to help alleviate some of the financial burden.

Although grateful for the support, CJ hated seeing her daughter stress over money at such a young age. Shortly before she died in August 2014, the week before her daughter was set to begin her senior year of high school, CJ asked Hayden to promise her one thing.

"She told me that she really wanted me to go to college," Hayden recalled. "She didn't want me to end up in the financial situation like the one we were in ever again."

It was motherly advice that Hayden took to heart when she vowed to be a first-generation college student. She's now a senior biology major at Texas A&M University on track to graduate next May. Her grades have always been exceptional, as evidenced by the fact that she is a member of the Biology Honors Program, the University Honors Program and the University Scholars Program, the latter of which accepts only 10 students per year campus-wide based on their scholastic achievements.

However, Hayden maintains that her biggest accomplishments, both personal and academic, have come from inside the laboratory conducting scientific research -- an unexpected realm that has enabled her to channel the same perseverance she mustered during her mom's illness into a more auspicious outlet.

"When it comes to research, I think a lot of people are scared of the commitment," Hayden said. "I was too at first—it was nothing like my previous jobs. But it's because of how much time I spend in the lab that I'm really able to succeed and flourish. Whenever I first decided to apply for research groups, I was scared I wasn't even going to like it, and I turned out to really, really like it."

from toad tending to monarch manipulation

Since 2017, Hayden has been working in Texas A&M biologist Christine Merlin's research group, which focuses on understanding the genetic basis behind the migration habits of the Monarch butterfly, whose annual fall migration is thought to be triggered by a decrease in day length. Hayden is studying the molecular aspect of how Monarchs are able to sense that seasonal change by manipulating different genes in order to determine which are responsible for sensing light input. 

Monarch migration, Hayden explains, is one of many biological functions driven by circadian clocks, the daily physiological behaviors that occur in every living organism. Also known as circadian rhythms, they have become a hot topic in science and medicine in recent years, earning the 2017 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. Understanding the function of circadian clocks in Monarchs could indirectly shed light on how the human clock operates, leading to more efficient ways of treating biological rhythms-related disorders, including jet lag, metabolic ailments and even cancer. Furthermore, the intersection between circadian clocks and migration has never been studied well at the molecular level.

"We have genetic tools available on the monarch that allow us to edit their genomes, thereby allowing us to determine which genes are important in their migration," Hayden said. "Such knowledge, long term, could help understand circadian clocks better than we do now, thereby leading to implications on human health in the future."

Hayden's interest in the complexities of living things began during her childhood. She grew up in Friendswood, Texas, exploring the outdoors and playing with insects and lizards. The late Steve Irwin, the famed "Crocodile Hunter," was her childhood idol, and she would often pretend she was catching alligators when she was really catching toads, which she raised in an aquarium in her bedroom.

She enrolled at Texas A&M in 2015 with aspirations of becoming a doctor to help those like her mom, until a freshman biology course sparked her fascination with science at the cellular level. That revelation ultimately led her to the Merlin lab, where Hayden says she gained not only undergraduate research experience but also close friendships with her lab mates. 

"That team-oriented environment has been huge for me," Hayden said. "That was one of the things I was looking for when I went into a lab, and honestly, I don't think it's a thing a lot of people consider. They motivate me to get up every day and learn something new."

Seeing Hayden blossom as a scientist, Merlin says, has been a "truly amazing experience."

"Ashley's passion, dedication and maturity have all been key to her success in the lab," Merlin said. "In only a year and a half, she has already amassed really interesting data that will be important contributions to the field. Ashley also has an incredibly team-spirited nature, and this too has contributed positively to the lab atmosphere. When you have an undergraduate of her caliber, your role as a principal investigator is almost reduced to sitting and watching. It will be hard to see her leave the nest next May, but I have no doubt that she has grown the right set of wings to safely take off and pursue a bright career in science."

Since 2017, Hayden has been working in Texas A&M biologist Christine Merlin's research group, which focuses on understanding the genetic basis behind the migration habits of the Monarch butterfly.

to boldly go and gig 'em

Duncan MacKenzie, associate director for undergraduate research in the Department of Biology, also has played a key role in guiding the trajectory of Hayden's academic career. MacKenzie also serves as director of the Biology Honors Program, which seeks to attract and retain some of the highest-performing students in the biological sciences through regular group meetings and faculty mentoring, and says students like Hayden personify the program's success. 

"I have rarely encountered a student with Ashley's combination of intellectual curiosity, motivation, dependability and enthusiasm," MacKenzie said. "The leadership she has shown has had a major impact on the success of our new Biology Honors Program. At the same time, she has made impressive progress as a scientist."

The countless hours Hayden has spent in the lab recently culminated in her being awarded a $10,000 scholarship from the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation. She was one of two students from Texas A&M to receive the prestigious award, known for being among the most significant merit-based scholarships awarded to undergraduate STEM students, who are chosen based on their demonstration of excellence in undergraduate research and academics in their respective fields. 

Hayden traveled to Washington, D.C., in August to accept her award in person from the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation. Another ceremony was held in September on the Texas A&M campus, where she was formally recognized and greeted by NASA astronaut and Apollo 16 crew member Charlie Duke, the youngest man to have walked on the moon. Since then, she has been able to interact with countless astronauts and make memories that will last a lifetime.

"If I can get a scholarship that I didn't even know existed, at a school I didn't think I could ever get into, anyone can do anything they set their mind to," Hayden said. "I am just honored to have received it in the first place, and I hope it's a token of success for my lab and hopefully the Department of Biology. Most of all, I hope my mom is proud of me, wherever she is."

Although meeting Duke was a personal highlight, there was one moment in particular that Hayden says especially stood out. As she walked across that WDC stage to accept her award, Hayden turned to the audience and flashed a "Gig 'em" hand sign that elicited a smattering of "whoops" from the crowd. She did not know any of the Aggies there, nor did they know her personally; they were just proud of a fellow Aggie for her accomplishments.

For Hayden, it was a simple reminder of how expansive the Aggie Network is and why she chose to be an Aggie in the first place. 

"One of the things that originally attracted me to Texas A&M was the Aggie family aspect of it; that was something I'd never really experienced before," Hayden said. "As a first-generation student, I really wanted a place where I could feel at home, and that's been one of my favorite parts of being an Aggie."

To learn how you can support students in the College of Science, contact Randy Lunsford at or (979) 845-6474.

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