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Ashley Synder, PhD

Ashley Snyder Alumni

Ashley Snyder, PhD, MPH

A brief autobiography 
I have a broad variety of interests. My undergraduate included a B.S. in Zoology and a B.A. in Anthropology. I later completed an M.P.H. in Epidemiology and now the Ph.D. in Population Health Sciences with an emphasis in Health Systems Research. When I was a senior in high school, I developed health issues that would shape my academic path as well as my research interests in diet evolutionary medicine, where we use an understanding of genetics, evolutionary processes, and mismatch environments to learn why diseases exist or are becomingly increasingly prevalent. However, this field was too theoretical for me; I wanted to apply these concepts to help people struggling with disease, not just study disease. This led to my interest in public health and population health sciences. My disease interests have primarily been acne and celiac disease but now also include dermatitis herpetiformis, psoriasis, eczema, and dermatologic diseases more broadly due to my wonderful experience working as a graduate assistant in the Department of Dermatology at the University of Utah. Starting with theories about the gut microbiome and acne that I read about for my undergraduate senior honors thesis, I have had an evolving interest in the gut microbiome and especially the applications of fecal microbiota transplant, which my mentor kindly let me pursue further in a project I led during my Ph.D. I hope to continue working on dermatology and celiac disease research as well as continue my exploration of how the gut microbiome relates to disease. 

Describe your experience in the program
I definitely learned the challenges of being a researcher, especially a non-clinical researcher in clinical research. 

What was your favorite class?
ANTH 6400 - Proseminar in Anthropology: Evolutionary Ecology. I am grateful that Population Health Sciences let me take a couple anthropology proseminars as electives because these helped me put biological and cultural phenomena in perspective to help me understand population dynamics and potential for disease. I also took ANTH 6100 - Proseminar in Cultural Anthropology, which was great for learning about differences and similarities in human behavior and psychology across populations, but if I have to choose just one, ANTH 6400 was my favorite class because I got to learn from Dr. Kristen Hawkes, whom has spent significant time with hunter-gatherer populations, including one of primary interest in my diet and acne research, the Aché. It was great to hear about these populations and differences between populations from someone who spent time with them!

Describe some of your research experiences
I have conducted statistical analyses for many retrospective chart reviews in dermatology, including a project I proposed where we tried to understand dermatologic and celiac disease outcomes after fecal microbiota transplant. I helped conduct analyses for and write eight qualitative research papers from three dermatology projects. My first project during my graduate assistantship was a literature review on patient-reported outcome (PRO) measures in dermatology, and my knowledge of PROs has increased with other projects. I helped recruit participants for a randomized behavioral trial on melanoma preventive behaviors. Grant writing experience for both foundation and NIH grants was helpful for building my grant writing skills. Finally, I was able to fulfill my dream of completing a dissertation that looked at how diet and acne are related. There was a bit more to the dissertation by the end of the process, but it is in there!

What did you enjoy most about the program?
Getting to work in dermatology. I loved working with the physicians and advanced practice clinicians. They not only gave me many interesting projects but also helped me learn about concepts in dermatology so I could broaden my knowledge base and interests. I also worked with some great medical school students who helped me better understand how to be a good mentor. I kind of liked being the department's first and only Ph.D. student for a while; I got a better understanding of what daily life is like for clinicians while also getting to share what I knew with people who could use my help. I think it was sometimes a learning process since I was an outlier in a group of clinicians, but I made some great friends.

What is your next step and how you feel the program prepared you for this?
I am currently working on a post-doc that will, hopefully, lead into an assistant professor position. This post-doc is not directly related to my research interests preceding it, but the Ph.D. emphasis in Health Systems Research included qualitative and implementation science coursework that helped prepare me for my post-doc. Several projects with my mentor that involved qualitative methods and implementation science also helped prepare me for this position.

What advice you have for future students?
Through a long process of talking to many people from multiple departments, multiple universities, and a non-profit, I found out there are ethical and sometimes legal issues around letting a non-clinical Ph.D. be the sole principal investigator on clinical trials. I have wanted to do clinical trials for several years and thought the Health Systems Research emphasis would help prepare me for this. I did not anticipate that I would be required to be a physician. Check your state or country legal guidelines on this as some places will legally require a physician to be the principal investigator. For ethical considerations, see the Declaration of Helsinki. I was given advice in college that I should not go to medical school if my primary goal was to do research, not to see patients. I have received mixed advice in the years since. Some say that I should go to medical school, but I have also heard that I would not even be admitted to medical school if my primary goal was research. I skipped medical school, so I do not know who was right in that argument. What I do know is that there is a bias toward physicians in clinical trials. The same is also true for some animal studies as veterinarians are needed for studies that are not murine models. My advice to those who, like me, want to do anything and everything in the research process is to think carefully about what exactly you want to do and then go talk to people who do exactly those things. I struggled to find anyone exactly like me who could give me advice. If you find yourself in the same place, look into the ethical and legal requirements as best you can before you apply for a doctoral program.