College of Science

Alumna Purgason balances studies, role as student regent

It was an injury suffered while doing something she loved - playing basketball - which helped Ashley Purgason focus on another passion - education.

Purgason was a freshman member of the UT Arlington Lady Mavericks basketball team in 2003 when she fractured a bone and tore a tendon in her left foot. She had surgery, did physical therapy and was able to return to the court, but she "was never quite the same," she said. The experience led her to concentrate more on her academics and what she wanted to do after college.

"Going through the injury forced me to take a harder look at the future instead of seeing it as a distant thing that would work itself out," she said. "I became more serious about pursuing graduate school and improving the areas of my life outside of the sports arena. One should always be growing in character and I can tell you that I've continued to take my education more seriously as I've advanced."

She took it seriously enough to graduate with a B.S. in Biology with Honors in May 2006, while also being recognized as an Academic All-American for the basketball team and a UTA Scholar Athlete. She returned to UT Arlington for graduate school and completed a master's in Biology in December 2007 while also serving as the director of Women's Basketball Operations. She went on to UT Medical Branch at Galveston (UTMB), where she is working toward a Ph.D. in Environmental Toxicology, while also serving as a Student Regent with the UT System Board of Regents. She was appointed a student regent by Gov. Rick Perry; her one-year term began June 1, 2012 and runs through May 31, 2013.

"I can tell you that without a doubt, serving my fellow UT System students has been the greatest honor of my life," she said. "I feel like I'm truly making a difference because of the opportunity the role gives you to do just that, and you can't put a price on having a positive impact. The UT System has the greatest students in the world. I have been humbled and so fortunate to meet so many of them and exchange lasting, meaningful, change-making dialogue together."

As a student regent, Purgason acts as a liaison between the board of regents and students throughout the UT System, which includes 15 institutions. She travels around Texas talking with students about issues important to them and about how decisions made by the board will affect their college experience.

"They in turn voice to me their concerns for their campuses, covering everything from parking to the future costs of higher education for the next generation," she said. "It's my job to be a voice for them since I have more access to my regental colleagues and our university presidents. It's my job to make sure that students and their perspectives are included in the regental decision-making process."

Purgason says she has tried to encourage a communicative relationship between herself, student leaders and the System Student Advisory Council. She receives calls and emails from students weekly and enjoys the exchange of ideas.

"Each campus truly is unique and remembering that when working with the students, system administration and the regents is imperative," she said. "It's also important for the student regent to identify areas of strength or weakness across the system that are impacting our students. Throughout my term, I've tried to develop ideas for improving certain aspects of the system and spread initiatives that are successful to our other campuses."

Purgason balances her duties as student regent with her doctoral work at UTMB, where she's working toward a Ph.D. in Environmental Toxicology. Her research is conducted at both UTMB and the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, and is focused on the dangers of the space radiation environment and its effects on the health of astronauts in long duration missions beyond low Earth orbit. While at UTMB, Purgason has served as president of both the Student Government Association and the Graduate Student Organization. She has been named a National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences Toxicology Scholar, a NASA Graduate Student Research Proposal Pre-Doctoral Fellow, and a Texas Space Grant Consortium Scholar.

She has also taught a toxicology course at Texas A&M University-Galveston for the past three years, and she completed the prestigious NASA Space Radiation Summer School program at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York. Most recently, she served as a community member of the search advisory committee which interviewed candidates to replace outgoing UT Arlington President James Spaniolo. The committee recommended Vistasp Karbhari, who will take office on June 1.

Her work ethic and leadership skills have impressed everyone who has gotten to know her, from fellow students to university administrators.

"Always ready to pitch in and help, Ashley has been an exceptionally active student, in her roles as president of two student organizations and now as


Ashley Purgason, seen here with a Lunar Rover at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, is working toward a Ph.D. in Environmental Toxicology.

student regent for the entire UT system, in addition to many other volunteer activities," said Dorian Coppenhaver, associate professor and senior associate dean for Student Affairs of the UTMB Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences. "In spite of her heavy commitments, Ashley is on track to complete her Ph.D. in only five years - she will graduate this August. If I were allowed to have favorite students, Ashley would easily make the list - as a person even more than as an exemplary student."

Born in Arlington, Purgason graduated from Mansfield High School, where she helped lead the girls' basketball team to three straight state Class 5A championships. After spending one year at New York University, she transferred to UT Arlington and played for the Mavericks women's hoops team until the injury derailed her playing career. That led her to put a greater emphasis on academics, which in turn led to her decision to attend graduate school. She also made the decision to concentrate her studies in the field of toxicology.

She credits her professors, including senior lecturer in chemistry Jimmy Rogers and biology professor James Robinson, with challenging her and preparing her to move on to the next level of her education.

"The (UT Arlington) Biology Department is quite strong in genomics, and so many of my professors during my master's studies truly prepared me for my Ph.D. studies, which have had an element of genomics and molecular biology to them," she said. "Thank goodness for them!"

Working for the UT Arlington Athletic Department while studying for her master's degree also provided a challenge, but Purgason is grateful for the lessons it taught her in how to balance her commitments.

"It certainly prepared me for graduate school at the Ph.D. level, which is quite challenging," she said. "The fantastic thing is that I adored every second of having the chance to work for the Athletics Department. When you truly enjoy what you do, it doesn't feel like a balancing act. I got to spend time with a diverse group and interact with people daily, receiving a small taste of administrative work which has ultimately turned out to be what I love and what I hope to pursue. Then I always had my science waiting for me. I studied on the bus to games; I studied between work tasks; I studied whenever I had a free moment."

Once she finishes her doctoral studies, Purgason hopes to stay in Texas and continue her research career, including teaching at the undergraduate level, where she can continue to connect with students.

"I very much enjoy working with undergraduates and I believe that the sky is the limit in unleashing their potential," she said. "Administrators have to discover ways in the future to enhance their educational experiences and collaboration with other institutes is just one way to do this."

She credits her time at UT Arlington in the College of Science with giving her the drive, discipline and determination necessary to achieve her goals, and she has watched proudly as her alma mater has taken strides toward becoming a Tier I institution.

"Going through my bachelor's and master's degrees and the successes and failures of those processes taught me the true rigors of higher education, and I look so forward to seeing UTA's College of Science continue to excel and advance in excellence as they have been," she said. "UT Arlington is, of course, extremely special to me. I love this university dearly. Go Mavs!"

Posted April 18, 2013