College of Science

Purgason relishes chance to boost undergrad research

Ashley Purgason definitely won't need any time getting used to her new surroundings.

That's because Purgason, who started her tenure as College of Science Assistant Dean for Undergraduate Research and Student Advancement on August 12, is no stranger to UT Arlington. As a student, she earned a B.S. in Biology with Honors in 2006 and a M.S. in Biology in 2007. She was also a member of the UT Arlington Lady Mavs basketball team, where she was named an Academic All-American in 2004. While working on her master's degree, she also served as director of Women's Basketball Operations.

Needless to say, there won't be much for Purgason to learn during new employee orientation.

"There really aren't enough ways to say that I'm thrilled to be back! Truly, this is an honor and privilege to be a Maverick 24/7 again," she said. "Every time I walk across campus I'm flooded with memories of positive experiences, and those good feelings sure make it easy to go to work. The best part is seeing how UT Arlington is thriving and evolving, and how motivating and exciting that is. I am one of those lucky individuals who get to say I'm inspired and ecstatic to go to work every day. All of my colleagues in the College of Science are teaching me every day just through their talents and actions."

Purgason is well-suited to her new role of helping undergraduate students become more involved in research. In May, she completed work on her Ph.D. in Environmental Toxicology from UT Medical Branch at Galveston. She also spent the past year immersing herself in issues important to students as a member of the UT System Board of Regents. She was appointed a student regent by Gov. Rick Perry; her one-year term ended May 31.

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

As a doctoral student, she conducted research at both UTMB and the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, focusing 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 also served as president of both the Student Government Association and the Graduate Student Organization.

In her role as assistant dean, her main responsibility will be to ensure that research becomes an essential component of the undergraduate experience in the College.

To accomplish this goal, Purgason will identify best practices for undergraduates, including: coordinating research threads in laboratory courses for majors; advising students on research opportunities, fellowships and programs; seeking funding opportunities for undergraduate research; and encouraging undergraduate participation in conferences. Purgason will also facilitate student success in the core curriculum and teach one course per semester in the role of assistant professor of practice.

"It is so incredible to me that I now have the chance and responsibility to better the experiences of our undergraduates in the College of Science," she said. "My primary duty will be to create, implement and assess multiple and varying avenues for our undergraduates to engage in research and critical thinking processes. Believe it or not, the laboratory is just one avenue where that can happen. We want our students to have many options to grow as young scholars beyond the traditional exams so that they do not have to sacrifice their already limited time."

College of Science Dean Pamela Jansma first met Purgason last year when the two served as members of the search advisory committee which interviewed candidates to replace outgoing UT Arlington President James Spaniolo. The committee recommended Vistasp Karbhari, who took office on June 1. Jansma says she was impressed by Purgason's passion for helping students.

"We're thrilled to have Dr. Purgason join the College of Science in this role of assistant dean," Jansma said. "She has a great deal of experience working with students, and her thorough knowledge of the research process will be invaluable in giving our students opportunities to become involved in hands-on research, which will greatly benefit their educational experience. Her enthusiasm is infectious and she's really excited by the chance to work with students and help provide them with every possible tool to succeed."
Purgason agrees that both her research background and her experiences in working with students are critical to her new job.

"As academicians we are often so focused on innovation or productivity that we may lose that continued and supportive contact with individual students," she said. "Listening to their changing needs as they progress through classes

In May, UT Arlington alumna Ashley Purgason completed her Ph.D. in Environmental Toxicology at UT Medical Branch at Galveston.

and/or a research experience will give me the information I need to make their learning successful, implement appropriate research opportunities as well as provide the best matches to help faculty advance in their own work. When we put the process of learning first, great things can happen, and engaging students to get excited about that and share their concerns can only help us do a better job.

"My research background is of course necessary to develop new research opportunities for our undergraduates. Having the perspective of what worked when my classmates and I were learning, both undergraduate and graduate, and knowing about the research process itself, are what allow me to implement curricula developments, community research partnerships, appropriate research assignments, etc. Having a thorough and accurate understanding of the framework of the University, the research process and the research environment are imperative in order to make positive changes within the bounds of funding, faculty availability and time, College and University goals and student needs. There are undergraduate research opportunities at both UTMB and NASA that we will certainly be trying to link our students to."

Beginning in Spring 2014, Purgason also will teach a course each semester, but this too is nothing new for her - she taught a toxicology course at Texas A&M University-Galveston for the past three years. As a student, Purgason was 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 also completed the prestigious NASA Space Radiation Summer School program at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York.

Born in Arlington, Purgason graduated from Mansfield High School, where she helped lead the girls' basketball team to three straight state Class 5A championships. At UT Arlington, an injury derailed her basketball career, which allowed her to place all of her focus on academics. She decided to go to graduate school and prepare for a career in education and research.
Now that she's back at her beloved alma mater, Purgason is eager to meet with students and help them achieve the kind of success she has enjoyed.

"The most rousing thing is that the College of Science is poised and ready to take the world by storm. The growth and the rise in research expenditures excite me for the discoveries that will be happening all around us," she said. "The unique capabilities here, such as the Shimadzu partnership, are thrilling. As a scientist, I want to learn for life, and this is a place that I will always be able to do that. The College's changing research atmosphere means that learning will become more cutting-edge and that our students will have expanded opportunities to be a part of the scholarly process. Our students are becoming increasingly engaged with the happenings and accomplishments of the College, which will really keep my job intriguing as they achieve bigger and bigger things."

It's the interaction with students that excites Purgason most about her new role.

"Students, I hope you'll come see me in Life Science 206 to discuss your options," she said. "Our faculty members are so gifted, and combining innovative student research experiences with their expertise means there is no limit for our students. The best part is that this will involve lots of teamwork. We want our initiatives to provide better professional training for our graduate students and even publications for our students and faculty. My office's mission is ambitious and that's on purpose, but there's no greater resource than the people of our College and we will do all our work learning what works best for everyone as we try to achieve big goals."

Posted August 31, 2013