Ayumi Pottenger has known she wanted to be a scientist since she was a kid doing experiments in her backyard.
“Always, science was her number one priority,” said her mother, Harumi Potenger. “And she likes reading too, so she was always reading about science.”
Ayumi, now 20 and entering her junior year at the University of Arizona, has been accepted into the Environmental Health Sciences Transformative Research Undergraduate Experience (EHS-TRUE) at UA. The program, funded by the National Institute of Health, gives undergraduate science majors from underrepresented backgrounds the opportunity to complete paid research in a campus lab.
Ayumi has spent her summer working in Helena Morrison’s lab.
“She has exceeded my expectations,” Morrison said. “She basically receives instructions and then is very independent, which is a great skill.”
While Ayumi was a student at Marana High School, she was involved in the biomedical research program offered as a part of the school’s Career and Technical Education program (CTE).
Michele Livingston, the biomedical teacher at Marana High, said that Ayumi was an amazing student who didn’t work hard just to earn good grades.
“She just had a joy of learning,” Livingston said. “[She was] just wise beyond her years.”
Because she developed research abilities while still in high school, Ayumi was able to begin working as a lab assistant with the BIOTECH project, an educational outreach lab, as soon as she started school at UA.
Nadja Anderson, BIOTECH project coordinator, said that Ayumi came to her on a recommendation.
“I took her just like that, because I was told that she would be a good worker,” Anderson said. “And she was fantastic.”
After two years working to increase student interest in molecular genetics as a BIOTECH lab assistant, Ayumi decided it was time to pursue some research of her own, and applied for EHS-TRUE.
“She was definitely ready to move on and take on brighter, greener pastures,” Anderson said.
Dr. Morrison’s lab is focused on the research of ischemic stroke. Ischemic stroke, which accounts for 87 percent of all strokes, involves the obstruction of a blood vessel supplying blood to the brain. One aspect the lab studies is microglial response, or the way that microglia, the brain’s primary immune cells, eat away harmful pathogens and dead cells as a part of a neuroinflammatory response. Morrison compared microglia to pac-men that eat away debris, but one of the areas the lab studies is how microglia sometimes malfunction.
“Sometimes during a neuroinflammatory response, it can be a bit of a double-edged sword, and they’ll start clearing away living tissue in addition to the dead tissue. They can hinder healing and intensify brain injury.” Ayumi said.
Ayumi said she felt a personal connection to the lab’s work. When she was a child, and her mother was only 41, her mother had an ischemic stroke.
Harumi was transported to the hospital right away, and escaped with no brain damage, but, because an extreme brain injury is almost guaranteed if a “clotbuster” medicine is not administered within four and-a-half hours, Ayumi understands that not everyone is as fortunate.
“I want that to be [the experience] everybody has when they have a stroke,” she said. “If I can help in the science that makes those treatments, then I’m happy.”
Harumi said she is proud that her daughter has such a strong desire to help people. Originally from Japan, Harumi used to work as a nurse before she moved to the United States.
“I know she misses working with people, so I think her hope is that she can still give back by guiding and encouraging me in science,” Ayumi said.
The EHS-TRUE program also helps undergraduates in the hunt for the right grad school and the best funding sources.. Ayumi hopes to go to grad school to study epidemiology.
“I think that it is super amazing,” she said. “I’m looking at stroke as a disease, and I can use this background to help me become an epidemiologist.”