Nerem International Travel Award

Ashley Allen brings home new skills and memories from eventful trip to Israel

Ashley Allen used her 2014 Robert M. Nerem International Travel Award to spend two memorable weeks in Israel.

She spent part of that time studying a new technique for delivering mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) to repair bone defects. She also spent some time outside of the lab, experiencing a multicultural, revered place that most of us see through cable news dispatches. And there was plenty of unsettling news to report.

Allen’s early November visit to the lab of Dan and Zulma Gazit at Hebrew University of Jerusalem coincided with a period of increased violence and vigilance in the city following an assassination attempt on right-wing Israeli activist, Yehudah Glick, at Temple Mount. So, in addition to developing skills she can utilize at the Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience (where she’s a graduate research assistant in Robert Guldberg’s Musculoskeletal Research Laboratory), Allen also developed a better understanding of life in a holy city where prayers and explosions often happen simultaneously.

“When I was visiting the Old City, we heard a couple of explosions,” says Allen, who also spent several days in Tel Aviv, but most of her time in Jerusalem. “I was with an Israeli friend who said to me, ‘oh, it was just a little bomb.’ Despite the acts of terror taking place throughout the country, people continued with their day-to-day lives. You can’t constantly live in fear. And when you’re there, you genuinely embrace that mindset.”

This wasn’t Allen’s first trip to Israel, just her most intimate. “In high school, I visited alongside 120 fellow Jewish kids from the San Francisco Bay Area,” says Allen, the 10th recipient of the Nerem Travel Award. “It was an incredible experience, but limited due to our age and group size. This time around, I gained a much better appreciation for the Israeli culture and spirit.“

Allen immersed herself in the environment of the Gazit lab, where they are incorporating perfluorotributylamine (PFTBA) into an alginate-based MSC delivery system, “in an effort to improve the survival rate of implanted cells and facilitate better bone regeneration,” says Allen, in her sixth year of pursuing a Bioengineering Ph.D. “I’m excited to come back here to Tech and test the technique further, but it was great experiencing a different lab and work atmosphere. I had an opportunity to present data at their lab meeting, to talk with them about the progress and the struggles, and get their thoughts.”

The Gazit team, whose collaboration with the Guldberg laboratory has been ongoing throughout Allen’s Ph.D., has previously published on the PFTBA technique within their own delivery systems. “In bone regeneration,” says Zulma Gazit, “a great challenge is to increase oxygen delivery to cells within the implanted scaffold. One way to increase the oxygen supply is by adding synthetic oxygen carriers such as perfluorocarbons to the scaffold. Perflourocarbons serve as oxygen carriers due to their high affinity for oxygen, which allows high oxygen solubility.”

Along the way, the Gazits have gotten to know Allen as a thorough and thoughtful researcher whose personal charms transcend the limits of a laboratory. “Outside of a professional setting, it was general consensus amongst my lab that Ashley was a pleasure getting to know,” Zulma Gazit says. “She directs as high a degree of energy, kindness and enthusiasm toward learning and engaging with people as she does towards research.”

Beyond the research and the experiments, it was the conflict in the region (and how local people deal with that conflict) that left the deepest impression on Allen.

“You really don’t appreciate what is going on until you are there and see it,” says Allen, who took a tour of the West Bank with a Palestinian as her guide. “Until you see how the people are living, Palestinians and Israelis, how they go about their lives, the reality is hard to grasp. You read about it in the newspaper and it doesn’t convey the full extent of what’s happening, all of this violence coming from people who really care about the same space, so much hate and anger from extremists on both sides. I feel bad for those caught in the middle, because there are so many people who want the best for Israel. You get a sense for how special a place it is and why the conflict persists. But you come out of it with no clear solution.”

So, she engaged with the world outside the university setting as often as she could, saw the historic sites, the hallowed grounds; saw the armed soldiers, the increased police presence, and heard the occasional explosion broadcast simmering passions over in East Journalism. But in spite of what may seem like a recurring soundtrack of unrest in the region, Allen caught a sense of serenity. “It feels safe,” she says. “I felt safer there when it was dark out than I sometimes feel here around the Tech campus. I never really felt like I was in danger. In fact, Israel feels incredibly safe.”

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Jerry Grillo
Communications Officer II
Parker H. Petit Institute for
Bioengineering and Bioscience