Ashley Mae Conard comes from a social junction of the American Midwest and global education. Her Indiana hometown, like many small Midwest towns, hosted a fairly homogeneous population, and the distance to the international world was far – both geographically and sociologically. There wasn’t a lot of cross-cultural movement, Ashley admits, and most of her neighbors had limited international experience, if any at all. Determined to integrate her into a globalized world, Ashley’s parents enrolled her in an international school, where she had the opportunity to learn French, Spanish, and even Mandarin. Going to school in a multicultural environment juxtaposed against the quiet backdrop of her hometown instilled in Ashley a passion for language and traveling, and embarking on a Fulbright Program was both a dream and a natural extension of her academic curiosity.
As a Fulbrighter to Belgium from 2014 to 2015, Ashley had the precious opportunity to combine her academic studies with her ingrained interest in policy and diplomacy within a cultural hub of Europe at the Universite Libre de Bruxelles. As a PhD student at Brown University, Ashley combines her interests in math and biology in a Computational Biology program, and during her Fulbright, pursued a project developing a protein design algorithm utilizing game theory, machine learning, and parallel computing. This work also allowed her to attend science policy sessions at the EU Parliament, and to be appointed a US-NATO Affairs Delegate during the EU Seminar in International Diplomacy with the EU Commission. These opportunities furthered her own understanding of the complexity of sociological issues and policies from the scientific perspective.
Fulbright was not Ashley’s first exploration of global diplomacy. She recalls a formative experience being selected as a Commemoration Ambassador at the D-Day Embarkation Commemoration in Normandy, France. As someone whose grandparents served in World War II, Ashley was moved by the stories of sacrifice and service that cemented a societal desire for diplomacy. The Fulbright Program itself was established as a peace-building reaction to World War II.
“Fulbright opens doors for people to have the opportunity to see what the world can be,” says Ashley. “We’re given money, time, and value. When you receive a Fulbright, they’re saying we value you and you’re representing the US abroad. I believe our mission is to relate our experience to others, learn how to be vulnerable to others, and through this vulnerability, tackle hard problems that we face on a global scale. No matter what people study or where, just the process of applying gives people the chance to open their eyes to how their passion, their project, and their country fits in with a global desire for human connection. I think if we have more global understanding, the world will be more inclusive and we will have less of a fearful population, and more diversity in our decision-making process. Fulbright gives us an opportunity for critical human connection while piecing out purpose together.”
Ashley’s appreciation for the mission of Fulbright has led her to engage with the Association in order to give back to the Program. As of 2019, Ashley serves as a volunteer member of the National Board of Directors for the Fulbright Association, where she hopes to bring her own experience and skill-set into alumni engagement.
Ashley comes from a wide array of community engagement and STEM outreach. She is also a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow, and works on building models to study the role of RNA in gene regulation processes such as development. She has also served on the Board of Trustees for the Anita Borg Institute, the executive team for Princeton Citizen Scientists, and as Finance Chair for the International Society of Computational Biology Student Council. She earned her undergraduate degrees in Computer Science and Biochemistry degree at DePauw University, where she founded the DePauw Campus Farm and co-founded the DePauw Robotics Club. During a Computer Science master’s program at Brown, she researched the modeling of cancer progression.
International perspectives, Ashley believes, have not only strengthened and informed her pursuit of STEM education, they have impacted her professional and personal journey. But even as Ashley embraces globalism, she doesn’t forget her Indiana hometown. She hopes that by sharing her Fulbright experience, she will pique a curiosity for the international.
“The complexities of Brussels are immense, with all its divides. I saw people from everywhere, and had friends from Portugal, Spain, Italy, Canada, France, all enjoying a beer, chocolate, going to a concert – things that bring people together,” Ashley says, reflecting on her experiences in Belgium against her hometown. “You see how we are similar even though we’re divided. A lot of people from the Midwest don’t leave, they stay. If we understand the baseline similarities of people – which is so apparent in Brussels – it colors the country in the brightest colors you’ve ever seen.”