Featured Researcher — Ashley Jackson, PhD

Featured Researcher — Ashley Jackson, PhD 150 150 Natalie Wilson

Ashley Jackson, PhD, is a principal investigator in The Kidney and Urinary Tract Center at Nationwide Children’s studying renal urothelium, the special surface tissue that lines most of the urinary tract, or the drainage system of the kidneys, to slow kidney disease progression in children with urinary tract obstruction (UTO), or a blockage that prevents urine from flowing properly to exit the body. UTO is a leading cause of pediatric chronic kidney disease (CKD) and end-stage renal disease, or kidney failure, when long-term dialysis or kidney transplant is necessary for survival. UTO can have several underlying causes, and apart from surgery to relieve it, there are no specific interventions that can prevent or limit the injury it can cause to the kidneys.

Studio portrait of Ashley Jackson in her lab coat

Dr. Jackson led research revealing the urothelium of the upper and lower urinary tract is not homogeneous, and her team is working to further understand how the tissue that lines the kidney can change during UTO, when the kidney must adapt to storing urine.

The cells of the renal urothelium “remodel” to create a urine-proof barrier like the one that lines the bladder. The bladder urothelium forms the tightest barrier in the human body and allows for expansion to accommodate large volumes of urine while protecting against increasing pressure and leaks. “Bladderization” of the kidney urothelium through remodeling to stabilize kidney, maintain renal structure and function, and limit renal injury is a protective feature of both congenital and acquired forms of UTO. There’s evidence, however, that this remodeling is defective and can’t protect the kidney indefinitely.

Dr. Jackson’s latest National Institutes of Health-funded research, a K01 award from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, aims to further advance understandings of renal urothelium development, repair and remodeling. She’s identified the progenitor (cellular origin) of the protective urothelial cell and hopes by better understanding the process by which progenitor cells form protective cells, her findings will pave the way for the development of therapies that can strengthen the urothelium as the kidney and urinary tract’s front line of defense.

Read on to learn more about Dr. Jackson and her work.

What was your path to pursuing a career in this field?

I was on a pre-med track as an undergraduate student. But during my junior and senior years, I had the opportunity to take on a research project under the mentorship of a brand new professor as her first trainee. I learned a lot of things about research at the same time she was learning how to be a mentor, and I think that allowed us to learn and grow together and for me to really develop my interest and skills in the project and in research from the ground up.

As I learned about biomedical research, I was drawn to the ways it felt similar to solving puzzles. I like DIY projects, troubleshooting, and the freedom that comes with hypothesizing something, finding your best guess isn’t correct or can’t be proven, discovering something new, and taking that back to the drawing board. A lot of freedom comes with searching for and generating new information, learning on the go, and being open to trying and finding things that are new or unexpected.

Why did you decide to pursue your work at Nationwide Children’s?

I completed my doctorate research at The Ohio State University under Kirk McHugh, PhD, when he was at Nationwide Children’s. He founded the Nephrology and Urology Research Affinity Group (NURAG) here. It’s a really informal group that encourages discussions among new and experienced participants.

At other institutes, individual scientists may be more isolated and siloed in their work. NURAG facilitates reciprocal interactions daily.

There’s something to be said for having an environment that really encourages participation by and inclusion of everyone with a shared interest. It feels like there’s a real commitment to supporting the work of each member of the team as a means of furthering the goals of the entire group, and bringing basic scientists, nephrologists, urologists and trainees together allows us all to do our best science from a translational perspective.

My postdoctoral mentor and current director of The Kidney and Urinary Tract Center, Brian Becknell, MD, PhD, helped me secure funding for a postdoctoral fellowship through the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Ruth L. Kirschstein Postdoctoral Individual National Research Service Award, or F32 grant. He provided me with the resources to develop independence, which ultimately led me to secure funding for a Mentored Research Scientist Career Development (K01) Award from the NIH. Through that award, I’m currently training under John David Spencer, MD. At Nationwide Children’s, my colleagues have been both my collaborators and my mentors in a perfect balance that isn’t easy to find.

It’s also a major plus that, being from a small town in Ohio, what I truly regard as the best children’s hospital in the world was right in my backyard. The children in those small towns are significantly underserved, so being able to do my research here in my home state and reach those populations gives my work so much meaning. With phenomenal mentors and a highly collaborative team of investigators, Nationwide Children’s was a natural choice for continuing my work.

Fun Facts About Dr. Jackson

What fictional character would you most like to meet and why?

Leslie Knope from Parks and Recreation. She’s consistently enthusiastic and optimistic — and she’s hilarious.

What’s your favorite word, and why?

I like the word magnificent, because I’ve found it hilarious to ask my nieces and nephews — and now my own kids — to try to say it when they’re little. It’s adorable.

What would be your dream job (besides working in research)?

I’d love to be a safari-style tour guide — just to drive around and point out the animals. Or maybe I’d be a true crime podcaster.

Favorite artist or genre?

My favorite genre is rap & hip-hop (although I’m a huge country music fan, too, so I definitely like a range of things). My favorite artists are Missy Elliot and Eminem.

Favorite way to relax?

I love DIY projects around the house and fishing with my girls.

Favorite thing you’ve bought this year?

A car wash membership — getting free car washes through the Columbus Blue Jackets gameday promotion got me hooked!

What’s next?

I “grew up” as a scientist while involved with NURAG. I credit it with providing the early mentorship, opportunities and support I needed to become an independent researcher and principal investigator. The best thing about my job now is paying that forward.

Between NURAG and the hospital’s Urology and Nephrology Combined Clinic, we kind of reached a critical mass of like-minded people, and in January 2022 we announced a new center, The Kidney and Urinary Tract Center, to fully integrate the hospital’s nephrology and urology patient care, advocacy, research, and training efforts to improve treatment for children. Starting out with a new center and new model, we’ve gotten to think strategically about how to continue building an even stronger community and pipeline for trainees. I served as NURAG’s program coordinator, and I’ve now been named the director of training and education in The Kidney and Urinary Tract Center, because I’m passionate about my experiences in NURAG, and I really love helping to recruit, train and retain the next generation of scientists. Plus, as a young investigator, I’m fresh out of training — although I consider myself always in training — so I’m aware of the needs of the group.

In my role, I’ve helped to recruit eight summer scholars for this year. I also coordinate NURAG programming, the Kidney Physiology and Pathology Seminar Series, as well as The Kidney and Urinary Tract Center Journal Club and work in progress presentations to give our members exposure to the latest research and insights and our trainees the opportunity to develop and hone their presentation skills. I benefited immensely from the strength of my various mentors and the ways they helped me grow, succeed and advance in my career, and now I have the opportunity to provide trainees with the same kinds of exciting, individualized experiences.

About the author

Marketing Strategist, Research Communications

Natalie is a passionate and enthusiastic writer working to highlight the groundbreaking research of the incredible faculty and staff across Nationwide Children's Hospital and the Abigail Wexner Research Institute. Her work at Nationwide Children's marries her past interests and experiences with her passion for helping children thrive and a long-held scientific curiosity that dates back to competing in the Jefferson Lab Science Bowl in middle school. Natalie holds a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Wake Forest University, as well as minors in women's, gender & sexuality studies and interdisciplinary writing. As an undergraduate student, Natalie studied writing and journalism, engaged with anthropological and sociological research with a focus on race and ethnic relations, served as executive editor for the student newspaper, the Old Gold & Black, and gained marketing experience as an intern for a nonprofit entrepreneurial incubator, Winston Starts, as well as by working for Wake Forest University School of Law Office of Communication and Public Relations and its Innocence and Justice Clinic.