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Headshot of Justin Ashby.
Justin Ashby is a MD-PhD student at the UNC School of Medicine.

For Justin Ashby, a MD-PhD student at the UNC School of Medicine, the mission to help cancer patients is personal. After losing his grandfather to pancreatic cancer, Ashby knew he wanted to work in a lab that focused on developing new treatments for pancreatic cancer.

In addition to his medical studies, Ashby works in the lab of UNC Lineberger’s Jen Jen Yeh, MD, professor of Surgery and Pharmacology at UNC School of Medicine and director of the UNC Lineberger Pancreatic Cancer Center of Excellence.

Here’s a few minutes with Justin Ashby.

Tell us about your journey to this point in your career

I started off in high school fascinated with biology. I found that whenever we learned a new topic I kept asking why, wanting to know more and more details.

When I went to undergrad at Lenoir-Rhyne University, I majored in biology and had a chemistry minor. During my time there, I was accepted into the STAR program at Augusta University for a summer research experience. I fell in love with research there and decided to pursue a master’s degree at Wake Forest University in biomedical sciences.

My time at Wake Forest solidified my passion for research and left me wanting to learn more. That brought me here to UNC where I am in the MD-PhD program.


Why did you decide to pursue a career in cancer research, in particular pancreatic cancer research? 

Cancer research, especially pancreatic cancer research, holds a special place in my heart. My passion for both medicine and research comes from the passing of my grandfather.

During my first year in high school, I lost my grandfather rather suddenly to pancreatic cancer. At the time, I really didn’t understand what was happening, but the pain and suffering that I saw my grandfather endure is forever ingrained in my mind.

This experience pushed me to participate in pancreatic cancer research and hopefully contribute positively to patients dealing with this disease.


What does your day-to-day look like in the lab?

A great deal of my time is spent learning new techniques from my lab mates and receiving training from others. I also spend a great deal of time optimizing protocols for experiments that I do, as well as reviewing literature to help troubleshoot along the way.


What is your most memorable moment in the lab?

My most memorable moment so far has been when I first joined Dr. Yeh’s lab. Just sitting in on the first lab meeting and hearing what the lab has done already and what my lab mates are currently working on. It left me in awe and further motivated me to try and make an impact.


What advice do you have for someone who wants to study cancer? 

My advice for anyone interested in cancer research is to have a lot of patience and never forget why you are doing this. As I’m sure most would agree, cancer research is difficult. You encounter lots of problems or setbacks that can dishearten you, but thinking about the reason why you do this has helped me persevere.


What was your very first job?

My very first job was working as a cook at a local pizza restaurant in my hometown during high school.


What keep you motivated?

I would say the biggest motivator for me is the potential of being able to help a large number of patients and their families.

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