Anna Ayala certainly knows her way around a research lab. The senior chemistry major is designing customized anesthetics at Oregon Health & Science University, and she co-authored a study that will be published in a neuroscience journal later this year.
But her career goals extend beyond the world of research. Ayala wants to be a doctor and an advocate for social change — and her vision came into focus after she spoke with an inmate at the Oregon State Penitentiary as part of a Reforming Criminal Justice class.
“He was sharing an intimate story with me about being in a vulnerable population that does not have access to healthcare,” Ayala ’19 recalled. “There was just this shining moment when my moral compass pointed north and I thought, ‘There’s nothing else I can see myself doing now.’”
Ayala knew she wanted to study science when she came to Willamette from Sacramento, Calif., four years ago. She also wanted to use her knowledge to help others. She found the perfect outlet as a first responder for Willamette Emergency Medical Services, a student-run, professionally licensed agency that serves the campus community.
“What I loved about working for WEMS was that it involved a lot of compassion and empathy,” Ayala said. “I really learned a lot about putting myself in other people’s shoes.”
She gained additional insights into the medical profession at Salem Hospital, where she shadowed physicians and experienced the fast-paced nature of emergency care.
“It was super eye-opening,” Ayala said. “I started to understand the framework of healthcare that exists and realized that emergency medicine was not for me. I love the idea of longitudinal care, where you can look at the patient as a whole person and really focus on their wants and needs.”
Ayala’s interest in the human condition inspired her to pursue a summer research opportunity at Creighton University before her senior year. She was part of a team that studied receptors in the brain that are associated with various neurological disorders. The study could lead to the development of therapeutics to treat schizophrenia, autism and bipolar disorder.
“When I worked in the neuropharmacology lab at Creighton, I had zero experience with neuroscience and pharmacology,” Ayala said. “It was a huge learning curve, and I loved that challenge. I love being faced with problems I cannot solve until I really delve deep into the material.”
This semester, Ayala is collaborating with Professor Sarah Kirk, chemistry, to develop local anesthetics for surgery patients. They’re modifying the molecular structure of existing anesthetics so the drugs can target specific needs.
“If a person needs to be under three hours, two hours or one hour, we can make a battery of local anesthetics that target any need we have,” Ayala said.
As she wraps up her final weeks at Willamette, Ayala is looking ahead to medical school. She has already been accepted into two MD programs and is excited about her future career. Her ultimate goal is to provide the best care possible for her patients while advocating for policies that promote equity in healthcare.
“On an individual level, I envision myself trying to right the abuses of a healthcare system that a lot of people have experienced,” Ayala said. “On an institutional level, I want to get involved in politics. There’s a really big need for physicians to work in local and state government.
“I hope to take my robust Willamette education and move it in this two-pronged direction of being a physician who understands her place in the world and a physician who can make an impact on the world.”