NASA astronaut and Apollo 16 Moonwalker Charlie Duke presents a scholarship to Texas A&M biology senior Ashley Hayden '19. (Credit: Mark Guerrero / Texas A&M University.)


When it comes to effectively marketing a unique place (if not mindset) like Texas A&M University, there's no tool more powerful than its people.

For so many Aggies, the answer to the question "Why Texas A&M?" or even "Why Texas A&M Science?" hinges on personal connections -- the more, the merrier. Texas A&M senior biology major Ashley Hayden '19 is no exception.

Hayden cited several examples of the human element at its inspirational best in her remarks made at last week's "Journey to the Moon" Astronaut Scholarship Foundation ceremony. Along with fellow senior Ashley Holt '20, she was presented with a $10,000 Astronaut Scholarship Foundation award by NASA astronaut and Apollo 16 crew member Charlie Duke. Brigadier General Duke (USAF, retired) is the youngest man to have walked on the Moon -- a place Hayden is not opposed to one day visiting herself.

In full disclosure, Hayden admitted that while she had written prepared remarks, she found herself having to work from memory in the actual big moment due to a combination of Murphy's Law-esque factors. Despite being caught offguard, she said she had rehearsed quite a bit, to the point she was able to step up to the podium fully confident in her ability to carry the day, not unlike Duke in 1972 when he stepped into that lunar module as its pilot and later out from it onto the Moon.

Perhaps Hayden's picked up a thing or two from the Monarch butterflies and their biological clock-controlled seasonal migration patterns she's been studying since June 2017 as a member of Texas A&M biologist Christine Merlin's laboratory, because she was able to go on autopilot and pull things off without a hitch, as verified by multiple audience member sources. Perhaps it helped to have a veteran pilot like Duke as her wingman and inspirational encore.

"Charlie Duke gave his speech after I gave mine," Hayden said. "In that talk, he told us all how he had flown to the Moon in a lunar module that, in today's times, looks very rickety and honestly terrifying. Nobody in the audience could believe the bravery the man in front of us exhibited back then.

"I couldn't help but think about how giving my speech without it in front of me was nothing like what he had gone through. He was far braver than I, and after realizing that, I recognized that giving an impromptu speech really wasn't that big of a deal."

In the interest of sharing Hayden's actual prepared speech and her broader message of finding your tribe and persisting in spite of the struggle beyond Rudder Auditorium, Texas A&M Science Communications is pleased to present with her permission her intended words in their entirety below:


First of all, thank you so much to our amazing guest Charlie Duke for introducing me and presenting me with this award. We are so honored to have you here with us today. I would also like to thank the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation and the Wreyford Family Foundation for their support and their drive to help students like myself accomplish our dreams. I am incredibly honored and humbled to have received such a scholarship that, truth be told, I never thought I would receive. In fact, I owe a huge thank you to the ones who truly deserve this scholarship -- my mentors Dr. Christine Merlin and Dr. Duncan MacKenzie.

Both of these incredible professors have helped me immensely over the past few years. Christine, you drive me toward being a better scientist every single day. Not only are you an incredible scientist, but you are a person I really look up to. The talks I have had with you over the past year have helped me learn who I am and, more importantly, who I want to become. Dr. MacKenzie, you have helped me grow as a person so much since I met you at the Honors welcome years ago, and you are one of the few professors I know who I would consider a true friend. Thank you for always welcoming me into your office with open arms and being proud of me like a parent would. It means a lot.

Before thanking the many others who helped me get to this point, I wanted to share some things with all of you. I learned recently from my Aunt Lynn Dee that, apparently, they did studies on monarch butterflies in space. I can only imagine how weird that was for those butterflies. They must have been wondering, Why aren't my wings working correctly? Why am I upside down? Where in heck is the sun?

Truth be told, when I came to college, I was just as confused as those butterflies probably were. As a first-generation college student, I felt completely and totally lost. Furthermore, I had lost my mother to liver disease the year before, and I felt like I was missing a piece of my life as I went into a new stage. I wondered if I deserved to be here among all these bright, incredible people.

The first true sense of community I found was within the Honors programs I take part in. I met professors who were incredible, I made really good friends, and I realized that I was worthy of being at this university. From there, I found my current research lab and developed an even more concrete sense of belonging. Now, I can actually say that I am very happy where I am, which is something I struggled with for a long time.

Without my mom and dad, I would not be here at all. I originally wanted to go to that school down the road (hisssss). My parents were the ones who convinced me to visit Texas A&M University in the first place, and that set me up for so much success. I am grateful to both my parents, my stepmother Angela, my aunts Lori and Lynn Dee, my Maw Maw, and my boyfriend's mom Lori, who have all encouraged me so, so much over the past few years. I know they are proud of me, and that keeps me going when things get tough.

And finally, I would like to thank my rock, Ray. You have been so supportive of me over the last four years, even when I miss our dinner dates because I am in lab genotyping animals. You make me smile every day with your cheesy biology pick-up lines, and you make me feel like the only girl in the world. We have been through it all together, and I am so happy to have you by my side. I love you.

Thank you all so much for listening to me today, and once again, thank you to all the people who have believed in me. You have supported me so much, and I can't express how grateful I am to everyone who helped me along the way. Finally, I want to tell anyone in this audience who wonders if they can overcome their next obstacle, their next struggle, their next exam -- you can do it. If someone like me can get up here, so can you. All you need are a couple of people who care about you and a little motivation, and you can do anything. Thanks and gig 'em!

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Learn more about Hayden in this recent feature previewing the "Journey to the Moon" ceremony or in this undergraduate spotlight from Texas A&M Biology.


Contact: Shana K. Hutchins, (979) 862-1237 or shutchins@science.tamu.edu or Ashley Hayden, (979) 862-2457 or ashleyhayden997@tamu.edu

Ashley Hayden

  • Hayden at the Rudder Auditorium podium, with Duke listening from stage left as she described being lost as a butterfly in space her freshman year at Texas A&M. (Credit: Texas A&M LAUNCH.)

  • Ashley Hayden '19

    (Credit: Texas A&M LAUNCH.)

  • (Credit: McKensie Daughtery.)

  • Hayden's creativity as a member of Texas A&M biologist Christine Merlin's research group extends to designing the group's new lab shirt this past summer. (Credit: The Merlin Lab / @tamumonarchlab)

© Texas A&M University. To request use of any of our photographs for educational use or to view additional options from our archive, please contact the College of Science Communications Office.

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