Randolph Ashton

Randy Ashton
Engineering brain and spinal cord tissues ex vivo using human pluripotent stem cells

Years at WID

2011 - present


Randolph S. Ashton was born in Philadelphia, PA and raised in Richmond, VA. After graduating from the Thomas Jefferson Governor’s School for Government and International Studies, he received his B.S. from Hampton University (Hampton, Virginia, 2002) and Ph.D. from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (Troy, NY, 2007) in Chemical Engineering. During graduate school, he researched how to engineer biomaterials at the nanoscale to regulate the fate of adult neural stem cells. He continued to pursue his interest in stems cells and tissue engineering as a California Institute for Regenerative Medicine and a NIH Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of California Berkeley’s Stem Cell Center. Currently, he is an Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Wisconsin Madison and Principle Investigator of the Stem Cell Bioprocessing and Regenerative Biomaterials laboratory at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery. Dr. Ashton’s lab develops novel tissue engineering methodologies to derive brain and spinal cord tissues from human pluripotent stem cells, which can be used to create groundbreaking regenerative therapies and models of neurological disorders.


  • B.S., Hampton University
  • Ph.D., Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
  • Postdoctoral Fellow, University of California–Berkeley

Research Description

My research seeks to develop novel neural tissue engineering approaches that advance clinical use of human pluripotent stem cells (hPSCs) to treat neurological disorders of the central nervous system (CNS). At a basic science level, I use engineered stem cells, biomaterials, and chemically defined culture platforms to elucidate how factors of the cellular microenvironment orchestrate human neural stem cell (NSC) derivation, differentiation, and tissue morphogenesis (1). The engineered materials provide exquisite spatial and temporal control over stem cell-microenvironmental factor interactions thereby enabling unique reductionistic experimental paradigms capable of deconvolving microenvironmental effects. Then, I apply these tools and acquired knowledge to develop clinically scalable bioprocesses for manufacturing region-specific CNS cell and tissue therapies, which are currently being tested in chick embryo and adult rodent models to evaluate their engraftment and regenerative function after spinal cord injury. Also, I engineer biomaterial culture platforms at the nano-to-microscale to reproducibly recapitulate developmental morphogenetic processes in situ and thereby instruct in vitro morphogenesis of NSC-derived, CNS tissue models in a standardized manner. The goal is to generate 2- and 3-D CNS tissues de novo that contain organotypic tissue architecture and region-specific cell phenotype diversity. I aim to use these ‘next-gen’ CNS models to investigate the pleotropic and region-specific pathologies of complex neurological disorders. Currently, I am funded to develop such tissue models for the entire CNS to screen for environmental factors that induce sporadic forms of Parkinson’s disease and Amyotrophic Lateral sclerosis as well as potential small molecule therapeutics for familial forms.

(1) Ashton, R.S., Keung, A.J., Peltier, J., Schaffer, D.V. (2011). Progress and prospects in stem cell engineering. Annual Review of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, 2, 479-502.


  • 2002 – 2007 Graduate Research Assistant, Lab of Ravindra Kane at RPI
  • 2007-2011 Postdoctoral Fellow, Labs of David Schaffer and Kevin Healy at UC Berkeley
  • 2011 Postdoctoral Fellow, Labs of David Schaffer and Kevin Healy at UC Berkeley
  • 2011 – Assistant Professor, UW–Madison Department of Biomedical Engineering & Wisconsin Institute for Discovery
  • 2015 – Faculty Trainer, UW–Madison Neuroscience Training Program
  • 2015 – Faculty Trainer, UW–Madison Material Science Program


  • 2002 – 1999 Hampton University Presidential Scholarship Recipient
  • 2004 – 2002 National Consortium for Graduate Degrees for Minorities in Engineering Fellow
  • 2006 – 2004 NIH-NIGMS Biomolecular Science and Engineering Training Fellow
  • 2007 – 2002 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Dean Fellowship Recipient
  • 2009 – 2008 California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) Postdoctoral Fellow
  • 2011 – 2009 NIH Postdoctoral Fellow, National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI)
  • 2013 BMES – Cell and Molecular Bioengineering SIG ‘Rising Star’
  • 2014 – 2019 Burroughs Wellcome Fund Innovator in Regulatory Science
  • 2015 2015 Emerging Investigator, Chemical Communications (An RSC Journal)
  • 2016 2016 Young Investigator Faculty Award, Regenerative Medicine Workshop at Hilton Head, SC
  • 2017 NSF CAREER Awardee, CBET Division, Engineering of Biomedical Systems (EBMS)​

Selected Publications

  • Lemke KA, Aghayee A, and Ashton RS (2017). Deriving, regenerating, and engineering CNS tissues using human pluripotent stem cells. Curr Opin Biotech 47: 36-42. [PMID: 26097126]
  • Marti-Figueroa CR and Ashton RS (2017). The Case for Applying Tissue Engineering Methodologies to Instruct Human Organoid Morphogenesis. Acta Biomaterialia 54: 35-44. [PMID: 28315813]
  • Lippmann ES, Williams CE, Ruhl DA, Estevez-Silva MC, Chapman ER, Coon JJ, Ashton RS (2015). Deterministic HOX patterning in human pluripotent stem cell-derived neuroectoderm. Stem Cell Reports 4(4): 632-44. [PMID: 25843047]
  • Knight GT, Sha J, Ashton RS (2015). Micropatterned, clickable culture substrates enable in situ spatiotemporal control of human PSC-derived neural tissue morphology. Chem Commun 51(25): 5238-41. [PMID: 25688384]
  • Knight GT, Klann T, McNulty JD, Ashton RS (2014). Fabricating Complex Culture Substrates Using Robotic Microcontact Printing (R-µCP) and Sequential Nucleophilic Substitution. J. Vis. Exp. (92), e52186. [doi:10.3791/52186; PMID: 25407245]
  • McNulty JD*, Klann T*, Sha J, Salick M, Knight GT, Turng L, Ashton RS (2014). High-precision robotic microcontact printing (R-CP) utilizing a vision guided selectively compliant articulated robotic arm. Lab Chip 14(11): 1923-30. [PMID: 24759945]
  • Lippmann ES, Estevez-Silva MC, Ashton RS (2014). Defined human pluripotent stem cell culture enables highly efficient neuroepithelium derivation independent of small molecule inhibitors. Stem Cells 32(4): 1032-42. [PMID: 24357014]
  • Sha J, Lippmann ES, McNulty J, Ma Y, Ashton RS (2013). Sequential nucleophilic substitutions permit orthogonal click functionalization of multicomponent PEG brushes. Biomacromolecules 14(9): 3294-303. [PMCID: 23937610]