by Darv Johnson ’ 93
of her own
leap of faith
for the head
and for the
Talk to friends and colleagues of Valerie Sheares Ashby
and you will hear some incredible stories. About the
importance of her work as a synthetic polymer chemist
and all the patents she holds, and how she is one of the
field’s rising stars. About her teaching ability and how
students will run — run! — straight from her organic chemistry class
to her office door to stand in line for some more face time.
You might hear the one about the New Orleans family she cared
for after Katrina, or how the kids she teaches in Sunday school bemoan
getting older and having to leave her class. You might hear a succession
of veteran chemistry professors talking about how bumping into her
on campus makes their days a little bit better.
Meet Valerie Ashby ’ 88, Gordon and Bowman Gray Distinguished Term Professor of chemistry, and you realize in just a few
minutes that all the stories are true, that she is all these things to all
these people; you wonder how on earth you are going to be able to
dig up some dirt on her.
So, of course, you call her mother.
“I hate to spoil your story,” Shirley Sheares begins, and you hold
your breath, waiting for it. “But Valerie was a very selfish little girl.
She did not like to play with other kids.”
So you give up.
Ashby readily admits that she was, in her words, “kind of snooty”
as a child. But those days are long gone. Now 41, she got her undergraduate degree and her doctorate at UNC and then left in 1994 to
prove herself on the national and international stage. She returned to
UNC’s chemistry department less than a decade later, a rare tenured
hire and one of only four black female professors in any of the
nation’s top 50 chemistry departments.