PHOTOS BY STEVE EXUM ’ 92
ing mentors and devoted students. It also is
a story of her faith: a deeply held belief in
God that can seem incongruous in the
world of high-powered science. While her
colleagues speak of how high she might fly
professionally, she has one eye on a life outside of science and academia.
“I love what I do here,” she says. “But
one day I’m going to quit.”
‘You don’t want to be a doctor’
Chapman Hall, 8 a.m. on a Thursday, a
week and a half before spring break: Professor Ashby calls her honors Organic
Chemistry II class to order. “We’re going to
start off with some chemistry,” she says. It is
an understatement of the highest order.
Nineteen minutes later, Ashby has filled
four of the room’s five white boards with
what, to a liberal arts major’s eyes, might as
well be hieroglyphics: a collection of Cs,
Os and Hs, arrows, dashes — is that an
umlaut? — that she says signify esterification, acid halide synthesis, nucleophilic acyl
substitution. She addresses students by first
name, or by “sir” or “ma’am,” and they, in
turn, hang on her every word.
Ashby moves briskly and confidently at
the head of the class; she has the assured,
engaging manner of a born teacher. And as
it happens, teaching is in her genes.
Ashby, one of four children, was born
and raised in Clayton, southeast of Raleigh.
Both parents were teachers. Her mother, a
Shakespeare “fanatic,” taught high school
English; she is now the director of tutorial
services at Shaw University in Raleigh. Her
late father was a science teacher. He was,
Ashby recalls, “a problem-solver, very
methodical.” Together, her parents were “two
of the most sensible people I ever met.”
But while teaching was in her blood,
Ashby came by the self-assurance much
later. Though she was no longer the loner
by the time she got to high school —
where, her mother lets slip, she was the
head cheerleader — she arrived at Carolina
in 1984 just as uncertain as the average
undergrad. “She was extremely timid and
insecure,” recalls Edward Samulski, Cary C.
Boshamer Professor of chemistry, who
taught her as an undergraduate and later