STEVE EXUM ’ 92
when heated. In the biomedical field, Pierce
says, the potential benefits of such a material
are enormous. If an organ or similarly large
object were made from it, it could be
implanted in a body via a small incision. Or
the material could be used to coat a medical device with tiny “features” — as one
example, tiny grappling hooks of sorts that
would allow a defibrillator to cling to tissue
until the hooks are heated up and “erased.”
“Valerie’s strategy is about being different,” DeSimone says. “She is very clever
about meeting needs in the medical device
Pierce describes Ashby’s lab as a creative
and supportive environment, where initiative, new ideas and experimentation are
“We make stuff all the time,” Pierce
says. “That’s the part that excites us the
most. Sometimes the materials surprise us.”
Love in the classroom — and outside
Imagine the surprise of Ashby’s organic
chemistry students when they got their first
exam back in February. Seventy-two honors
students who collectively had probably got-
ten only a handful of Cs in their lives, and
she handed them 40s, 50s, 60s. Their second
exam is next week — another reason why
they’re hanging on her every word today.
Ashby knows that many of them are
scared about their grades. She also knows
what they need to hear. “Her gift is finding
out exactly where students are in their
understanding of chemistry and knowing
intuitively what their next steps are,” says
Harold Woodard, associate dean of student
academic counseling, who has sent Ashby a
handful of struggling students for tutoring.
Today, it’s simple: Her students need
some tough love.
An hour into the class, she takes a break
from teaching chemistry. Instead, she reads
her class a letter of recommendation that
she wrote for a former student who was
applying to Harvard Medical School. In the
letter, she praises the student’s intellectual
gifts and academic achievements. But she
dedicates one paragraph — and this is the
paragraph she wants her class to pay attention to today — to how the student
responded to pressure and adversity.
“You are all going to look alike except
Ben Pierce is a graduate student working
in Ashby’s lab, creating polymers that
are able to deform
and then return to
their original shapes
when heated. This
machine tests the
overall strength of a
tiny sample of a
shape-memory polymer intended for
for that one paragraph that says, ‘When
the going gets tough, this is how you
respond,’” she tells her students. Ashby is
shifting effortlessly into another role. Her
movements and gestures gather energy, her
speech gathers rhythm and, at times, an
almost poetic flow.
“Call your mama — cry,” she says, referring to their bad exam grades.
“Come see me — cry.
“But if you are in the place where you
still need to be crying, I need you to get
“She’s special, but so are you. Stop crying.”
The students are transfixed. For a few
minutes, their professor, the scientist, sounds
like a minister — teaching them a moral
lesson, exhorting them to rise above their
troubles. Now, they can see hints of Ashby’s
other side — the woman of faith.
Here again, the roots flow back to family. Her father, the teacher, also was a minister. One of her brothers is a minister in
Nashville, N.C. Her husband is an associate
minister at Union Baptist Church in
Durham, where she teaches Sunday school.
‘I’m perfectly all right not being able to explain something.
Because I understand a lot, it makes it more amazing to me the things I don’t understand.’