Whitney Palmer

Healthcare. Politics. Family.

Creativity in the chemistry lab

Published in the Aug. 2, 2010, Raleigh News & Observer and the Aug. 1, 2010, Charlotte Observer

BY WHITNEY L.J. HOWELL – CORRESPONDENT

CHAPEL HILL — Science is in Valerie Ashby’s blood. Educating is, too. Both her parents were teachers, but it was her father’s chosen field that captivated her.

“My dad was a science and math teacher,” Ashby said. “I think I always had an interest in following him, and I decided in high school that I would be a chemistry major.”

That initial decision launched Ashby, a two-time alumna from UNC-Chapel Hill and now a tenured chemistry professor at the university, down a career path that has led to innovations in medical equipment and drug delivery.

Along the way, she has garnered wide admiration among her peers and her students. She was honored by the American Chemical Society in 2002 as one of the top 12 young female chemists nationwide, and students chose her to deliver the address during their December 2008 graduation ceremony.

Her influence with students goes beyond explaining the esoteric points of chemistry.Andreas Wierschen, a rising senior, said Ashby made him believe he could succeed as a chemistry major.

“I would definitely say she is a role model, and what’s better is that she’s a role model you can relate to,” Wierschen said. “It isn’t really helpful to have a role model on a pedestal, and with Dr. Ashby, she’s so approachable that it makes you feel like if she can do this, you can, too.”

Ashby said teaching students is her calling. She says she believes, if given the opportunity, she can inspire the

Ashby's team uses polymers to create adhesives, elastics and coatings that may improve how some gene therapies perform. Photo Courtesy of Chris Seward, News & Observer

same passion for science that has fueled her own academic success.

Real-world research

In her lab, Ashby focuses on polymers, molecules that entangle like a pile of shoestrings to create strong chains. These materials are virtually omnipresent, appearing in products made from cheap plastic to airplane wings. It’s that versatility that drew her to the discipline.

“I love application-based work,” she said. “With polymers, you can design, create and control new properties and develop new applications. It’s the usefulness of organic chemistry.”

Ashby found real-world utility for her work in several areas. Through her research with biomaterials and composites, she developed extremely hard, scratch-resistant materials that are stable at high temperatures. These substances can be used to extend the lifespan of prosthetic devices, such as hip joint replacements.

In other investigations, her team uses polymers to create adhesives, elastics and coatings that will potentially improve how some drug delivery systems and gene therapies perform. She holds 10 patents and collaborates with companies such as DuPont, 3M and Chevron Phillips.

Her work is not only innovative, said Joseph DeSimone, Ashby’s first mentor and one of UNC-CH’s top chemistry professors and researchers, but it will also have long-term scientific implications.

“Her biomaterials work is truly extraordinary, and it will have a big impact in medical devices and other applications,” he said. “On the near horizon, her work will change the way people think about polymers.”

Currently, Ashby is working on soft polymers that can be used in the human body. The hard, crystalline polymers used now do not easily align with the body’s soft tissue, often leading to tissue damage. A soft polymer would eliminate that issue, Ashby said.

Shaping the future

Ashby’s determination to succeed is evident. DeSimone recognized it in their first conversation as he unpacked his office as a new UNC-CH faculty member more than 20 years ago. Ashby was a graduate student looking for a researcher to work with, and DeSimone ignited her interest in polymers. He set high standards, he said, and “kicked her into the deep end of the pool.”

She surpassed his expectations.

Out of the 50 doctoral students he has guided, DeSimone said Ashby was the first to earn her doctorate. She also completed the degree the quickest, earning her doctorate in 1994 after less than four years of study. Her accomplishments led to job offers with several prestigious universities, including Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Ashby chose to join the faculty of Iowa State University. After seven years, she returned to UNC-CH in 2002 as an associate professor and received a distinguished professorship in 2007.

Her drive is important to advancing discovery, but the fact that Ashby is a black woman is also integral to improving the field and paving the way for greater diversity in chemistry, DeSimone said.

“Diversity – racial, cultural,socio-economic – is a fundamental tenet of innovation,” he said. “It’s incredibly important in science for the birth of ideas. [Ashby] made the significant decision to enter our field despite the fact that it was not very diverse at the time. It must have been daunting to do that, but she embraced it and has made a big impact.”

It is appropriate, DeSimone said, that Ashby now directs the summer program that opened the door to her career as a faculty researcher. She enrolled in the Summer Pre-Graduate Research Experience shortly after receiving her bachelor’s degree in 1988. The program, which has produced more than 150 Ph.D. graduates, introduces minority undergraduates to research and encourages them to earn doctorates in science, technology, math or economics.

“My experience in the pre-graduate program was so valuable,” Ashby said. “It’s fulfilling to run that research program today, to get it into students’ heads what the Ph.D. is and how to apply. It’s an incredibly productive program, sending our graduates out to make an impact at universities across the country.”

Read the Raleigh News & Observer article: http://www.newsobserver.com/2010/08/02/609671/creativity-in-the-chemistry-lab.html

Read the Charlotte Observer article: http://www.charlotteobserver.com/2010/08/01/1595918/creativity-in-the-chemistry-lab.html

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August 2, 2010 - Posted by | Education, Profiles, Science | , , , , ,

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