BAR Awards Profile – Valerie V. Ashby ’88

2008 Outstanding Faculty Staff Award
Valerie V. Ashby ’88

Professor Joe Templeton sat in on one of Valerie Ashby’s organic chemistry classes one morning and watched her demonstrate plane polarized light. She turned one hand in a helix to the right and her other hand in a helix to the left and moved them both, twisting and turning, to line up on an even plane. She looked like she was dancing, he said.

Valerie Ashby, Gordon and Bowman Gray Distinguished Term Professor of chemistry, is receiving the Outstanding Black Faculty Award for more than her ability to simultaneously circle her hands in opposite directions while moving in a third, though that alone is more talent than many of us can muster. Everyone, from students cautiously entering their first organic chemistry class to renowned professors, is in awe of her teaching. Her research in bioelastomers, soft materials that can be incorporated into human tissue, is cutting edge. She holds 10 patents — so far. She is a star-quality presenter, Professor Joe DeSimone found out when he had to follow her presentation at a professional conference. A master at presentations himself, he made a mental note that next time he’d make sure to go first.

Yet with all the accolades, what matters most to Valerie, she said, is that she be there for her students when they need her. “I am very clear that I have two roles,” she says. “One is to teach, and the other is to encourage.” She makes herself available to students through individual office hours and lengthy review sessions. Sometimes, said one of her former students, Valerie would come in after teaching Sunday school in the morning and run review sessions that would go on for three or four hours.

Another former student remembers the life lessons Valerie taught during her lectures. One lesson was on the futility of complaining, “because at the end of the day, nobody cares. All that matters is whether you got the job done.” Other lessons were on how to handle a tough class, how to study efficiently, how to deal with intensely competitive classmates, how to get on with life after a disappointment or failure.

“She cared about us,” the student said. “Even when she was firm with you, you didn’t feel attacked.”

Chancellor Holden Thorp ’86 was chair of the chemistry department when Valerie was director of undergraduate studies. He praised the work she’s done as director of the Summer Pre-Graduate Research Experience, which encourages minority students to pursue doctorates in the sciences, technology, engineering, math, economics and other social and behavioral disciplines. Valerie serves on the faculty executive committee and on the faculty council. “I don’t think you’ll find someone who embraces the totality of university academic life in the way that Valerie does,” Holden said. “It’s hard to get a more complete package.”

Joe DeSimone considers “having the whole package” of excellence in research and teaching to be one of Valerie’s most important achievements. She was his first doctoral student, and he still admires how she strives for excellence in everything she does and pushes others toward excellence. That she was at Carolina as an undergraduate strengthens her bond with her students. “She’s been in their shoes,” he said.

No stranger to struggles — she is one of the few African-American women to hold a full professorship in chemistry at a major research university — Valerie feels confident in raising the difficulty level of her classes high enough to differentiate who’s who, pushing her students until they fall into where their talents lie. She knows firsthand what it feels like to give your best and it’s not good enough. “To have someone help you get to where you need to be from there, help you see value in who you are, is critical,” she said. “In the end, the students will feel fabulous about themselves because they did something they didn’t think they could do.”

That she genuinely cares about her students contributes to her success in teaching, Joe Templeton said. That shows in unusual moments, such as immediately booking a flight to go to the funeral when a student lost both parents in an accident. Sometimes she expresses her concern in small ways, like letting students know she knows their names. That, Joe said, is a way of saying, “You matter to me.”