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Shinn column: Valerie Ashby has good chemistry with her students

Dr. Valerie Ashby is a professor of chemistry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This fall, she’ll receive the Black Alumni Reunion Outstanding Faculty Award. She holds 10 patents.
She just happens to be my college roommate. Obviously, she was the smart one! I had the good fortune to have dinner with her this week on a visit to the university.
Soon after we arrived at our favorite Italian restaurant, one of Valerie’s students, Jillian, came up to greet her.
Valerie gave her a warm hug and lots of encouraging words. The two decided to have lunch later in the week.
“That will be the highlight of my week!” Valerie said to Jillian, as I cleared my throat loudly.
“Oh! Except for you,” Valerie said. “I knew I’d have a problem with that.”
We sat back down again, eager to continue our conversation.
I just going to ask her what she thought of the new chancellor, Holden Thorp, who graduated two years ahead of us. I was also going to ask her about a recent article our alumni magazine had written about her ó about the call she has to serve her students, and whether she would ultimately answer a call to ministry. Her late father was a minister, as is her husband.
What she told me next answered both questions.
“Holden called me the first day of classes,” Valerie said. “You know, Holden, the new chancellor?”
I told her I did know Holden, and that I was impressed that they were on a first-name basis.
Turns out that with their shared interest in chemistry ó he’s a former chemistry professor ó they’ve been friends for a long time.
“He just doesn’t call to chat,” Valerie said. “I knew it was something big.”
The weekend before classes started, Jillian’s parents were killed when the motorcycle they were on was hit by a truck.
When the chancellor asked Jillian if there were anyone from the university that he should call, she said, “Call Valerie.”
Jillian is a senior sociology major. She never would’ve met Valerie had she not participated in a summer program sponsored by the National Science Foundation, geared toward minority students. Jillian’s father was half-Hispanic, so she qualified for this program, which Valerie directs.
The 10-week program for science majors and social science majors allows them to do full-time research.
It’s similar to the work they’d do in graduate school, Valerie explained.
Valerie went to the funeral for Jillian’s parents, and gave Jillian her full support.
Valerie’s faith in God is just as strong as her faith in science ó she sees no reason the two should be separate.
“I know it,” she said. “I know what it is.”
Valerie continues to answer her call to working with students ó even students she normally wouldn’t come in contact with otherwise.
“I could see how I’d be happy in Chapel Hill long-term,” she said. “I love it here.”
No doubt Jillian and other students are glad she’s there, too.

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