Speak for more than a few minutes with anyone who knows and has worked with Valerie Sheares Ashby, and you will probably hear “rock star” used to describe her. Her research focuses on synthetic polymer chemistry with an emphasis on designing and synthesizing materials for biomedical applications such as X-ray contrast agents and drug delivery materials. Along with her research team, Sheares Ashby holds 10 patents. And more than all that, what she really wants to do is to help create the same pathways for students that her teachers and mentors created for her.
She landed her first faculty position at Iowa State University in 1996. In 2003, a year after receiving tenure there, she moved to her alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In doing so, she became the second Black tenure-track chemistry professor in the institution’s history. She later chaired the department for 4 years. It was a dream job from which many, including Sheares Ashby, thought she would retire. But she left UNC in 2015 to serve as dean of the Trinity College of Arts & Sciences at Duke University. Seven years later, she’s moving again—this time to become the president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC).
Sheares Ashby spoke with Melba Newsome as she wrapped up her final semester at Duke and prepared for her new challenge. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
▸ Hometown: Clayton, North Carolina
▸ Education: BA and PhD, chemistry, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
▸ What she wanted to be when she grew up: “I’ve always known I was a teacher and loved teaching, but the idea of becoming a professor in higher education and everything else that goes along with that was daunting to me.”
▸ Biggest career challenge: Imposter syndrome
▸ Keys to her success: “Having supportive mentors who introduced me to the right people, opened doors for me, and are still helping me to this day—Joe DeSimone, Holden Thorp, Freeman Hrabowski, and Hank Frierson. They’re always thinking about opportunities for me or people they meet that they say I should know. I wish that for everyone.”
▸ Advice she gives to incoming students: “Try things you’ve never imagined. Explore.”
You’ve said that being dean at Duke aligned with your higher education priorities. Yet you’ve decided to move on. Why is that?
Duke was an amazing job! Every job I’ve ever had has been my favorite, and I’m anticipating being able to say that about UMBC. UMBC’s vision is at the core of everything I value in higher education. They are the champions of inclusive excellence. They’ve done innovative pedagogy in the classroom and interdisciplinary research. They’re committed to social justice, civic engagement, and economic prosperity through this lens of being welcoming and inspiring. It just became an R1 university. Not a lot of institutions can claim inclusive excellence and being an R1 in the same sentence. [An R1 university is a school that grants doctoral degrees and has very high research activity as determined by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education.]
Is UMBC being an R1 institution what attracted you as a scientist?
A lot of people probably think I’m going to UMBC because it is sometimes labeled a STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] school and because of the Meyerhoff Scholars Program. [This program supports STEM students who are pursuing advanced degrees and are interested in promoting underrepresented racial and ethnic groups.] The job would not be as attractive to me if it were only a science school or a school that did humanities and social sciences only. UMBC is much like the Trinity College of Arts & Sciences at Duke. They have arts, humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences, and they do teaching, research, and service across all three.
Meyerhoff is a model across the country that attracts amazing students. I want to make sure that the rest of the students have an equally great experience. UMBC also has significant strengths across non-STEM divisions that have not been as visible. Meyerhoff has taught us a lot about how to do inclusive excellence, but it’s the cross-disciplinary work that’s really exciting to me.
In your career, you have often been the only Black person or one of a few Black people in your workspace. How has that impacted your career choices, and what will it mean to you as president of UMBC?
I never thought about the hurdles of being a woman or a person of color. Even though I spend a lot of time working on diversity for women and underrepresented students, and I know how important and challenging it is to be one of those people in STEM, that’s not my experience—and it shouldn’t be anybody’s experience. There are some very real structural, systemic, and personal barriers for people of color and women. I get to challenge those barriers and make those changes for every student.
You’ve said before that Freeman A. Hrabowski III, whom you’re replacing as UMBC president, has been your friend and mentor for more than 30 years. Did he put his thumb on the scale for you to get this job?
I intentionally did not engage with him at all during this process. He is a person of such high integrity, and I respect him too much to put him in an awkward position. I also wanted to know that people weren’t doing what Freeman wanted but what they wanted because it’s their university. I also trusted the process. If it indeed was supposed to be my job, then it would be my job.
Hrabowski has such a larger-than-life reputation. You have even called him a "legend" and the "presidents’ president." Is it a little intimidating stepping into his shoes?
What makes UMBC attractive is the work that Freeman has done over the last 30 years. I’m not sure who else in the country could have done what he has. Having said that, I’m not trying to put my foot in that shoe. I know this is my job because it is not causing me an ounce of anxiety. I feel called purposefully to this next stage of my life.
In one of his many interviews, someone asked Freeman if he was worried about leaving UMBC. He said something like, ‘If I was worried, I would think that it was all about me. That would be some kind of arrogance to think that if I leave you’re not going to be OK.’
Likewise, if I make this all about me, I’m not giving UMBC credit for what they’ve already accomplished.
You’ve been very open about working to overcome imposter syndrome. If you were still struggling with that, would you be taking this job?
I don’t think I could have started down this path in academic administration and leadership without getting over imposter syndrome. It was a shift in my mindset, where I realized that everybody has different gifts and talents, and mine are just as valuable as anybody else’s. I decided that I was going to be me, and I keep trying to choose positions and jobs where people actually want me to be me.
Melba Newsome is a freelance writer based in Charlotte, North Carolina, who frequently covers science, health, and the environment.
The "Vitals" box in this story was updated on Sept. 14, 2022, to correct the name of one of the people Valerie Sheares Ashby identifies as a mentor. The person is Hank Frierson, not Hank Fryerson.
This story was updated on Aug. 29, 2022, to correct the name of the person interviewed. She is Valerie Sheares Ashby, not Valerie Ashby.
This story was updated on Aug. 29, 2022, to add information at the end about writer Melba Newsome.