In 1992, Virginia Shepherd was attending a conference where Bruce Alberts, then-future president of the National Academy of Sciences, was speaking to a large crowd of prominent scientists, exhorting them to “give something back” by spending at least four hours per week in a K–12 science classroom.
“That sounded like a lot,” Shepherd says, “but he certainly fired me up.”
Since returning from that meeting, she has been on a passionate, tireless and often single-handed campaign to develop and secure the funding for groundbreaking programs that now support science and math education in public schools, provide summer science camps for kids, and promote professional development for K–12 science teachers.
Shepherd, who came to Vanderbilt in 1988, is a professor of pathology and medicine at the School of Medicine and professor of science education at Peabody College. She is also director of the Vanderbilt Center for Science Outreach, which began as a solo operation to secure grants and develop key relationships out of Shepherd’s own small office. Funded by two substantial grants in 2000, the Office of Science Outreach became the Center for Science Outreach in 2006.
“We have about 15 people now on the payroll,” she says, “and if I were to add the students on summer research and teachers in workshops, we’re paying well over 70 people. It’s hard to believe.”
The CSO now implements and oversees successful programs that once were only Shepherd’s pipe dreams. The Scientist-in-the-Classroom program places Vanderbilt graduate students in Metro Nashville Public Schools science classrooms for 10 hours per week. These teaching fellows are a tremendous resource to their host teachers and schools, providing role models and much-needed hands-on support in often overcrowded and underfunded science classes.
“We’re starting our 11th year,” Shepherd says. “We’re the longest-running program of this kind in the country. We’ve had 93 fellows, 80 teachers, and have been in 30 of the 38 Metro middle schools.”
Another success story is the School for Science and Math at Vanderbilt, which was funded in 2008 by the National Institutes of Health’s Science Education Partnership Award. “We proposed to start a part-time high school on the Vanderbilt campus,” Shepherd says. “Today we have 92 students from 11 Metro Nashville high schools.”
Each grade comes to the Vanderbilt campus on a different day of the week, studying science and math in a dedicated lab and classroom. “The students must get to Vanderbilt on their own and make up any work they miss at their regular schools,” Shepherd says, “and during their junior year, they go into the lab and do a research project. These kids are doing graduate-level research work. It’s incredible.”
In what she calls her highest-risk experiment, Shepherd has now exported the program into Stratford Comprehensive High School, a large high-risk, underachieving high school in Nashville. The program will insert a two-period-per-day series of science and math courses in the regular curriculum.
“What I’d like to see from the program is 100 percent high school graduation and 100 percent entry into some kind of post-secondary education,” Shepherd says. They’re ambitious goals, but they don’t surprise those who know Shepherd.
“She is deeply passionate about helping every child realize his or her potential,” says long-time colleague Vicki Metzgar, EdD’08, now a faculty member at Western Kentucky University. “She has a quiet strength that is not to be underestimated—especially if you play poker against her.”
Angela Eeds, PhD’06, director of the School for Science and Math at Vanderbilt, also admires Shepherd’s tenacity. “What inspires me most is her resolve and dedication to carry out an idea despite challenges and criticisms,” she says.
The present success of these programs did not come easily or quickly, and is owed almost entirely to Shepherd’s determination to see them through the early years when she found little support. “I’m persistent,” she says in a soft-spoken understatement, “and I’m not passive about much of anything.”
Virginia—“Ginny” to all who know her—grew up in Rock Island, Ill. Although her father was an architectural engineer, her inspiration to become a scientist remains a mystery.
“I have no idea what stimulated it,” she says, “but for some reason I knew as early as the eighth grade that I wanted to go into science and cure cancer.” Never one to shy away from asking questions, she remembers writing letters to big pharmaceutical companies like Parke-Davis for information about how to become a scientist.
Shepherd earned her bachelor’s degree in chemistry at the University of Iowa, and remained at Iowa to earn her M.S. and Ph.D. in biochemistry. “Along the way, I had four kids—three during graduate school and one during my first postdoctoral position,” she says.
Then, when their youngest child was only 3, Shepherd was suddenly widowed. It was a difficult time, but somehow Shepherd managed to raise her four children on her own and pursue her career.
“I don’t know how I did it,” she says, “but I had a grand time being a single parent with four children running around. It was chaotic, but we had a lot of fun.”
She beams with pride when she speaks about her children. “They’re all married, they all have advanced degrees, they’re all parents, and we’re all very close,” boasts Shepherd, whose brood now includes nine grandchildren all under the age of 10. Her daughter Jennifer Ufnar earned her bachelor’s degree at Vanderbilt in 1994.
While at the University of Iowa, Shepherd also excelled on the tennis court. “I played competitive tennis from the time I was 8,” she says, “mostly in regional tournaments around the Midwest.” Shepherd remembers that, while women’s tennis was a varsity sport at Iowa, there was no money for women’s sports at the time. “We were pre-NCAA, so we had no scholarships. Six of us would pile into a Volkswagen and drive to a tournament with two people hanging out the windows,” she says, laughing. “We went to the national championships, though.”
Shepherd’s experience as a college athlete has served her well in her efforts to champion the role of academics in the lives of student athletes. She has become a national figure in the effort, having been the co-chair and currently a member of the Steering Committee of the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics, or COIA.
“We worked very closely with the NCAA to establish a role for faculty in defining how athletics and academics can work together to help student athletes reach the goals of getting their education and to graduate,” she says. She still plays, and sports remain a very passionate part of her life.
“I’m a huge sports fan, especially spectator sports like football and basketball. I go to all the Vanderbilt games,” she says. “That’s where I met Charlie.”
Shepherd was introduced to her husband, Charles Brau, a professor of physics at Vanderbilt, at a Vanderbilt basketball game in Memorial Gym. “She was sitting with a colleague of mine, and we started talking,” Brau says. “We started running into each other all the time after that.”
“I actually asked him out,” says Shepherd, “and we just hit it off. We’re very compatible.”
The couple will celebrate their 15th wedding anniversary this year, and have shared their love of travel and cycling all over the world. “We’ve been to China, Japan and Germany many times,” Brau says. “We’ve biked our way across France, across Austria; we’ve even been to Tibet.”
Shepherd and Brau also have shared the classroom, teaching a popular course at Vanderbilt about Nobel Prize winners together for several years. “We’d talk about the science and the people behind the award,” Brau says. “She’d handle the biology and I’d handle the physics.”
Brau admits that he and Shepherd admire each other’s disciplines without fully understanding them. “As many times as she’s tried to explain it, I still can’t diagram a peptide molecule.”
The couple also collaborated on a successful program called Kids and Computers. From 1996 to 2006, Nashville kids from low-income government homes spent two hours each Saturday on the Vanderbilt campus working one-on-one with a Vanderbilt graduate student on a computer. Ostensibly, the program was about kids learning to use computers. Shepherd and Brau soon learned, however, that it was about much more than that.
“In fact, it ended up being more about life,” Shepherd says, “about these kids spending time every Saturday with someone who cared about them.”
She remembers one of the little boys in the program walking with her on campus one Saturday. “He looked up at me and said, ‘You know, I could come to Vanderbilt.’ I said, ‘Yes. Yes, you could. Absolutely.’”
Shepherd’s dedication and determination continue to change the lives of those around her. “I’ve done things I never would have imagined possible had it not been for the influence of Ginny Shepherd in my life,” says Vicki Metzgar.
Her husband agrees. “She’s changed my life, too,” he says.
© 2015 Vanderbilt University | Photography: Anne Rayner, John Russell
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