March 30, 2001

Reaching Out – Virginia Shepherd boosts science education

Featured Image

From left, Lamont Green, Ronnika Green, Taneisha Green, and Martrail Copeland walk across the Vanderbilt campus with Virginia Shepherd after a Saturday morning Kids and Computers class.

Reaching Out – Virginia Shepherd boosts science education

Virginia Shepherd looks at data with Robert Caldwell, a graduate student in the department of Pathology, in her research lab.

Virginia Shepherd looks at data with Robert Caldwell, a graduate student in the department of Pathology, in her research lab.

Shepherd looks at graduate student Joe Lopez's work under a microscope.

Shepherd looks at graduate student Joe Lopez's work under a microscope.

Shepherd helps Antonio Hayden, left, and Deonta Johnson set up their new computer at home.  (photo by Leigh MacMillan)

Shepherd helps Antonio Hayden, left, and Deonta Johnson set up their new computer at home. (photo by Leigh MacMillan)

Shepherd is surrounded by some of the students in the Kids and Computers class.  Shepherd and her husband began the program three years ago.

Shepherd is surrounded by some of the students in the Kids and Computers class. Shepherd and her husband began the program three years ago.

A hush falls as the modem launches into its series of dialing tones and crackling static. All eyes are on the room’s newest occupant and when the Internet Juno welcome screen blinks on, there are cheers.

“We’re on!,” shouts Deonta Johnson, his gleeful eyes revealing how he feels about having a computer and Internet access in his home.

With the successful connection comes the business of setting up individual accounts, and Virginia Shepherd begins to guide Deonta and his brother Antonio Hayden through screen after screen of questions. Shepherd and her husband Charles Brau are setting up the donated computer as part of Kids and Computers, a program they started in 1999 to give kids access to computer technology.

Deonta and Tony, both students at W. A. Bass Middle School, have been part of Kids and Computers from the start, and theirs is the third home to receive a donated computer. Their mother, Tamilla Johnson, watches proudly as the boys peck away at the keyboard, setting up email address lists.

“You just don’t know what this means to us,” Johnson says. “The program has been a real blessing. Their confidence has really grown, and I’ve seen a big change school-wise in their grades.”

That’s exactly what Shepherd, professor of Pathology, and Brau, professor of Physics, hoped would happen.

Coffee talk spurs kids program

Neither Shepherd nor Brau really remembers who came up with the initial idea for Kids and Computers-they each credit the other. One thing is clear: a conversation over coffee at Provence Café in Hillsboro Village got the ball rolling.

“We were talking about this idea for bringing kids into the Vanderbilt computer labs on Saturdays, but we had no idea what kids and how to get them there,” Shepherd recalls.

Phil Bredesen, Nashville’s mayor at the time, happened to be having coffee at a table nearby. Shepherd was peripherally acquainted with Bredesen and approached him with the idea.

“He immediately said, ‘we’ll do it,’ and gave us a contact at MDHA (Metropolitan Development and Housing Authority),” Shepherd says. “MDHA now recruits and buses kids to Vanderbilt for the sessions.”

It sounds so simple. Come up with an idea, make the right connections, create a successful program that brings technology to kids. Virginia Shepherd makes it seem straightforward, and the paradigm-developing science and technology programs that benefit kids—is becoming her trademark.

Kids and Computers is one of many science outreach programs Shepherd has spearheaded. She’s developed workshops for science teachers, worked with a Peabody Teacher-In-Residence teacher to start a summer camp for girls, guided the production of CD-ROMs containing immunology and neuroscience lessons for high school classrooms, and established a Graduate Teaching Fellows program that puts graduate students into science classrooms.

And the list keeps growing. Shepherd’s most recent coup is an NIH Science Education Partnership grant that funds science curriculum development and broadcasting to local schools via videoconferencing equipment.

She has secured close to $1 million of annual funding for the various programs. And science education outreach isn’t even part of her job.

A scientist gives back

Shepherd’s laboratory currently includes a Ph.D. research instructor, three graduate students, and a research assistant. Her group is focusing on the host defense mechanisms that fight infection by pathogens like HIV and TB.

One set of studies aims to understand how macrophages, a first line of cellular defenders, are compromised by HIV infection. Another research area focuses on the role of surfactant-associated proteins in the lung and how these proteins participate in defending against inhaled pathogens.

“We really have a niche in the surfactant host defense area,” Shepherd says.

She was attending the 1990 American Society of Cell Biology meeting when she was bitten by the science education bug. At the meeting, Bruce Alberts, now president of the National Academy of Sciences, urged scientists to give back to science education at all levels.

“He went so far as to say that every scientist should spend four hours per week in the classroom,” Shepherd recalls.

When she returned to Vanderbilt, she sought out Mel Joesten, now an emeritus professor of Chemistry, who was working with teachers at the time. The two partnered to solicit input from teachers about what could be done to strengthen science education. And Shepherd started looking for funding resources. She found resources in the state’s Eisenhower program and received her first science education grant to fund teacher summer workshops in 1994.

“She really has a passion for what she’s doing,” Joesten says. “She not only has ideas, she is able to develop them and carry them out.”

Last year, Shepherd received national recognition for her efforts. She was honored with the Bruce Alberts Award for Distinguished Contributions to Science Education.

“I’ve never known anyone in my career, who’s not directly involved in secondary education, who puts that much energy and effort into improving education,” says Vicki Metzgar, a 26-year veteran Metro science teacher who currently serves as coordinator of the Graduate Teaching Fellows program.

Metzgar has worked with Shepherd for several years, first on a project to develop educational CD-ROMs, then as a Teacher-In-Residence to develop the “Girls and Science Camp,” two week-long sessions that bring rising 8th and 9th grade girls to campus for fun with science. In its third year now, the camp is facing funding troubles. But Metzgar is hopeful that she and Shepherd will find a way to fund the camp.

“Ginny just doesn’t understand giving up; it’s not part of her constitution,” Metzgar says.

Career woman and mom

Shepherd grew up in Rock Island, Illinois. Though she doesn’t know what inspired her career choice-neither of her parents is a scientist-she knows clearly when she made it.

“I was in the 8th grade taking one of those career test kind of things, and I wrote that I wanted to be a research scientist and cure cancer,” she recalls, laughing. “Then I started writing to companies like Parke Davis, telling them about my plans and asking for information.”

She went to the University of Iowa, where she excelled not only in science, earning a B.S. in Chemistry, but also on the tennis courts. Her doubles team ranked number one in the state at the time.

She remained at Iowa to pursue her M.S. and Ph.D. in Biochemistry, and while she was in graduate school, Shepherd had three of her four children.

“I don’t know how she was able to have three kids and still get a Ph.D.,” says son Kurt, her fourth born, a management information systems consultant at Vanderbilt. “It was particularly effective (to point this out) while I was in college and my friends were struggling to make good grades with all the time in the world.”

With four children ranging from age three to nine, Shepherd was widowed. Times were tough, but Shepherd pressed on, moving the family to Washington University to pursue her postdoctoral studies. Somehow she managed to single-handedly raise her family and nurture her career.

“I haven’t a clue how I did it,” she shrugs.

Following her postdoctoral years in St. Louis, she joined the faculty at the University of Tennessee-Memphis and became part of the Veterans Affairs Medical System. She was recruited to Vanderbilt in 1988 and is currently professor of Pathology and Medicine and a career scientist at the VA Medical Center.

Her pride and joy

Her career aspirations notwithstanding, Shepherd’s children came first.

“She always worked a lot, but we always knew when it came down to it, we were the priority,” says Kurt of himself and his three sisters-Virginia, a third year medical student at the University of Florida; Jennifer, a master’s student in Science Education at Iowa; and Rebecca (Becky), a systems analyst.

“I have absolutely no idea how she worked so many hours, went to all of our sporting events, came home to make dinner for us, and still had time to watch TV or go away for the weekend with us. She’s amazing,” Kurt says.

Shepherd’s eyes light up when she talks about her children, and about her children’s children. She is obviously thrilled to be a grandmother to three baby boys ranging from four to 14 months, one son for each of her daughters. A bulletin board across from her office desk is covered in pictures of her children and grandsons.

“I had such a wonderful time raising my kids,” she says, recounting her days as PTA member, Girl Scout troop leader, and soccer and softball coach. “I guess that has carried over into the outreach I do now.”

“You have to admire her for the way she was able to bring up four kids on her own and have a successful career on top of it,” says Brau, her husband of five years. “She and her kids are very close.”

Shepherd met Brau at Memorial Gymnasium during a men’s basketball game. They are both avid Vanderbilt fans and had season tickets only rows apart. Shepherd was seated next to a friend of Brau’s, and the rest, as they say, is history.

“We really enjoy one another,” Brau says. “Our interests and our thoughts are very much in tune.”

The two were faculty co-advisors of the year last year for Kids and Computers, now a Vanderbilt student organization. They also have collaborated several times to teach an honors seminar course on “Nobel Prize Winners in Science.”

“We have a wonderful time with that course. Each time we’ve selected our own winners, but we haven’t gotten them right yet,” Shepherd says, chagrined.

Reaching out, opening doors

Shepherd is hesitant to point to a single aspect of her work and science outreach that makes her most proud.

In the research arena, she most enjoys training graduate students. And her students know it.

“She’s really taught me by example how to be a good mentor,” says Joseph Lopez, a graduate student who expects to complete his Ph.D. in Pathology this year. “I’ve learned from her how to guide and motivate a student.” Lopez also has benefited from Shepherd’s education outreach initiatives. He has been a Graduate Teaching Fellow, working as a resource for a middle school teacher.

“Dr. Shepherd recognizes that training as a scientist can be applicable to many different fields,” he says. “I know that as long as I contribute to whatever field I choose, she will be proud of me.”

In her science education efforts, she has “opened a portal for a lot of people” to take advantage of Vanderbilt’s immense resources, says Metzgar. “She has said to kids and to teachers, ‘this is the way in, please come in, here’s a resource for you.’ She sees these programs as real partnerships.”

“I’m proud of bringing together a cadre of teachers and creating a link with Vanderbilt so that they feel they can participate in programs going on here,” Shepherd says. “I estimate that our programs will bring over 50 teachers onto campus this summer, including eight visiting teachers from Singapore. I think it’s awesome. It’s all about making a change in science education.”

Were it not science education, it would be something else. “Ginny reaches out to people at all levels,” Brau says. “She reaches out to kids, to teachers, to graduate students, to friends, to family. She really cares for and about people.”

Back at Deonta and Tony’s house during the computer installation, the caring shows. It’s clear that the Kids and Computers program has given these kids much more than improved computer skills. As they set up email accounts, they joke and recall group trips they’ve taken with Shepherd and Brau to Vanderbilt football and Nashville Predators games.

And “Ginny” and “Charlie” are the first email address shortcuts they set up.