Chemistry chair, Nobel Prize-winner receive alumni faculty service awards

The chair of the chemistry department and a Nobel Prize-winning genetics researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill were honored with the General Alumni Association’s Faculty Service Award.

The association’s board of directors presented the awards to chemistry professor Valerie Ashby and genetics scientist Oliver Smithies. The award was established in 1990 and honors faculty members who have performed outstanding service for the University or the association.

Valerie Ashby
Valerie Ashby

Ashby, of Durham, grew up in Clayton and earned both a bachelor’s degree in 1988 and a doctorate in 1994 in chemistry at UNC. After postdoctoral work overseas and a faculty position at Iowa State University, Ashby in 2003 returned to UNC as a professor in the chemistry department. She quickly became one of the most popular professors on campus and in 2007 was named the Bowman & Gordon Gray Distinguished Professor for excellence in undergraduate teaching and research. She became department chair in 2012. Her research focuses on synthesis of biomaterials used for such functions as drug delivery and gene therapy.

Ashby also is director of the UNC National Science Foundation program aimed at promoting underrepresented minorities into doctoral programs in science, technology, engineering and math, which she participated in as a student. She received the outstanding faculty/staff award from the GAA-sponsored Black Alumni Reunion’s Light on the Hill Society in 2008 and was UNC’s December Commencement speaker that same year. She is the UNC faculty marshal and served on the GAA board of directors as faculty representative for 2010-11.

Oliver Smithies
Oliver Smithies

Smithies, of Chapel Hill, is the Weatherspoon Eminent Distinguished Professor in the UNC School of Medicine’s department of pathology and laboratory medicine. The native of England joined the faculty in 1988 after earning a doctorate in biochemistry from the University of Oxford and spending more than two decades as a researcher at the University of Wisconsin.

Smithies was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 2007 for his work in genetics. The award recognized his contribution to introducing gene modifications to mice using embryonic stem cells, giving the mice human-like characteristics to more accurately predict how treatments might work in humans. His was the first Nobel awarded to a UNC faculty member and his presence has been credited with attracting other prominent genetics and genomics researchers to the University. Smithies has received numerous other honors for his discoveries, including the North Carolina Award for Science in 1993, the Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research in 2001 and the O. Max Gardner Award and the Wolf Prize for Medicine in 2002.

Other recent recipients of the Faculty Service Award include Fred Brooks Jr., a professor and founder of UNC’s computer science program; Dickson Phillips Jr., former law school dean; Joseph L. Templeton, former chemistry department chair; Joseph S. Ferrell, secretary of the faculty; Dr. H. Shelton “Shelley” Earp III, director of the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center and a professor of pharmacology and medicine; business professor James H. “Jim” Johnson Jr.; and former law school dean and faculty chair Judith W. Wegner. A complete list of award winners can be found at

The General Alumni Association is a self-governed, nonprofit association serving alumni and friends of UNC since 1843.

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