Valerie V. Sheares, an assistant professor at Iowa State University's department of chemistry in Ames, interviewed for both academic and industry positions before she joined the university in 1996. "When you begin a career in chemistry, academia is the more daring of the two possibilities," she says. "Industry seemed more comfortable to me, but I chose academia. Making that choice was largely inspired by my graduate school mentor, Joe DeSimone. He taught me the things that I needed to know in order to have this career."
Sheares, 36, was born and raised in Clayton, N.C. She got her bent for chemistry from her father, who was a secondary school math and science teacher. After taking chemistry in high school, Sheares knew that she wanted to study the subject in college. "When I went to college, there was no question that I would major in chemistry," she says. Sheares earned both a B.S. and a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
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After graduating with her bachelor's degree, Sheares took a summer position in agricultural and organic chemistry at Rhône-Poulenc in Research Triangle Park. She loved the experience. Knowing then that she wanted to pursue a graduate degree, she applied to UNC's graduate program and returned to school.
DeSimone has had a profound impact on her development. Since her graduate school days, Sheares says, she has relied on him to truthfully assess her abilities and provide her with sound advice. DeSimone gave Sheares the opportunity to substitute teach for him and introduced her to key aspects of academic work, such as writing and reviewing papers and grants. "It was critical that he was part of my education, and I have an obligation to be a mentor because of Joe," she says.
While at UNC, Sheares herself served as a mentor through the minority affairs office. Later, she says, "I easily fell right into mentoring here at Iowa State," where she now acts as a mentor in ISU's McNair Scholars Program. The program aims to increase graduate enrollment in fields in which low-income students and minorities have traditionally been underrepresented. Sheares is also a mentor for ISU's Program for Women in Science & Engineering, a summer research program for high school students and undergraduates.
Prior to joining ISU's chemistry department, Sheares was a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellow and NATO postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Organic Chemistry at Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz, Germany. She undertook research in synthesis of ABC block copolymers, a completely different area of polymer chemistry than her area at UNC, where she had focused on synthesis and characterization of thiophene-based poly(arylene ether ketone)s and poly(arylene ether sulfone)s. This postdoctoral experience was important to Sheares for the change in research direction. It also taught her how to adapt to a new environment far from home, making the move to Iowa an easy adjustment.
Sheares's current polymer research is moving on three fronts: synthesis of new high-performance block copolymers from functionalized dienes; free-radical polymerization of soybean oil to make value-added products from agricultural commodities; and studies leading to new high-temperature polymer/quasicrystal composites.
At ISU, Sheares is widely known for her organic chemistry class, which is required for premedical and preveterinary students and chemical engineers, as well as for biology and chemistry majors. According to her ISU colleague, chemistry professor Kathleen M. D. Trahanovsky, "Valerie's career so far epitomizes the balance of teaching, research, and service that is often cited as the ideal for a faculty member in a large Ph.D.-granting department."
"Find a mentor," Sheares responds when asked what advice she has for young chemists. She believes she wouldn't be where she is now if she hadn't had a good mentor. "Mentors help guide undergrads and prepare them for graduate work. Undergraduates should try to have as much research experience as possible, including summer internships, so that they can determine where their interests lie."
Graduate students need mentors even more, because "honest feedback is unbelievably important," she says. Ph.D. students should strive to be outstanding, Sheares stresses. "They should learn as much as they can and get as much as they can out of their graduate years."
Sheares married recently, on Aug. 3. She will be changing her name to Valerie Sheares Ashby. She has extended her love of teaching into her church, where she is the director of the Sunday school.
Sheares's recent awards include Master Teacher and Teacher of the Year for 2001, from ISU, College of Liberal Arts & Sciences; the 3M Young Faculty Award; and Outstanding Professor recognition by ISU's department of chemical engineering undergraduate students. She holds three patents.