Cody Stothers, raised by his disabled grandmother after being born in a prison hospital, is a Vanderbilt senior who has just received a dual scholarship to pursue medical and research doctorates.
(Photo: George Walker IV, The Tennessean)
NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Born Dec. 23 in a prison hospital and raised by a disabled grandmother, Cody Stothers grew up depending on "angel tree" strangers for Christmas gifts and not expecting birthday presents.
This week when he turned 22, he got his best present ever. The Vanderbilt University student learned Monday that he had been accepted on a full scholarship into the institution's physician-doctorate. program - a parallel degree path toward becoming a medical doctor and research scientist.
Stothers of Sheridan, Ark., a town about 30 miles south of Little Rock with three traffic lights and a faucet factory, ended up at Vanderbilt because of an outreach mission aimed at gifted students from rural areas and disadvantaged backgrounds. The program, known as Aspirnaut, focuses on science, technology, engineering and math. It spurs kindergarten-age children to wonder, shows middle-schoolers the thrill of discovery and gives graduating seniors a more certain path toward college.
Two Vanderbilt professors who are husband and wife founded Aspirnaut in 2006, beginning with a simple idea. Billy Hudson, a biochemistry professor who overcame dropping out of high school and fleeing an abusive home, wanted to mentor others and pass along the favors people had done for him.
Aspirnaut put computers on school buses traveling from the Arkansas community where Hudson grew up to Sheridan.
Stothers was brought into the program to help the younger students with their computer skills. Since its founding, Aspirnaut, which relies on public contributions to fulfill its mission, has worked with students in eight states.
Without his grandmother, Stothers never would have gotten the bus assignment that led him to Vanderbilt. Frances Taylor, a former nursing aide disabled on the job from lifting a heavy patient, took him home from the prison hospital in a stocking like the ones children hang up for Santa.
"He came home Christmas Eve," Taylor said. "He was my Christmas present."
She raised him on disability income of less than $10,000 a year, making frequent trips to the town library, where the books were free.
"She made it pretty obvious to me that if I wanted to have a life that was different than a lot of people in my family of poverty and just not really having a lot of resources that I was going to have to go to college and get an education," Stothers said.
She had baked him a white birthday cake jazzed up with green, pink, gold and blue decorations, when the call came about the scholarship. Stothers already knew he had been accepted to Vanderbilt medical school, but he was waiting to hear about the dual-degree program.
Through the Aspirnaut program, he already has been involved in research. This month, he and 82 other students in the program co-authored a journal article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It explained how a chemical bond that Vanderbilt scientists discovered might someday be a pathway for new drug therapies to fight cancer and other diseases.
"My group in 2009 made the discovery of a new chemical bond," said Hudson, the biochemistry professor who is the program's scientific director. "It was made in the cow kidney. Then the question immediately was, what animals have this bond? And where did it begin? To do that, you march through the animal kingdom - along the tree of life."
The experiments involving individual species to identify the bond were the perfect opportunity to set up students for epiphany moments, he said.
"They would have that data first that no other human had ever seen and it would be discovery," he said.
His wife, Julie Hudson, is a professor of anesthesiology and pediatrics and executive director of Aspirnaut. In that role, she works with teachers in setting up learning opportunities. The program has touched the lives of children in Alabama, Arkansas, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.
It has made a grandmother in Arkansas very proud of the baby she brought home in a Christmas stocking. She said she knew as soon as she saw him in the prison hospital that she wanted to raise him.
"I wanted to take care of him," Taylor said. "I still feel like I'm raising him today, but he's more raising me now."