December 2011

Five years of giving rural students second chances

Billy Hudson’s life continues to inspire the Aspirnaut Initiative for K – 12 STEM education.

At the age of 64, Billy G. Hudson, a renowned expert in the molecular basis of kidney diseases, one day returned to his rural Arkansas hometown after an absence of 50 years and got on a yellow school bus. Hudson wanted to help the children in his childhood community but had no idea how to go about it. He decided to ride the school bus. “I don’t know why I did it,” he says.

Children riding a school bus in rural Arkansas take in science lessons played on the TV screens installed in the bus.

It was a chilly October morning in 2005, still dark at 6 a.m., when Hudson climbed up the bus stairs to start the one-and-half-hour trip to the local school on the street he lived on as a child. The bus jolted over gravel roads and went past densely wooded areas with only the occasional glimpse of a house, traveling over land Hudson knew intimately as a child.

Hudson had arranged to ride with the children, who ranged from kindergartners to high-school seniors; spend the six-hour day at school; and accompany the children on the ride back home. In the morning, the children were too wary and shy to speak to Hudson. But in the afternoon, some of them began to pipe up, with one preteen boy telling Hudson he loved math.

The nine-hour school day (including the three hours spent idle on the bus) gave Hudson the inspiration he was searching for to help rural children, who face unique challenges in getting an education. “Many of the children live in poverty and may come from dysfunctional families. They have limited exposure to professional people,” says Hudson, a professor at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center who recently celebrated his 70th birthday. He adds that elementary and middle school teachers often don’t have the technical expertise to teach science, mathematics, technology and engineering adequately. On this point, he knew he could help.

With his wife, Julie K. Hudson, a physician and assistant vice chancellor for health affairs at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Billy Hudson launched the Aspirnaut Initiative in April 2006. The initiative began with an ordinary yellow school bus outfitted with laptops, iPods, and a mobile Internet router (a novelty back then) that directed the children to online STEM educational programs so they could use constructively the three hours spent each weekday on the bumpy bus ride. Now, five years later, the initiative has grown larger and involves 500 students every year.

When he started the initiative with his wife, Billy Hudson was no stranger to hard work. His scientific successes include the discoveries of two new collagen chains and a novel chemical bond that fastens them together. He received the National Institutes of Health Merit Award in 2002 and the Homer W. Smith award, the highest honor from the American Society of Nephrology, for his contributions to understanding kidney diseases in 2003.

But none of these accomplishments hints at the grueling road he took to his current position. Hudson’s “life story is fascinating,” says friend and colleague Richard W. Hanson at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. “You couldn’t do more than what he has done with his life.”

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I am truly greatful to have had such a great experience through the Aspirnaut program.This experience helped me get through the challenges i was facing, by giving me a place to look forward to going every was my oasis and I loved every bit of it. I had fantastic mentors, and I was surrounded by great people who wantd to help me and whatch me achieve. I am truly greatful to this program for giving me the boost i needed to continue on, and giving me something to hold on to and remember. i know i will never forget the rope and the well story Dr.Hudson told me about. i learned so much and fell in love with biology all over again. Thank you once again for this amazing experience(Jessica Dix)


The Aspirnaut program changed my perspective about everything I knew about college. It gave me the confidence within to believe that I can achieve the dreams I had but thought would not come true. I know now that I am capable of anything I put my mind to. I owe a huge thanks to Drs. Billy and Julie Hudson. They are wonderful people who know just how to get involved with young people and give them an opportunity to become more knowledgeable. This was one of the best experiences of my entire life and I would not have as much knowledge as I do had I not gone. I really can not thank you more for making it possible to come to Vanderbilt and do research, it's really amazing that this had been made possible for all these kids. I am proud to be called an Aspirnaut student and hope to stay one for like. Thank you for givinge perspective and confidence this summer. I had a really great mentor and the time spent at Vanderbilt this summer was amazing. Thank you once again! -Haley Harrington


The Aspirnaut Program will probably be something I can hold on to for the rest of my life in whatever I do. As working in the Laboratory at Vanderbilt as part of this program, I have gain unprecedented knowledge that I wouldn't receive at my High School, probably not till college. Dr. Billy Hudson since day 1 of me arriving at this Internship was always supportive and reminded me I was special. Everyday I walked into the Lab with a new goal, a new responsibility, and a new set of skills that will always be with me. Now from this program I received an awesome amount of experience in a top Laboratory in the Country but most Importantly I gained new access to what I could become. Because of this program I don't know what I want to be between an Engineer, Doctor, Researcher, and a Businessman. As a Junior at Omaha High School in Omaha, Arkansas, I can only say Thank you Dr. Hudson for everything! Brennan Boone


As an undergraduate in Dr. Hudson’s lab since the summer of 2009, it is impossible for me to express enough admiration toward the Aspirnaut program. I have witnessed first-hand the difference this program has made in the lives of high school students from Arkansas. Their success as undergraduate students at Vandy is a testament to the positive influence of the program (congrats Cody on early admission to Vandy Med!). I am also forever grateful for the integral role that Aspirnaut has played in my life! As a young college student, Aspirnaut provided me with a path full of opportunity. It helped me define my interest in science, inspired me to excel academically, and provided phenomenal biomedical research experiences to prepare me for the next step in my education. Without Aspirnaut, there would be no high honors, no research awards, and no grad school at Yale. Thanks Dr. Hudson and thanks Aspirnaut for everything! -Wes Robertson


I will be forever thankful to this program. I have not only learned more than I could ever imagine but also confirmed my career goal as a medical professional. Horton.


As a college student who worked in Dr. Hudson's lab as a part of the summer program, I can say that this was truly one of the most valuable experiences I have ever had. I was surrounded by such inspirational mentors, learned fascinating science, and was able to spend time with a variety of awesome students. Thank you Dr. Hudson for your vision, and for giving so much to others. I can't wait to be back in the lab this summer! --Jillian Balser


This is a heartwarming story but shows what men and women who come from humble beginnings can do in changing the world for others. After all, making our world a better place than we found it is our reason for being.


I cannot begin to express the gratitude I have for Dr. Hudson. After participating in the Aspirnaut program, I feel much more prepared for the challenges I will face in college. It is because of the Aspirnaut Program that I have found my calling and have been given the drive to study Biochemistry and Cellular and Molecular Biology. Thank You Dr.Hudson! -Brennan Hicks



Its not only high school students that the Hudsons help. I participated in the summer Aspirnaut program as a undergraduate. It was the best experience I had in undergraduate research. I cannot fully express how thankful I was to be able to be a small part of this program. It was an enriching summer in so many ways. Thank you again. (Charli Bobbitt)


I am honored to be a cousin to Dr. Billy Hudson in more ways than one. First, I admire him for the courage he had to get his mother, sister, brother and himself away from the abusive father. Also because of the initiative he had to get an education and making a success of himself and his willingness to help today's young people to do the same. He and Julie are doing a great work in the programs for the youth. The "Gravel Road to Vanderbilt" mentioned in the article was just a dirt wagon road up until the Great Depression when the WPA upgraded it, making it suitable for modern day transportation. Times was so hard that the people planted their garden seed in the fresh dirt along the newly made road, thus giving it the name, Garden Seed Road. Yes, the area is rural Arkansas to the core and thanks to Billy & Julie for caring enough to help the young people, along this road and other roads like it, to a sussessful life. Jerry Lawrence


The work of this man is inspirational. It is point of pride to know someone who has worked with Billy. The work with kidney disease will save thousands of people from early deaths.


Awesome program! This country needs more of this kind of thinking and action. Thank you for providing a model and showing the importance of reaching out to give opportunity and guidance that makes a difference, one person at a time. Noelynn Oliver


It was Billy Hudson's course in Biochemistry at Oklahoma State University that inspired me to pursue graduate studies in Biochemistry. We've stayed in touch through the years and I'm proud to consider him both a friend and a mentor. Thank you for this article and for showing that great scientists can be great humanitarians. Bill Church


As an individual growing up and attending school from grade 1 through 12 with Billy Hudson in Grapevine, AR I am very proud of him and his work. The article is very interesting but does not give him any more credit for helping others than he deserves. I have always loved him like a brother and he will always remain my lifelong friend. Shelba Fielding Bradford



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