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.”