December 2011

Five years of giving rural students second chances

A company called NephroGenex is currently developing a compound discovered in Hudson’s lab that protects against diabetic kidney disease. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is getting close to approving a Phase III clinical trial to test the compound, Pyridorin, in more than 1,000 diabetic patients.

In 2009, Hudson and his colleagues discovered a novel sulfilimine bond, in which sulfur and nitrogen are double-bonded together, in type IV collagen. This bond exists in all animals but had not been found previously. Hudson says they have now established that an enzyme from the peroxidase family makes the unusual bond, and they think the enzyme and the sulfilimine bond emerged more than 500 million years ago as a primitive form of innate immunity.

Back to the roots to solve a problem 

Students participate in a science lab fun by the Aspirnaut Initiative.

But even with decades of scientific success under his belt, Hudson hasn’t forgotten his beginnings and has returned to rural America in hopes of helping younger generations replicate his success. “He hasn’t turned his back on people who are in the same position as he was earlier in his life,” says Hanson.

The current crisis in U.S. science, technology, engineering and mathematics education, caused by inadequate numbers of students taking an interest in these fields, could be helped if the needs of rural students were addressed, says Hudson. Twenty percent of the K – 12 student population in the United States lives in rural areas. “It’s an untapped pool of talent in rural America that can be brought into the STEM workforce,” he says. “The talent is there, but students need to be presented with opportunities.”

Aspirnaut Initiative’s first bus program rolled into something bigger within a year. Julie Hudson says it quickly became obvious that time on the school bus needed to be managed better, so the couple started an after-school class twice a week to work with the students. That class in turn grew into something else, which the Hudsons now consider to be the flagship of the initiative.

These days, researchers at Vanderbilt University hold weekly science labs via videoconference with children in rural schools. The Hudsons explain that they base the labs on those developed by the Vanderbilt Student Volunteers in Science program, which takes science kits to students attending Nashville-area schools. But with Internet-based videoconferencing capabilities, the Aspirnaut program now makes it possible to reach schools not physically near Vanderbilt. “We have a real-time interaction with the class, where we’re bringing the intellectual assets of a research university, in partnership with the school, to give students hands-on, inquiry-based, critical-thinking activities,” says Billy Hudson.

The science labs, built around real-world issues, now get beamed into classrooms in Arkansas, Tennessee and Maine. Hudson gives the example of the theme they built around his research area of diabetes. The children first learn about electricity, magnetism and the concepts of nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometry. Next, they learn about metabolism and how metabolic malfunctions cause diseases like diabetes. Then they hear about how researchers use tools like NMR spectrometry to develop therapies against a given disease. “Rather than say ‘Here’s a kit in chemistry. Good luck,’ we try to relate science and math concepts to their everyday lives through hands-on activities,” explains Hudson.

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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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