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.
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
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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
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.
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
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
"He came home Christmas Eve," Taylor said. "He was my Christmas present."
raised him on disability income of less than $10,000 a year, making
frequent trips to the town library, where the books were free.
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.
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
"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
The experiments involving individual species to identify the bond
were the perfect opportunity to set up students for epiphany moments, he
"They would have that data first that no other human had ever seen and it would be discovery," he said.
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."