School of Pharmacy’s Ashpole Wins Faculty Achievement Award
University-wide award recognizes ‘unmatched’ teacher, mentor
OXFORD, Miss. – The childhood version of Nicole Ashpole would be equally surprised and excited to learn where her professional life would take her. Growing up in rural North Dakota with very few opportunities linking her to the scientific world, she could not have imagined the success she would see in the field.
Ashpole joined the faculty at the University of Mississippi School of Pharmacy in 2016 as an assistant professor. She is now a tenured associate professor of pharmacology in the Department of BioMolecular Sciences, research professor in the Research Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences and director of academic affairs.
In September, she won the university’s 2023 Faculty Achievement Award.
“I am thrilled that Nicole received this award for her excellence in research and teaching,” said Donna Strum, dean of the pharmacy school. “It is a testament to her expertise, leadership and passion for students. We are proud of her and excited to celebrate her success.”
Department chair Kristie Willett also spoke highly of Ashpole’s dedication to and impact on students.
“In this category, I believe that Dr. Ashpole is quite possibly unmatched at this university,” Willett said. “Her hours of extra mentorship, even to students she hasn’t directly taught, do not go unappreciated but are often less recognized than her award-winning mentees’ scientific successes.”
While there is certainly immense pride in winning the award, Ashpole was most moved by something else associated with the honor.
“My reaction to finding out that I was receiving the award was excitement, but I think the true excitement was actually knowing that so many students and alumni supported my nomination and wanted to write letters on my behalf,” she said. “To get messages saying, ‘We knew you deserved this’ or ‘This was a no-brainer’ was just so nice.”
Growing up on the outskirts of a North Dakota town with a population of 43, Ashpole said her small school did not have a science club, science fairs or many of the other opportunities to learn about science that are often available at larger schools.
“I didn’t really know what you could do in science, but I did have an awesome science teacher in high school who made everything exciting and fun,” she said.
When she enrolled at Concordia College, a small liberal arts college in Minnesota, she changed majors multiple times, trying on religious studies and psychology before deciding to take a science class and see where it took her.
“Through that, I found my people,” she said. “I found friends and I found that I had a passion for science.”
Things began falling into place and, finally, her future began to take shape. She participated in a study abroad program that took her to the Galapagos Islands, Peru and Ecuador, and returned with a desire to study how to use plants for medicine. Her botany teacher advised her to pick an organ that was most interesting to her and study how drugs impact that organ. For Ashpole, that was the brain. A neuroscientist was born.
She began applying to neuroscience programs across the country and was accepted into the Indiana University School of Medicine. Her advisor during those years, Andy Hudmon, would become a major influence in her professional career.
“He had an energy and an excitement, and he turned everything in the lab into an adventure,” she said. “He got me incredibly excited about a life in academia and science. He still serves as a mentor to me to this day.”
In a full circle moment, Hudmon, now a professor at Purdue University, happened to be in the Galapagos Islands on the day Ashpole learned she would be receiving the Faculty Achievement Award. When he returned and she was able to relay the good news, he was thrilled for his former student.
“When I started my laboratory many years ago, one of my mentors told me, ‘Select your first students very carefully and remember, if you find the right students, it will enhance your chances of getting your lab funded and form the foundation for your new research career,’” Hudmon said.
“Nicole was this student. Throughout her career, she has been scientifically curious, diligent in her work and determined to be an exemplary mentor, teacher and colleague. She has all the necessary ingredients for a sustained and successful academic career, and I couldn’t be more pleased to see her successes and be recognized for this award.”
After earning her doctorate, Ashpole completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Oklahoma Health Science Center before finally landing at Ole Miss. Her husband Matt, a mathematician, had gotten a job at Mississippi State University and the two moved to Tupelo.
Ashpole figured out that she wanted to teach during her graduate school years and doing so has been a gift.
“I really enjoy watching students succeed and learn something about themselves in the process,” she said. “It’s not just about doing well on an exam but growing and finding confidence in themselves. I like to think we’re passing on knowledge and resources that are going to help everyone because it’s impacting human health and disease.
“We get to empower students to be prepared to go provide health care to everyone. To be part of that is incredible. I feel like it’s an essential job, and I hope they can feel some passion and that they want to be the best provider they can be.”
Ashpole said teaching at the UM School of Pharmacy, in particular, has been especially rewarding.
“The School of Pharmacy has a great reputation, so we have students from all over and the school is constantly working to improve the way we pass on knowledge,” she said. “Since I’ve been here, our whole curriculum was redesigned because we needed to get closer to how modern medicine and how the education of modern medicine works for people.
“Our faculty want to keep adapting because medicine is always adapting and our understanding of the human body is always adapting. I feel like the School of Pharmacy has a lot of unique expertise and people here want to stay on top of what is modern in the field.”
This award is not the first recognition Ashpole has received over the course of her career. In 2022, she was pleased to accept the Faculty Mentor of the Year Award from the Southern Region Education Board, which comprises 13 states.
She was nominated by former UM pharmacy graduate student Cellas Hayes, who is now completing a postdoctoral fellowship in neurology at Stanford University. He met Ashpole as a sophomore at Ole Miss and was brought on as her first student. He credits her as being one of the biggest reasons he chose to pursue his doctoral degree at the university after completing his undergraduate studies.
“Over the years, we developed a strong professional relationship but also a personal one, which can be difficult to find with research mentors,” Hayes said. “She not only cared about me as a researcher producing data and assisting with tasks in the lab, but she also cared about my personal growth. That truly helped shape me as a researcher and shape my idea of a great mentor.”
The two forged such a close bond that Ashpole is now godmother to Hayes’ daughter.
“Her patience and guidance over the course of almost seven years as an undergraduate and graduate student in her lab directly led me to pursue my postdoctoral training at Stanford and gave me an idea of how to choose mentors and how to be a better mentor to my own future students,” Hayes said.
“I owe much of my success to her giving me, a black first-generation student, a work-study job in her lab and later, performing experiments, designing my dissertation and completing my doctoral degree. I think her greatest impacts on my life were giving me the freedom to learn, being patient with me and encouraging me to dream as big as possible.”
Miguel De Leon, a current graduate student from Houston, Texas, who is working in Ashpole’s lab, is likewise grateful for her positive influence.
“I am not surprised that Dr. Ashpole received this award,” De Leon said. “In fact, I believe it to be long overdue. She has been instrumental in shaping me into the scientist and person I am today by fostering an environment that nurtures growth. She consistently pushes me to excel in my scientific endeavors while also actively supporting my pursuit of external professional development opportunities.
“Dr. Ashpole takes the time to truly listen and comprehend the specific needs of each of her mentees, and she tailors her mentoring approach accordingly. This unwavering dedication to her mentees is undoubtedly the key to our collective success.”
Outside of teaching, Ashpole also offers support to the school’s Minority Association of Pre-Medical Students and the Youth Movement Against Alzheimer’s.
Despite her recent honors, Ashpole said she gets the most satisfaction out of the accomplishments of others.
“I’m most proud to see students who have found their passion, chased it and got it,” she said. “To see students who haven’t had research experience, didn’t grow up in an area where science was at their fingerprints… to see them come in and find excitement in the lab and go from an uncertain undergrad to deciding to be a pharmacist or a scientist is really cool.”
By Natalie Ehrhardt