Dr. Mary J.C. Hendrix, Shepherd University’s 16th president, is the first alum to lead the school in its history. Hendrix graduated from Shepherd in 1974. She went on to earn a doctorate and become a leading scientist in cancer research.
Before coming to Shepherd, Hendrix was president and chief scientific officer of the Stanley Manne Children’s Research Institute at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago and Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.
Hendrix was born in La Jolla, California. Because her father, Charles Nelson Grant Hendrix, a retired U.S. Navy captain and World War II Silver Star recipient, was active duty military, the family moved frequently when she was young. When Hendrix was in fourth grade, her father took a job in Annapolis, Maryland, where he started the oceanography department at the U.S. Naval Academy, so she and her parents moved to Springwood, the family farm near Shepherdstown.
“He traveled back and forth every day so my mother and I could live in Shepherdstown on this beautiful farm,” Hendrix said. “It was great growing up on our farm on the Shepherd Grade, a major portion of which is now the home of the National Conservation Training Center thanks to Senator Byrd.”
The family raised sheep, Hereford cattle, and hogs on the farm. Hendrix’s responsibilities included mowing the lawn and working with the sheep. She belonged to the local 4-H Club, was a Girl Scout, showed the sheep at local and state fairs, and was responsible for having them shorn and selling the wool.
“So it was just a wonderful background to have,” she said. “Raising sheep, selling them, and selling the wool contributed to my college fund, and this would teach me responsibility. It really did.”
For Hendrix, “an interesting part of raising sheep was learning how to castrate the male sheep. I always thought that procedure trained me for life’s challenges—how to survive while letting people know that I was once adept at castration—very important,” she said with a smile.
Transitioning to college early
Hendrix attended St. Joseph’s School in Martinsburg. She enrolled in Shepherd in 1971 at the age of 16 after finishing her junior year because St. Joseph’s closed its high school. Hendrix’s mother, Jessie, was working at Shepherd at the time as a secretary to Dr. James Moler, who was an education professor and coordinator of educational field services. Moler was also president of Kiwanis International from 1967-1968. Hendrix fondly remembers when she and her mother were invited in 1968 to fly with Moler and his family to Toronto, Canada, where the organization’s annual international meeting took place.
“I’ll never forget this, my mom and I ordered cereal for dinner,” Hendrix said. “It’s just something we wanted—cereal with milk. As we sat in this restaurant in Canada having cereal, there was a big scoop of vanilla ice cream that was in the middle of each of our cereal bowls because that’s the way Canadians kept the milk cold while you finished your cereal. And I thought, this is great, I’m bringing that back to the United States of America.”
While at Shepherd, Hendrix majored in biology and was on the swim and tennis teams. Hendrix feels she received an excellent education at Shepherd that prepared her for her future studies and an exciting career.
Nurturing a passion for research
Hendrix said her interest in medicine, biomedical research, and research in general came from both her father and her paternal grandfather, Dr. Nevins B. Hendrix, a Martinsburg surgeon. It was her grandfather who purchased Springwood Farm in 1941, and she recalls accompanying him on home visits to see some of his patients.
“I would always ask him when we would finish with a home visit ‘what caused that person to be sick? What are the cures?’ He impressed upon me that we didn’t have a lot of information, at least at the time, about what caused many diseases and we didn’t know how to cure many of them,” she said. “He was very honest and transparent with his answers. He would say ‘we just don’t know. You need research to be able to discover much of the unknown.’”
Hendrix said those conversations with her grandfather, coupled with influence from her father’s work mapping the oceans, led to her interest in medical research. She finished work on her degree at Shepherd in December 1973, and while waiting to graduate in May with the class of ’74 she served as a substitute teacher in Jefferson County and worked as a ward clerk in the emergency room at City Hospital. Hendrix then attended graduate school at George Washington University where she engaged in biomedical research, which at that time focused on understanding the causes of different heart malformations.
Hendrix graduated in three years with her doctorate, and from 1977 to 1980 she was a National Institutes of Health Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Harvard Medical School in the department of anatomy and cell biology.
Hendrix worked from 1980 to 1993 at the University of Arizona, rising through the academic ranks from an assistant professor to professor and associate head. It was at Arizona that Hendrix had the opportunity to establish her first research laboratory, which required her to learn how to raise the money needed to buy equipment and pay for the research. Hendrix said one goal was to address melanoma, a big problem affecting Arizonans.
“My laboratory and I have focused on melanoma research ever since,” Hendrix said. “It has taken a long time in this particular area to make some fundamental discoveries that have led to patents that have now allowed us to work with the pharmaceutical industry in trying to develop new therapeutic approaches in the treatment of cancer.”
Hendrix, who holds seven patents in cancer research, said these discoveries have not only advanced the melanoma field, but hold promise for other forms of cancer as well. She has always strived to do research that benefits as many people as possible.
“It comes down to how you think about developing your science,” she said. “If you think about trying to help people with the work you’re doing, you have to take a certain path to discovery and development that involves meticulous documentation and patenting novel ideas. This type of approach allows reaching out to pharmaceutical partners to advance research discoveries, but you have to be willing to accept a lot of rejection before you can be successful.”
A nontraditional candidate
Hendrix realizes she is not considered a traditional candidate for a university presidency—one who worked her way up in the higher education world as a dean, a provost, and a vice president.
“I took the route after being a department chair in a medical school environment to accepting an exciting position as president of a research institute,” she said. “If you don’t understand what that entails, then you could think of me as a nontraditional candidate. But what I’ve had to do is build programs, hire faculty, create a nurturing environment, and find funds that would allow us to survive as a freestanding academic institution that is part of a university but is not funded by a university. So I’ve had significant experience in survival type positions.”
Hendrix plans to use the survival skills she’s developed to help Shepherd during this period of state budget cuts and tight funding. She brings to her presidency a new motto that’s also meant to encourage success: Excellence, Innovation, Opportunity.
“I think about coming to Shepherd and really being able to demonstrate and advertise the excellence of our faculty, our staff, and our students.”
“I think about coming to Shepherd and really being able to demonstrate and advertise the excellence of our faculty, our staff, and our students,” she said. “I think many people are unaware of the remarkable accomplishments of our faculty, staff, and students because as a group we really don’t talk about it that much since it could be perceived as bragging. There is a sincere sense of humility here, and it will be up to the new president to enhance the image of excellence that currently exists.”
Hendrix serves on three national boards. She is on the Board of Directors at the Annenberg Center for Health Sciences, based in California; she chairs the National Disease Research Interchange board, which is funded in part by the National Institutes of Health and is based in Philadelphia; and she serves on the Board of Directors for Research!America, based in Washington, D.C., a not-for-profit public education and advocacy alliance working to make health research a higher national priority.
Hendrix has written more than 250 publications on biomedical research and is the recipient of numerous awards, including a MERIT Award from the National Cancer Institute, the 2004 Australian Society for Medical Research Lecturer and Medal Recipient for research and advocacy, the 2006 Henry Gray Award by the American Association of Anatomists that recognizes unique and meritorious contributions to the field of anatomical science, the 2008 and 2012 Princess Takamatsu Cancer Research Lecturer Award in Japan, the 2012 Princess Takamatsu Memorial Lectureship from the American Association for Cancer Research, and the 2014 Vision and Impact Award from the Regional American Committee for the Weizmann Institute of Science.
When she’s not working, Hendrix likes to relax by engaging in some kind of exercise. She still swims and she particularly enjoys walking.
“I love walking at the National Conservation Training Center as well as the Shepherd Grade—just some place beautiful because when you walk you are unplugged, at least I am, from Blackberries, iPhones, email, everything,” she said. “It allows you to think and that’s very important—being able to think. If you want to do big things and you have a global vision, you need time to put all the pieces together and for me, it’s very peaceful when I walk.”