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Photo album sparks discovery of ASU's first female African American graduate

May 4, 2022

Stella McHenry graduated from ASU in 1925, 3 years earlier than the grad previously thought to be the first

Editor’s note: This story is featured in the 2022 year in review.

Michele Neptune McHenry and her husband, Joseph McHenry, were slowly making their way through the photo album when they came upon the photos and name card.

The card, gray in tone, was about 1-by-2 inches. On it was a name: Miss Stella McHenry.

To the left of the card was a photo of a pensive woman, white pearls hung around her neck.

They turned the page and saw the other photos: The woman sitting on a piece of heavy equipment in Miami, Arizona, in 1923; standing, her arm draped around her brother, Lawrence, in 1925; as an infant, with older sister, Luisa, sometime between August 1904 and December 1905.

They were unsure who this young woman was or how she fit into the family on Joseph’s side.

Their curiosity would lead to a genealogy project and then to an archivist at Arizona State University’s Hayden Library. It would lead to records that were incorrect, to a young girl from Clifton High School who became a teacher and, as it turned out, was the first African American female graduate from ASU.

This is a story of discovery.

This is the story of Estella Rochelle McHenry, better known as Stella.

Family roots

Joseph McHenry didn’t know much about his father’s side of the family. His father passed away when Joseph was 3 years old, and his mother didn’t stay in close touch with her husband’s relatives. But after Michele and Joseph moved back to Arizona in 2011, where he had been born and raised, they decided it was time to learn more about the McHenry name.

They believed the portrait of Stella was a graduation picture but couldn’t be sure. There was no reference to a school, no indication of when she might have graduated.

“It was part of the curiosity,” Michele said. “We didn’t know who she was or how she fit in.”

They began a genealogy project. Slowly, the pieces of the puzzle began to connect. Stella’s father worked as a smelter operator in the copper mines in Clifton. Stella, born in August of 1904, was the second oldest child behind Luisa, who died at the age of 15 from tuberculosis. Joseph’s father, Lawrence, was the youngest. They attended the Colored School in Clifton.

Stella, it turned out, was Joseph’s aunt.

Years passed. Joseph died in 2019. Then, one day, for no particular reason, Michele began searching Stella’s name on the internet and found a reference to her in a book titled “The African American Experience in Tempe.”

An excerpt from the book read:

Among the students who leased cottages from the Thomas’ was Stella McHenry of Clifton, Arizona. Reportedly the first African American woman to graduate from the Arizona State Teachers College in Tempe, Ms. McHenry graduated from the teachers’ program with honors in the Class of 1926 (sic 1925). 'Mother' Thomas developed close ties with Ms. McHenry. In February 1928, Maggie Thomas was called to Phoenix when she learned that the young teacher had passed away.

Stella was an ASU graduate? Michele was intrigued.

“Apparently, they were talking about an early boarding house, because African American students weren’t allowed to stay in the dorms back then,” Michele said.

She sent an email to ASU’s Black Alumni Chapter website asking for more information. Then, she began digging through ASU’s various webpages and came upon the ASU “Firsts” page on the ASU Library website. The page listed Love Hatton Jordan as the first female African American graduate, in 1928.

Michele knew that couldn’t be accurate. Stella’s death certificate — she passed away on Feb. 5, 1928, at the age of 23 of complications from influenza and pneumonia — said she had been a schoolteacher, which required a two-year curriculum that resulted in a “certificate of eligibility” to teach. She found the “Ask an Archivist” section of the library website and asked online when Stella had graduated.

The return email said 1925.

Digging through history

Shannon Walker wanted to learn more.

Walker oversees the University Archives and the archival collections at Thunderbird School of Global Management. When Walker learned Stella was indeed the first female African American graduate at ASU, she hoped to put a story to the statistic and make sure history noted Stella's accomplishment.

“We wanted to make sure she was recognized as a person and not just a number or a statistic,” Walker said. “A fully realized person whose life was tragically cut short. Plus, I think just to be able to be more accurate in our timeline and history is very exciting. Just because it’s history doesn’t mean it’s dead and gone. It’s important to study it and get it right.”

Technology has made the job of an archivist much easier than it was, say, 25 years ago, when the search for a person’s background would involve a trip to the library and hours upon hours of examining microfiche.

The Arizona State Library has digitized versions of local newspapers dating back to the 1860s as part of the Arizona Memory Project. Walker searched for Stella's name in the Copper Era, the name of the newspaper serving Clifton, and discovered that Stella had won an award for being an outstanding student in the fifth grade and sold Victory Girls war bonds, which were used to support the American military in World War I.

“By all respects, she was an amazing student,” Walker said.

Walker couldn’t find details of Stella's time at ASU. Her picture was in the 1925 yearbook, but she wasn’t listed in any clubs or activities or as having stayed in a dormitory, which may have been a reflection of the times. Nor could she confirm that Stella's siblings went to ASU, although both she and Michele believe that to be the case.

Yearbook page from 1925 with 's portrait

Stella McHenry

As she dove into Stella’s background, Walker reached out to Jessica Salow, the assistant archivist and curator of Black Collections at ASU.

“Are you interested in learning more?” Walker asked.

“Yes, please,” Salow responded.

Archiving is not a perfect science. Walker said Stella's omission likely was a human error, someone simply missing her as they browsed through ASU’s yearbooks for “firsts.” And while it wasn’t the case for Stella, the history of people of color is not always easily accessible.

“Black history can be hidden,” Salow said. “So many people that I have run across in Arizona who live in the Black community who have Black family members that have been here for generations, they know about the history of either their community, their family or their people. It’s just that no institution was really interested in a lot of this particular history.

“And when people bring that to us, that means we’re engaging with the community. And we’re doing that work to say, ‘Hey, community, reach out to us.’”

Salow also loved the mystery of trying to discover who Stella McHenry was.

“This is why I got into this particular profession,” she said. “It feels like you’re solving a puzzle.”

Video by Ken Fagan/ASU News

Unfortunately, Stella’s puzzle isn’t complete. She’s listed in the Arizona Educational Directory of 1925–26 and 1926–27 as teaching seventh grade at the Douglas School for Colored Students, making $150 a month.

But who she was as a young woman, how she carried herself, her passions and interests — those remain a mystery.

There is one thing Michele is certain about, though: The same characteristic that led her husband, Joseph, to be a helicopter pilot in Vietnam — one of approximately 600 Black helicopter pilots out of the more than 40,000 helicopter pilots that served in that arena — led Stella to get on a train, leave Clifton and embrace a college education.


“He was just always a trailblazer,” Michele said. “So, it just kind of synced up. Here’s another trailblazer in the family.”

Top photo: Stella McHenry's portrait in a family photo album. Courtesy Michele Neptune McHenry and Joseph McHenry

Scott Bordow

Reporter , ASU News

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Bringing today's science to tomorrow's scientists

May 4, 2022

ASU researchers are developing interactive virtual lessons to bring biotechnology to diverse classrooms around Arizona

From rising bread and domesticated dogs to penicillin and rubber, humans have a long history of shaping our world through biotechnology — using biological systems and organisms to improve or create desired products.

Today’s hot science topics, such as genetically modified crops and new vaccine techniques, show that biotechnology also plays a large role in society’s present and future. That’s why it’s important to introduce this subject to the next generation of scientists and decision-makers.

A group of Arizona State University researchers and local Arizona teachers are developing a revolutionary virtual curriculum to do just that.

Abhishek Singharoy, an assistant professor in the School of Molecular Sciences and associate faculty in the Biodesign Center for Applied Structural Discovery, leads this project, called the BioSense Network. It recently received a $1.4 million National Defense Education Program grant from the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD). The grant will allow the group to develop lessons that use virtual simulations, train teachers to use these materials, and build an online platform that will bring the BioSense Network to diverse student populations throughout Arizona.

“With the molecular simulations, which is a big component of these e-modules, students get to approach learning about biology and biotechnology in a different way. They get to see things like proteins and viruses in three dimensions, move and measure and add things, and really engage with it,” says Cassandra Kellaris, the project’s coordinator and a technology strategist in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College.

Teaching how to teach

Rachna Nath sits at a lab counter next to a microscope and is wearing a lab coat

Rachna Nath is a biotechnology teacher at Arizona College Prep High School in Chandler, Arizona. She is also a honeybee scientist. She helps the BioSense Network team create curriculum that meets teachers’ needs. Photo courtesy Rachna Nath

Singharoy’s work started as an after-school biophysics club with virtual learning components. After receiving a seed grant from the Flinn Foundation, he partnered with local high school teacher Rachna Nath, who ran the club with students from her school.

During this time, Singharoy developed his Visual Molecular Dynamics (VMD) program, which taps into ASU’s computing power to give students interactive simulations of molecular processes.

The club was a success, eventually spreading to three other local schools. This work is expanding into the BioSense Network, thanks to the DOD grant — along with ASU colleagues from the Teachers College and K–12 teachers like Nath, who contribute their expertise as educators to help Singharoy create useful, engaging curriculum.

“That’s where educators come in; they teach us how to teach,” Singharoy says. “That was really important.”

Science minds of the future

So why is the DOD, an agency devoted to protecting our nation’s security, interested in helping young minds learn about biotechnology?

Singharoy notes that biotechnology is ripe for developing foundational technologies that people can apply to many types of problems — including those related to national security. Exploring the latest science developments now will also help tomorrow’s leaders make more informed choices. Additionally, biotechnology classes ask students to solve problems and make decisions in unique ways.

“We’re trying to build a decision-making science mind, and that’s a skill set that comes in handy when you’re making decisions pertaining to national defense,” Singharoy says.

“The Department (of Defense) is cultivating the future STEM workforce by providing unique education opportunities to students and educators of all ages and across all demographics throughout the country. These efforts are vitally important to maintaining our nation’s competitive advantage, ensuring we are prepared for the ever-changing global technology landscape,” says Robert Irie, acting director of Defense Research and Engineering for Research and Technology, in an online statement.

It’s important for a diverse array of students to start to see themselves in that field so that their voice can be represented in the future of biotechnology.

– Cassandra Kellaris, technology strategist in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College.

In Nath’s biotechnology classroom, students get to work on a variety of research projects, including ones that they choose on their own. Past projects have included developing a heat-monitoring wristband, using flavonoids in fruit peels to make bioplastics more degradable, and growing moss in simulated Martian soil.

“I love teaching this class because it gives me the opportunity to conduct research with my students to give them that critical thinking aspect that will push them further into future research,” Nath says.

Nath notes that the BioSense Network’s interactive lessons accommodate diverse learning styles.

“Students learn in different ways. Some of them are visual, some are kinesthetic, some are verbal,” she says. “Showing them that they can actually manipulate a molecule helps the students get out of their zone of one-directional instruction to something that they can do hands-on and is interactive. That’s always been successful for me.”

The BioSense Network aims to ensure that this learning is accessible to a broad range of communities and schools.

“It’s important for a diverse array of students to start to see themselves in that field so that their voice can be represented in the future of biotechnology,” Kellaris says. “They are the ones deciding why biotechnology is important and what are the biggest issues facing the communities they’re part of.”

Meeting teachers’ needs

Over the next three years, the BioSense Network team will develop six curriculum modules, as well as the technology platform to support the VMD software and training for teachers — all of which will come at zero cost to schools. Each module will have two versions: one for high school and one for middle school.

The lessons will cover many emerging technologies and science questions: the role of shapes in controlling biological functions; giving molecules chemical instructions; growing plants in low light with artificial photosynthesis; using a nanosensor to detect genetic material in surroundings; vaccine design; and gene editing with CRISPR-Cas9.

“We want this to be a tool that the teachers can implement in the way that is best for them and their students. We are giving them the time and space to think through how these tools will support what they are already doing,” Kellaris says.

“Being a biotechnology teacher and also having an idea of the state standards and the actual classroom requirements helps bring that perspective of what I truly want to teach the kids,” Nath adds.

Singharoy and a student look at a computer in Singharoy's lab.

Assistant Professor Abhishek Singharoy works with graduate student John Vant at his lab in the Biodesign C building on ASU's Tempe campus. Singharoy’s lab is developing advanced simulations of molecules to incorporate into the BioSense Network curriculum. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU

Tara Nkrumah, an assistant research professor in the School of Social Transformation’s Center for Gender Equity in Science and Technology, also works with the team to make inclusivity a built-in feature of the lessons. The BioSense Network aims to encourage an interest in science among students whose communities are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.

The team plans to engage up to 15 secondary schools in Arizona. The modules could be used as part of a school’s regular science curriculum or as an after-school club; each teacher will decide the best way to use them.

The BioSense Network team is currently developing the first module’s content while training teachers on how to use the technology. At the end of the three-year grant period, Singharoy hopes the project’s success will attract additional funding so that the network can expand outside of Arizona and spread nationwide.

If you are a middle or high school science teacher in Arizona interested in participating in the BioSense Network project, contact Cassandra Kellaris at

A strategic advantage

To apply for the DOD grant, Singharoy worked with ASU’s Global Security Initiative, which has longstanding relationships with the security and defense communities.

The initiative offers a strategic advantage to ASU researchers who want to apply for DOD research or education grants: its dedicated proposal team is familiar with the DOD’s unique application processes and understands how to frame ideas that will appeal to the agency. While the DOD is its specialty, the Global Security Initative can also help ASU researchers apply to grants from other federal agencies.

“The team works with you towards making sure that your milestones are met, so the principal investigator can focus on their part,” Singharoy says. “They essentially guide us through the entire process.”

If you are an ASU researcher interested in working with the Global Security Initiative on your federal grant proposal, contact GSI at

The BioSense Network project is funded by the U.S. Department of Defense.

The Biodesign Institute and the Global Security Initiative are partially supported by Arizona’s Technology and Research Initiative Fund. TRIF investment has enabled hands-on training for tens of thousands of students across Arizona’s universities, thousands of scientific discoveries and patented technologies, and hundreds of new startup companies. Publicly supported through voter approval, TRIF is an essential resource for growing Arizona’s economy and providing opportunities for Arizona residents to work, learn and thrive.

Top photo: High school teacher Rachna Nath and her students worked on an early stage of this research, which started as an after-school biophysics club with virtual learning components. Photo by Andy DeLisle

Mikala Kass

Communications Specialist , ASU Knowledge Enterprise