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May 13, 2009
Contact: Kevin Boatright, Office of Research and Graduate Studies, (785) 864-7240.

Graduation stories: Student survives motorcycle accident, completes doctorate

Matt Sherrill

LAWRENCE — Matt Sherrill was on his way to an 8 a.m. class at the University of Kansas when his life as a graduate student changed suddenly and dramatically. It was Aug. 31, 2006.

The second-year chemistry graduate research assistant’s motorcycle was hit by a car that failed to yield to oncoming traffic. Sherrill’s left foot was crushed, and he had multiple bone fractures. He was flown to the KU Hospital and spent a week there. The damage to his foot was so severe doctors had to remove the front half.

Remarkably, Sherrill resumed classes that September and was back working in the lab by November. Now, less than three years later, he’s ready for KU’s doctoral hooding ceremony on May 16 and the ceremonial procession down the Hill at commencement the next day.

Getting around following the accident wasn’t easy at first, but Sherrill soon had help. He was born in Osage Beach, Mo., and received a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the College of the Ozarks. But he grew up in Tanzania, where his parents were missionaries. His father flew back from Africa while Sherrill was still in the hospital. His mother arrived two weeks later. They’ve been nearby ever since to help their son finish his degree.

Sherrill can now function entirely on his own. He even thinks the accident may have helped him finish his degree a year ahead of when he’d planned.

“I couldn’t do any research for two months,” he said. “I don’t ever like to feel like I’m behind, so I hit it hard and made up a whole lot of ground when I could.”

He used crutches for more than five months. His father put his own life on hold, helping his son in the labs by carrying materials and equipment for him.

Sherrill defended his dissertation in organic chemistry with honors. He is leaving soon for three months of training in Germany, followed by a postdoctoral appointment with the U.S. Army Research Lab at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.

Sherrill’s father is now in school himself, studying nursing at Johnson County Community College.

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