Nun finds joy in uncovering God's "secrets and surprises"

By Ingrid Stegemoeller ’07
Making mud pies as a child wasn’t just playtime for Sister Angela Hoffman ’79, ’80. Her time with mud piqued her lifelong interested in science, which has led to three patents on the cancer-fighting drug paclitaxel, which is known in its commercial form as Taxol®.

“I like science. It’s fun,” Hoffman said, adding that she enjoys the hands-on nature of her profession. She currently teaches chemistry and biochemistry at University of Portland, where she has worked since 1989.

After graduating from St. Placid High School, a Catholic school in Lacey, Wash., Hoffman joined the Benedictine Sisters at St. Placid Priory, and got her bachelor’s degree in education from St. Martin’s University. During the next several years, she also obtained a bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’s in science education from PLU. She received her doctorate in biochemistry from the Oregon Graduate Institute.

Living and working as both a nun and a scientist has never presented her with any major tensions. Hoffman said she likes looking for the “secrets and surprises” that God created in the world.

“Sometimes I don’t get enough sleep,” Hoffman said of her life with two major roles. She added that sometimes a student will ask her about her religious beliefs to strike up a conversation.

Her work with paclitaxel, and the makings of her first patent, began when a student wanted to do a project involving the paclitaxel molecule and yew trees, the plants that produce the substance. The professor who was supposed to help the student was on sabbatical, so Hoffman volunteered for the job.

Hoffman and the undergraduate student, along with a high school student, cultivated clippings from yew trees and cleaned them thoroughly with toothbrushes. Then, they put the plant specimens and sterile, liquid plant food into vials about the size of a highlighter pen. At the end of two weeks, they found paclitaxel in the liquid. They continued this work for a semester, and only stopped the experiment because they ran out of time, Hoffman said.

The Lacey native’s other two paclitaxel patents also resulted from collaborative research with students.

Hoffman said she enjoys teaching because of the opportunity to help students gain a deep understanding of science.

“I like to see students understand something and be able to use it,” Hoffman said.Hoffman remains a nun with the Benedictine Sisters, but she lives with the Sisters of St. Mary in Beaverton, Ore.

“It’s sort of like a family,” Hoffman said of life with the sisters. “We support each other in whatever it is we are doing.”

When she has time, Hoffman enjoys reading and outdoor activities. But, she said, she has plenty of fun doing her research, too.

“I like to do research. I like to discover things and make up something new that nobody’s thought about.”

Music teacher gives thousands to charity through singing group

By Shannon Schrecengost ’09
When Terry Shaw ’99 performed “Beautiful Savior” at the 1997 Christmas Concert, singing with PLU’s Choir of the West, he knew exactly what he wanted to do with his life.

Terry Shaw '99 is the founder of the Olympia Choral Society.

“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is what it is all about,’” Shaw said. “I wanted to make that happen every time I got up on stage. I was hooked on teaching choir from then on.”

Shaw came to PLU in 1997 after two years at Centralia Community College where he was active in the choir program. After a successful audition for a music scholarship at PLU, he decided to attend.

“The reputation of the music program was a big draw,” Shaw said. “I just felt like I needed to be at PLU. I don’t know exactly why, but I just had a strange feeling about it.”

Shaw’s decision was a good one. In 1998, after only a year at PLU, Shaw founded the Olympia Choral Society. He graduated from PLU a year later with a bachelor’s degree in music education.

Since then, Shaw has found great success working with the Olympia Choral Society. More than 2,200 people attended this year’s Christmas concert. The society takes donations for charitable causes instead of asking an admission price, which has translated to almost $60,000 for charitable causes since the organization was founded.

“The idea came to me in college,” Shaw said. “I couldn’t afford to go see concerts at $25 a shot. It’s not like it costs us any money to sing.”

In addition to his success with the Olympia Choral Society, Shaw has twice performed at Carnegie Hall and serves as a music director for a South Puget Sound church. Shaw coaches football and teaches choir at Timberline High School in Lacey, Wash.

Nurses find meaning in work with injured soldiers

By Amy Cockerham
Nursing alum Lt. Wendy Heibel ’03 was hard at work with the 79th Medical Group at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland when she overheard a little snippet of a conversation nearby.

Lt. Wendy Heibel ’03, left, and Capt. Sandra Nestor ’93, right, met while on duty at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. The two women are nurses who were helping route soldiers wounded in Iraq to hospitals near their families.

“I heard her say ‘PLU,’ and I was like, ‘I know PLU, I went there!’” Across a busy trauma room, Heibel met Capt. Sandra Nestor ’93, both of whom spent several months this fall working to stabilize injured soldiers returning from Iraq. Both were astonished to meet a fellow PLU alum so far from Washington state, and in such a different context.

Malcolm Grow Medical Center, where the two women work, is the first stop for injured soldiers returning to the United States from the war zone. When soldiers are wounded in Iraq, they are stabilized and routed back to the United States, often going from the battlefield to Andrews Air Force Base in as little as 48 hours. Once they reach Andrews, people like Heibel and Nestor work to find beds and transfer them to medical facilities near their families.

Both Nestor and Heibel were temporarily deployed to the Aeromedical Staging Flight at Andrews. Nestor’s normal job is in the emergency room; Heibel works in the recovery room and ambulatory procedure unit.

“We would literally watch CNN and have an idea what to expect for the next few days at work,” Nestor explained.

Nestor said the temporary deployment to help returning soldiers was more of an operational and logistics challenge than a nursing challenge, but it nonetheless provided some of the most memorable moments of both women’s careers.

“When anybody takes the time to say thanks, to me, that’s huge,” Nestor said. “When someone’s sick that’s the farthest thing from their mind, especially when someone has maybe lost an arm or a leg.”

Heibel agreed. “It is so rewarding,” she said. “They can be in a great amount of pain and they’re still very polite.”

Vet’s colorful past leads to enchanting present

By Breanne Coats ’08
After surviving a kamikaze plane attack, a typhoon, the Normandy Invasion and other challenges World War II threw his way, Kal Leichtman ’72 decided it was time to ground his sailing legs. While working at Bremerton’s shipyard, this former Navy radioman spent his nights earning a PLU degree in business administration.

Kal Leichtman ’72 in his Everett home, the walls of which are decorated with mementos of a colorful and adventurous life.

Leichtman says he used his degree “extensively” while working in the shipyard’s contract administration, but it was not until three years ago that the 81-year-old veteran was asked to use his financial and computer skills to help Everett’s American Legion Post 6 survive a scandalous theft, he said.

The post asked Leichtman to be their adjutant after the last person to hold the job stole approximately $370,000 from the post.

“All I had was the hard copy of the membership list,” Leichtman said. “It was a struggle to learn the ropes.”

But he did learn the ropes and has now created new bylaws for the organization and new systems to help make sure everything runs smoothly and “is on the up and up,” he said.

Leichtman has also worked to recruit members back into the organization. On his own, he reads the obituaries and sends his condolences to the families of any veterans who have passed away.

However, it is not all work for this self-proclaimed “computer nerd,” who says he enjoys using his computer skills to communicate with family and friends. And when the computer is off, he spends time with his wife, Alice.

“My son arranged for me to have a blind date,” Leichtman said. “I was reluctant. He egged me on.”

Just 20 days after the first date, Leichtman and his blind date, Alice, were married. They celebrated their 15th anniversary in February.

Ingrid Stegemoeller '07, Breanne Coats '08 and Shannon Schrecengost '09 are student journalists with PLU's MediaLab. Read about the work of these student journalists at

Photo top: Sister Angela Hoffman ’79, ’80 works in the lab at the University of Portland, where she is a biochemistry professor.