First in Class: The Wierbowski Family

An alumni couple raises three Presidential Scholars, with gentle guidance.

The Wierbowski family is pictured, from left to right: Brad ’13, Judy ’82, Sara ’19, Dave ’81 and Shayne ’16.
The Wierbowski family is pictured, from left to right: Brad ’13, Judy ’82, Sara ’19, Dave ’81 and Shayne ’16.
pictured at left with his parents at the 2015 PBC Award Dinner
pictured at left with his parents at the 2015 PBC Award Dinner

All three Wierbowski children, Brad ’13, Shayne ’16 and Sara ’19, were high school valedictorians and went on to become University of Scranton Presidential Scholars. A friend of parents Dave ’81 and Judy ’82 foretold their children’s aptitude during their Scranton days: “Your kids will be unbelievably smart,” the friend had said. Dave often still wonders, “How did she know?”

Presidential Scholars at The University of Scranton have varied experiences, but — there’s no doubt — the standards are high. The merit-based, full-tuition scholarship requires demonstrated leadership, commitment to community service and high SAT scores. Students must to be in the top two percent of their high school class. Needless to say, it helps to be valedictorian. 

How did Dave and Judy McGraw Wierbowski raise three high-achieving children? Both parents are senior software engineers at IBM, co-inventors of several U.S. and international patents. So, there is nature. “I personally believe their success is attributed to their own drive and intellect, both being qualities that God gave them,” said Dave. And, of course, there is also nurture: “All we did was point them in a direction and support them.”

The children credit their parents with being attentive but never pushy. Any pressure at all, said Brad, Shayne and Sara, was internal. 

“Our parents never pushed any of us to be successful, but growing up under our parents’ guidance, we each individually came to expect these things of ourselves,” said Shayne.

Growing up Wierbowski

Judy and Dave, both first-generation college students, graduated from the University with honors (Dave, magna cum laude, Judy, summa), and Judy was also high school valedictorian. “Going to college wasn’t a given for Judy and me,” said Dave. “With our kids, the expectation was different. From the day they were born, the expectation was that they would go to college. For them, it was a given.” 

In the early years, one parent was almost always at home with the kids, thanks to IBM’s flexible work schedules. “I know this is not an option many people have,” said Dave. “I think staying home helped create good parent/child bonds, and it allowed us to have the time to do things to develop their minds, such as reading, playing games, building things …”

During those years, Brad, Shayne and Sara were read to often. Brad began reading Hardy Boys mysteries in kindergarten. Shayne, said Judy, “didn’t sit still” while she was reading, but “it was obvious he was listening.” Sara was verbal and developed a love of writing early on (though some might argue Brad is the writer of the family). 

They each credit the other two with inspiring them. (“I often wonder if I would really be as ‘smart’ as I am if I didn’t have my brothers pushing me forward,” said Sara.) Brad chose a science major, so perhaps that’s a reason Shayne and Sara chose science majors too. According to Dave, though, the children’s love of science stems from a TV show called the Magic School Bus (and the Microsoft computer games associated with it) that they all loved. “I am sure this show is the reason our children have such a passion for science,” said Dave, who admits he hates plugging a Microsoft program as a loyal IBMer. 

The Wierbowski parents also credit a preschool/elementary school near their home called St. Patrick’s with teaching their children the basics. “St. Pat’s not only focused on teaching students; it focused on teaching students how to learn. It taught them how to plan, how to research, how to study,” said Dave.

As the children got older, Judy and Dave encouraged each of them to be responsible for his or her own work. “I knew they were capable,” said Judy, “so I just expected it.” 

Their parents “gently guided” but did not interfere, according to Sara. “If I asked, for example, how to solve a specific math question, they would make an example similar to that question and show me how to do that example. Then they would expect me to learn how to do the actual problem myself.”

Shayne agreed. “My parents merely laid forth all of the possibilities, let me decide what I wanted for myself, and then did everything they could to help me reach my goals,” he said.

Brad was grateful for his parents' undying support. “From transcribing my ideas for stories in elementary school to investing in a video camera during my aspiring filmmaker phase in high school, my parents have done so much to enable my siblings and I to follow our interests to the fullest,” said Brad.

When it came time for college, Judy and Dave were careful not to pressure their kids into choosing their alma mater. Each Wierbowski child had a multitude of options and, while the Presidential Scholarship was influential, the Wierbowskis wryly noted that each child, at some point, declared Scranton “last on the list.” 

Coming Home

Brad, the eldest, was a Goldwater Scholar and is currently working toward his Ph.D. in cell biology at Harvard. He never thought he’d study at the same university as his parents. He made Scranton his final college visit. “That half-day visit to Scranton was all it took to make a decision that I’d agonized over for months. As soon as I set foot on campus, I knew it was a very different kind of place. The campus looked and felt like home, not like a factory.”

Shayne, whom Dave calls the “most competitive,” (though others try to claim the title) triple majors in biochemistry, cell and molecular biology, philosophy and computer science. He was sure he didn’t want to go to college where his brother was and where his parents went. “But when I talked to Scranton faculty, I felt they were interested in me personally, as an individual,” he said.

For Sara, who had visited her brothers at college often, the choice was more like coming home. “I’d been coming to Scranton for six years. When I thought of college, I thought of Scranton,” she said. (She is pictured right with Fr. Quinn.)

Now that the University has been a home to each of the Wierbowskis, there’s more sibling harmony than ever. “As the oldest, Brad motivated Shayne and Sara,” said Dave. Brad and Shayne were on campus together and sometimes caught up over dinner or bonded over a chemistry problem. “I couldn’t have imagined a better situation for the both of us,” said Brad. Now Shayne and Sara are both on campus and they, too, get together. “She uses all my flex money,” Shayne joked.

The Wierbowski parents, meanwhile, are holding down fort in Owego, New York. When they visit Shayne and Sara at Scranton, they are sometimes reminded of the old days. They’re not too nostalgic, though. They’re forward-looking, and they see a promising future for their children, no matter what path they choose next. 

Brad Wierbowski Discusses his Research at Harvard

Brad speaking at the 2012 Presidents Business Council Award Dinner
Brad speaking at the 2012 Presidents Business Council Award Dinner

Right now, I'm working toward my Ph.D. in cell biology at Harvard. I'm just starting my third year as a graduate student, which means I've finished taking classes and am now spending all of my time in the lab working on my thesis project.

 My lab studies the “Hedgehog signaling pathway,” a particular network of proteins that act together to relay information between cells during development as well as in adult tissue. To give an example, Hedgehog signaling plays a role in the process of shaping the developing hand – instructing cells based on their location to become a thumb, an index finger and so on. Because Hedgehog signaling controls many different processes, too much or too little Hedgehog signaling can result in diseases, including a number of congenital disorders and also certain types of cancer.

 When we study how all of the proteins that make up the Hedgehog signaling pathway work together, we learn not only about this pathway in particular – which is important for our understanding of how it might go wrong in disease – but also about general biological principles that can help us to study many other cellular processes.

A lot of what I've learned in the past two years has been dedicated to the particulars of what I study-- what's known in the field about a particular protein or how to perform a particular technique that I haven't used before. As a Ph.D. candidate, I'm making discoveries about how Hedgehog signaling works, but really I'm being trained in how to someday be an independent cell biologist and use the knowledge and techniques at my disposal to answer new and different questions.

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