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ZACK WAJSGRAS/THE DAILY PROGRESS Campers listen during the closing ceremony for the second annual Exploring Engineering camp at Rice Hall in August. Sponsored by the Public Education Foundation of Charlottesville-Albemarle and University of Virginia’s School of Engineering and Applied Science’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion, the camp was free to students in Charlottesville and Albemarle County schools.

The University of Virginia’s School of Engineering and Applied Science has received the largest gift in the school’s history.

Dean Craig H. Benson announced Friday the $25 million gift from Greg Olsen, a 1971 Ph.D. alumnus of the materials science and engineering department.

The funds will be used to recruit and retain engineering faculty, attract Ph.D. students and provide the dean of engineering and the chair of the department with additional funding to support strategic initiatives.

Olsen’s gift will be combined with $11.5 million in matching funds from UVa’s Bicentennial Scholars Fund and Bicentennial Professors Fund.

“With his generous, future-focused investment, Greg is ensuring UVa Engineering’s capacity to attract outstanding scholars and produce future engineering leaders is very strong for generations to come," Benson said in a news release.

Olsen’s gift follows the university’s public launch of a $5 billion fundraising campaign. The engineering school launched its portion of the campaign on Oct. 11 with a goal of raising $250 million.

Olsen is dedicating his gift to his own former Ph.D. adviser, materials science and engineering department Professor Emeritus William A. Jesser. Olsen was Jesser’s first doctoral student back in 1968, and Jesser went on to chair the department for 12 years.

“He gave me confidence in myself because he helped me with my Ph.D. thesis,” Olsen said in the release. “And when I was finished, I felt I had really accomplished something, and I could go out into the world and be a professor or researcher. I have an incredible amount of gratitude toward him.”

Jesser said in the release that he is extremely honored by and appreciative of Olsen’s recognition.

“Greg is just that kind of person,” Jesser said. “He feels good about doing good.”

Olsen has founded two companies and in October 2005, he became the third private citizen to orbit the Earth during a trip to the International Space Station. Through his current company, GHO Ventures, Olsen invests in entrepreneurial ventures.

Olsen is an inventor, a researcher and a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and was elected to the National Academy of Engineering – the profession’s highest honor – in 2010.

In 2000, Olsen made what was then the largest-ever gift to the engineering school – $15 million.

Olsen’s investment, with its $36.5 million total impact, enables:

  • A $15 million endowment for Olsen Bicentennial Professorships, providing resources for the school to recruit and retain leading scholars. From this funding, $5 million will be designated for a professorship in the department of materials science and engineering.
  • A $16.5 million endowment for Olsen Graduate Fellowships, helping the school recruit the world’s top Ph.D. students. From this funding, $10.5 million will go toward fellowships in the department of materials science and engineering.
  • A $5 million Dean’s Strategic Investment Fund, giving Benson and Materials Science and Engineering Department Chair John R. Scully resources to respond quickly to opportunities, such as providing hands-on learning experiences for students, developing innovative courses, boosting graduate student recruitment, enhancing diversity programs and modernizing facilities.

UVa Engineering’s sponsored research program has grown by 75% since fiscal year 2016, driven in part by a 30% increase in the number of faculty and a 64% increase in Ph.D. students since 2014, according to the school. The Department of Materials Science and Engineering has added 12 faculty members since 2016.

The department, chaired by John Scully, has approximately 70 to 80 Ph.D. students a year now, and Olsen’s gift will help the department progress toward a goal of 125 Ph.D. students or more.

“Ph.D. students are enablers at universities,” Scully said in the release. “They enable research, develop novel ideas and generate new science. They are also lab instructors and role models for undergraduate students. Greg’s commitment to helping us grow our Ph.D. program will have an enduring impact.”

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