William A. Jesser Helped Inspire His First-ever Ph.D. Student, Greg Olsen, to Make the Largest Gift in the Engineering School’s History
On Friday, Oct. 22, the University of Virginia School of Engineering and Applied Science celebrated the renaming of the Materials Science and Engineering Building to Jesser Hall in honor of William A. Jesser, professor emeritus of materials science and engineering.
In 2019, alumnus Greg Olsen made a $25 million contribution to UVA Engineering—the largest gift in the School’s history. He dedicated his gift to Jesser, his former Ph.D. adviser. Olsen, who earned his Ph.D. at UVA in 1971, was Jesser's first doctoral student.
Jesser is a UVA alumnus, earning his bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. degrees in physics. He joined the Department of Materials Science and Engineering as an assistant professor in 1968, progressing in his tenure as associate professor in 1972, professor in 1978 and Thomas Goodwin Digges Professor in 1989.
UVA Engineering Dean Jennifer L. West expressed her appreciation for Jesser’s impact to the School during his long career.
"Bill Jesser is an outstanding academic researcher with important contributions to the University in the areas of thin films, nanoparticles, semiconductor materials and surface thermodynamics," West said. "We're grateful to have this opportunity to honor his lasting impact on the lives of UVA students by naming our Materials Science and Engineering building after him."
UVA President Jim Ryan, speaking at the dedication ceremony, said, "I often talk about the idea that part of what makes UVA special is the connections our students build with faculty, inside and outside of the classroom. Today, we’re celebrating Exhibit A. Professor Bill Jesser found common interest with Ph.D. student Greg Olsen. He pushed Greg, advised on his thesis, and asked him questions that challenged his thinking. Greg developed his skills in engineering physics, metallurgy, quantum mechanics, and mathematics. He thrived at UVA and found an intellectual home. This is the power of great teachers to inspire."
Jesser retired from the University of Virginia in May 2009, after 41 years of leadership and service to the University and the commonwealth of Virginia.
"Bill's tireless, dedicated service and many contributions helped shape the department into what it is today," said John R. Scully, chair of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and the Charles Henderson Chaired Professor, citing Jesser's scholarship in more than 150 publications, 74 invited lectures and two patents. "I am honored to carry on his legacy."
Following his tenure at UVA, Jesser joined the Board of Directors of Oak Ridge Associated Universities. He has served as chair of the Virginia Academy of Science. He is a fellow and life member of the American Society for Metals and fellow of the National Institute of Aerospace. He was awarded an honorary doctorate in physics from the University of Pretoria, South Africa. He is also a recipient of the Virginia Engineering Foundation’s distinguished service award.
"He was very easy-going and open, but very hard-working, building up his lab and establishing his position in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering,” Olsen said. “Anyone who worked with Bill Jesser worked pretty hard. I have an incredible amount of gratitude toward him."
Jesser said he is extremely honored by and appreciative of Olsen's recognition. "Greg is just that kind of person. He feels good about doing good."
Jesser said he and Olsen connected in part because they had similar, humble backgrounds. Olsen was born in Brooklyn, New York, his father an electrician and his mother a schoolteacher. Jesser was raised in small-town Waynesboro. "We have similar notions about life," Jesser said. Jesser treated Olsen and all of his students like his own children.
"I taught them to look at everything that was going on around them, and pay attention to everything," Jesser said. "My philosophy was that you shouldn't hold a student back by your own limitations. Let them do better than you, if they can."
Olsen's historic gift in honor of Jesser came as part of Honor the Future, UVA’s $5 billion fundraising campaign. UVA Engineering has a goal of raising $250 million during the campaign. Olsen's investment, with its $36.5 million total impact supported by $11.5 million in matching funds from UVA's Bicentennial Scholars Fund and Bicentennial Professors Fund, enables:
- A $15 million endowment for Olsen Bicentennial Professorships, providing resources for UVA Engineering to recruit and retain leading scholars who will drive collaborative research, create knowledge and technologies to benefit humanity and cultivate an environment of educational innovation. From this funding, $5 million has been designated for a professorship in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering.
- A $16.5 million endowment for Olsen Graduate Fellowships, helping UVA Engineering recruit the world's top Ph.D. students to hone their skills and accelerate their drive for discovery, while gaining exposure to modern research problems and a broad understanding of the practical applications of their research. From this funding, $10.5 million went toward fellowships in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering.
- A $5 million Dean's Strategic Investment Fund, providing 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.