Endowed Chairs | Investing in Exceptional Faculty

Oct. 30, 2023

Every college is only as strong as its faculty and leadership, and having top-tier faculty is what attracts brilliant students eager to learn. “I know for a fact that when I walk in my class, the faculty are going to give everything they have,” says Sammy Cibulka ’23. “I think the opportunity that this campaign may give to more faculty is super important because of the relationships I’ve built with my professors.” A robust and vibrant university ecosystem where faculty, students and research all thrive together is a chief objective of the Fuel Wonder campaign.

Endowed chairs are a key priority within the campaign. They help recruit some of the most talented researchers and educators to Tucson and retain the highly sought-after faculty we already have. Chair holders use funds to jumpstart proof-of-concept projects that will later go on to attract research grants. They use funds to support student intern positions, so researchers of tomorrow get hands-on experience working alongside some of the brightest minds in their field. Endowed chairs also bring faculty members much-deserved recognition for the contributions they make to the university. “The best of the best will come to the University of Arizona because they see others who think like they think, who share the same vision they have. It is up to us to support those visions,” says Michael Dake, senior vice president of Health Sciences.

Endowing deanships is another priority in the Fuel Wonder campaign. Deanships provide college leadership with a new level of flexibility, as deans can direct resources to opportunities as they emerge. A named deanship is a vote of confidence in a dean’s vision and ensures long-term stability for the college.

Here, we hear from faculty awarded endowed chairs through the Fuel Wonder campaign. They speak about how their endowments are helping them pursue their boldest ideas and create a thriving university ecosystem.

R. Jason Jones with research student

R. Jason Jones | John Paul Schaefer Endowed Chair in Optical Sciences

I love being able to build experiments from the ground up and show students how to do it. Light is a fundamental part of nature and gives you deep insights into the physical world. Sharing knowledge with students provides deep satisfaction. Knowing that they’re benefiting — and that they’ll go on to do other things with the knowledge they have gained — provides meaning in that we’re not just doing present day research, but we’re investing in the next generation of researchers.

In my group, we have a nice ecosystem with around eight students working on their Ph.D. theses. They’re exposed to a broad range of ways research can be done, so they can go on to work in a national lab or stay in academia. Receiving funding from the endowment makes it easier for me to take on more students and frees up funds that make a big difference in a group like mine.

The Wyant College of Optical Sciences has been fantastic to be part of because you’re able to make collaborations right where you sit, so to speak. It’s a place where you can focus on the science of light and apply that to different areas of science. It’s a multidisciplinary college. We have research activities spanning real-world applications to fundamental physics. There’s a broad range of people and interests and knowledge, and it’s not restricted to just a physics or engineering department. We all have in common these tools of working with light, studying light, lasers and optics.

In our research lab, we design novel laser systems and develop techniques to study phenomena that broadly deal with the interaction of light and matter and have real-world applications. Some experiments investigate how we can use laser light to study the detailed composition of solid materials, such as a rock or mineral — for example, determining what materials it is composed of and even the isotopic ratios of its atomic constituents, and whether or not it is naturally occurring. We’re also developing a novel laser system for a next-generation atomic clock. Right now, the GPS system that we all utilize relies on atomic clocks on satellites. And since about 2000, researchers have developed ways to improve these clocks, but the technology has yet to catch up to implement it in aircraft or satellites.

Being the first one to see something or to verify that something behaves differently than people thought is what drives a lot of researchers at the cutting edge. You want to be the first one to test and tell the world about a finding. That’s a huge motivation, whether it’s a small or big discovery. Sometimes it’s very technical and minor but still exciting. Sometimes it’s bigger. Those are the events that motivate us.

David Hahn

David Hahn | Craig M. Berge Dean of the College of Engineering

Our commitment to excellence at the College of Engineering comes down to three significant groups of people: our students, our faculty and our staff members. They are all a key part of our success and growth as a college. I use the Craig M. Berge deanship to support all three of these groups.

Ultimately, we’d like to double undergraduate class admissions, and it’s a big task. One particular opportunity that we identified is the recruitment of community college transfer students, who often miss some of the first-year financial aid opportunities. We’ve been able to use some of the endowment funds to facilitate community college transfer student scholarships, and that’s huge, because that is truly filling a niche.

I also use the deanship to fund “Dean’s Fellows” in our faculty. And that provides cash resources to faculty members to allow them to expand their research enterprise so they can focus on new seed ideas before they could go out and attract external funding, or to travel to professional conferences, or to support their undergraduate student researchers. It’s giving them discretionary funds and recognizing their excellence. The whole idea of endowed chairs and endowed professorships is really to put those resources in the hands of our outstanding faculty.

Faculty chairs are multifaceted in their benefits; they help me retain faculty by recognizing excellence. And when we recognize that excellence, that builds more loyalty for that person to want to stay here and succeed. And we’re also investing in success: When we award an endowed chair to an outstanding young professor, they can use those proceeds to get even better, to take an idea that they might have and start exploring it without waiting for the grant to show up. It’s a real return on that investment in keeping great faculty and recruiting great faculty.

It’s a tough recruiting market. Engineering schools around the country are ramping up, and the competition for really strong talent is as high as I’ve seen it in my career. Having the resources that come to the chair holder, and in my case the deanship, is huge right now. Discretionary dollars are also hard to come by these days. So having the ability to be nimble, to invest strategically as initiatives and opportunities arise, is huge to us. When I see opportunity, I can move quickly and start that effort. I think the beauty of endowed chairs is that ability for the chair holder to be able to move on opportunities and fund them. It’s really instrumental.


To date, Wildcats have raised a total of $155 million to support faculty during the Fuel Wonder campaign. This support has helped us create 90 new endowed positions to recruit and retain the University of Arizona’s very best faculty and staff.

Jennifer Barton

Jennifer Barton | Thomas R. Brown Distinguished Chair in Biomedical Engineering

I’m an engineer. I look for problems and create solutions to them. I was very fortunate to have a physician collaborator, Molly Brewer, who came to me one day and said, “You know how to build tools that can detect cancer. You have to help me.” Her challenge was that ovarian cancer patients usually come when the cancer is considered late stage. At that point, you go, you do surgery, and then you start chemotherapy. You can usually knock the disease down, but what frequently happens is you get almost all the cancer, and unfortunately, part is missed.

I felt a bit like a failure at first for not being able to come up with a solution to this problem. But things change. You must come back and readdress difficulties and see the problem at hand with a fresh perspective and new technology and skills. Sometimes, problems that were intractable 10 years ago aren’t today.

My work uses advanced optical imaging techniques for early cancer detection. If you catch cancer when it’s confined to its earliest stage, then it oftentimes has a 90% cure rate. However, if it advances to the point where there’s metastases, then that probability of five-year survival may go down to less than 25%. I’m particularly interested in ovarian cancer, and right now, ovarian cancer is almost always caught late.

We are designing tiny endoscopes, less than a millimeter in diameter, that can go through the uterus into the fallopian tubes and look around, with advanced optical modalities that are very sensitive, and detect if there’s anything abnormal or wrong. It’s very rewarding work. It’s dealing with a huge problem for which there is no solution today. It’s not only exciting for me to develop solutions to this problem but also for the students who work on it in my lab and feel just as passionate.

The Brown endowment has been transformative to my work. The first and perhaps most obvious reason is that it does give seed funds for new projects. Most federal agencies will award you grants once you’ve proven that you can do the work. The amount of preliminary data you need to have in order to be successful is significant, which means somehow or another, you’ve got to figure out how you do those initial experiments.

My home department of biomedical engineering has been incredibly supportive, and I love the direction that Dean David Hahn is taking the College of Engineering. I love that here, if you have a great idea, you’re generally told, “Pursue it.” The University of Arizona is a supportive, welcoming and wonderful place to work. Having this endowed chair has been an important part of letting me take the fullest advantage of the great situation I’m in.

I want to make sure that no woman dies of ovarian cancer. That’s the goal. It’s audacious. And I don’t even know how realistic that goal is, but I’m going to do the best that I can to make sure that we can catch cancer early and when it’s treatable. I’m going to do as much as I can.

‘I understand the importance of endowments, especially endowed chairs, which is why Czarina and I have established a number of them at the University of Arizona, one in the UA Sarver Heart Center and one in the Dhaliwal-Reidy School of Accountancy at the Eller College of Management. Most recently, we’ve established a new program at Eller that is very exciting to us, and it includes endowed chairs and an endowed professorship. Another highlight for us, though, is that this past year was when we established the Iovanna C. Lopez Endowed Deanship in the College of Medicine – Tucson, named in honor of our daughter. She has made us incredibly proud, and we named the chair to share with her, and our family, Czarina’s and my philanthropic spirit. We are excited by the leadership brought to the university by Dean Mike Abecassis, and we are confident in his vision for the college. At the end of the day, those that hold the chairs we’ve named are important to us, and this is our way of supporting their work.’

 - Humberto Lopez ’69 The H.S. Lopez Family Foundation