A Chance to Excel

Two cadets sit in altitude chamber, one taking notes, while the other sits with mask over nose and mouth.

Cadets conduct studies in the altitude chamber, which simulates the effect of the low oxygen found at high altitudes. The purchase of the chamber was made possible through a Jackson-Hope Grant.—VMI Photos by Kelly Nye.

Established over 20 years ago to encourage and sustain educational excellence and innovation, the Jackson-Hope Fund is a prominent example of visionary generosity directed toward the Institute.

As the 1990s ended and the 21st century was about to dawn, the VMI Alumni Agencies began planning a major capital campaign. Reveille: A Call to Excel would go on to raise $207 million, and, as part of that campaign, a group of alumni led by George C. Philips Jr. ’60 and Lt. Gen. Josiah Bunting III ’63, then-superintendent, pondered how best to strengthen the Institute’s already rigorous academic program. Picking up on a trend in higher education that donors often like to help steward their funds, the Jackson-Hope Fund came into existence.

Part donor advised fund and part venture capital fund, the Jackson-Hope Fund has attracted gifts of more than $50 million since its inception and has supported a host of initiatives, all oriented toward cadet success and faculty development. The Jackson-Hope Board of Overseers, composed primarily of alumni, oversees the distribution of grants from the fund each year.

Thanks to the Jackson-Hope Fund, cadet support services such as Mathematics Education Resource Center and the VMI Center for Undergraduate Research first came into being, along with key programming at the Center for Leadership and Ethics, which advances the understanding, practice, and integration of leadership and character development at the Institute.

For cadets, the Jackson-Hope Fund is a vital source of support for independent research projects and travel off post, both to present at conferences and to conduct research in places such as the National Archives, presidential libraries, and more.

“VCUR relies heavily on Jackson-Hope as well as other donations to private support,” noted Col. Scott Frein, Ph.D., director of VCUR.

For approximately two decades, that funding has supplied a stipend for select cadets who’ve chosen to stay in Lexington during the summer months and participate in the Summer Undergraduate Research Institute. SURI, which drew approximately 30 cadets in summer 2021, enables cadets to conduct research under the guidance of a faculty mentor. Information gleaned during summer research often becomes the start of a cadet’s Institute Honors thesis.

The five- to 10-week summer sessions are times of challenge, learning, and growth, many times helping cadets to realize that they are far more capable than they’d thought.

“I never thought I’d be able to write like that,” commented Cadet Noah Cady ’23, a psychology major who worked with Maj. Jillian Stuart, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology, last summer to explore how Twitter messages influence individuals’ decisions about receiving a COVID-19 vaccine. As a culmination of his project, Cady wrote a 50-page paper—the longest he’d written in his life.

Before that, Cady had never had an independent research experience. As a high schooler, he’d concentrated on football more than academics, and he’d never thought of himself as particularly academically inclined.

SURI changed that. Cady pushed past challenges, such as learning APA style for a paper, and he wrestled with IBM SPSS Statistics, which is software used for statistical analysis of data. He turned in drafts of his papers, got them back covered with red ink, and turned them back in for another round of editing.

“Research is really building a product,” he noted. “You have to do things very detailed and do them correctly to come up with a paper at the end.”

Now, Cady is pondering his career options, with an eye toward public health, and considering graduate school.

“It was a huge eye-opener to see that this is what I’d be doing in grad school,” Cady stated.

The ability to stay on post was a blessing, as well, as Cady roomed in barracks and used the psychology department’s computer lab. “Being in an academic environment is nice for doing academic work,” he said.

“Coming to VMI, I honestly didn’t know much about the academic side of things, especially with the biology and exercise science department, but it’s definitely been a blessing. It’s definitely opened my eyes and it’s been awesome to really fulfill and reach my potential because of all the tools that I’ve been given.”

Cadet Andrew Broecker ’22, biology major and exercise science minor

Over the past few years, SURI projects have spanned the gamut from studying why women get involved in terrorist cells to determining what factors help migrants to Europe integrate well into their new homes. In the science labs, cadets have undertaken projects relating to sustainable fuels under the guidance of Lt. Col. Dan Harrison ’05, Ph.D., associate professor of chemistry, and studied the effects of early environmental exposures on rat brains with mentorship from Maj. Molly Kent, Ph.D., assistant professor of biology.

Sometimes, a SURI cadet uses their Jackson-Hope funding to venture far afield—much farther afield than anyone might imagine. In the summer of 2019, Cameron McNeil ’20 traveled to Zimbabwe, formerly known as Rhodesia, to interview veterans of that nation’s civil war in preparation for writing his Institute Honors thesis, “A Zimbabwean Society Forged by War.”

The next spring, McNeil was the recipient of the Wilbur S. Hinman Jr. ’26 Research Award in the arts and humanities, which recognizes superior research performance by cadets. In his nomination of McNeil, Col. Mark F. Wilkinson, Ph.D., then-head of the history department, noted that McNeil was “operating at the graduate student level, not the undergraduate,” having already given multiple presentations at conferences aimed at professional historians and scholars of African studies.

A sub-program of SURI, the Applied and Industrial Mathematics program, also runs in the summer under the guidance of Col. John A. David, Ph.D., professor of applied mathematics. Cadets in the AIM program use their mathematical and data analysis skills to help solve a real-world problem for an area business or nonprofit agency, and their work culminates with both an oral presentation and a written report to leaders of that organization.

Of course, independent research is not confined to the summer months, nor is funding.

Each April, many cadets present their research at the Undergraduate Research Symposium. At the URS, cadets present posters showing research highlights while interested faculty members and fellow cadets walk by and ask questions. This year, there were approximately 75 cadet presenters from a wide variety of academic disciplines.

And one VMI invention with Jackson-Hope funding is on the cusp of being commercialized. The tick rover, which was developed by Col. Jim Squire, Ph.D., professor of electrical engineering, and Col. Jay Sullivan, Ph.D., professor of mechanical engineering, is now in the process of being brought to market. The device, which was invented to slow the spread of Lyme disease and other parasitic illnesses, is a robot that combs through grass, picks up ticks, and kills them. Over the past 15 years, dozens of cadets have contributed to the tick rover’s success, taking part in everything from conceptual planning to field testing to fine-tuning the device’s ability to stay within set boundaries.

One cadet runs on treadmill in altitude chamber, while four other cadets observe.

This past fall, another Jackson-Hope-funded project got underway in the lab of Maj. Dan Baur, Ph.D., assistant professor of physical education. Baur, who teaches courses for the exercise science minor, used a Jackson-Hope grant to purchase an altitude chamber, which simulates the effect of the low oxygen found at high altitudes. He’s now using it in his military physiology course to study the effects of carrying heavy loads, as soldiers often do, at high altitudes.

Getting nearly $100,000 of funding for the equipment to carry out such an initiative is “nearly unheard of” at a school as small as VMI, Baur noted. “If you need equipment in a given year, we can almost certainly get it. … We’re providing cadets with something that’s unique, maybe, in the country.”

Cadet Andrew Broecker ’22, a biology major and exercise science minor, took Baur’s exercise physiology course in the fall and has been working with Baur in the lab this spring. What’s more, he’s experienced the altitude chamber firsthand.

“It’s pretty brutal,” he commented, “but it’s definitely interesting to see how the altitude affects your body and how you adapt to it.”

Broecker is commissioning into the Army, but he hopes to pursue his interests in physiology by attending graduate school down the road, and he’s currently working on an Institute Honors thesis measuring internal versus external motivation to stay on a pullup bar.

Earlier in his cadetship, Broecker did a SURI project with Col. Anne Alerding, Ph.D., professor of biology, learning about what factors influence the growth of soybeans. In less than four years, he’s done things he couldn’t have imagined when he was graduating from high school in his native Indiana.

“Coming to VMI, I honestly didn’t know much about the academic side of things, especially with the biology and exercise science department, but it’s definitely been a blessing. It’s definitely opened my eyes and it’s been awesome to really fulfill and reach my potential because of all the tools that I’ve been given.”

On a broader scale, cadets from a wide variety of academic disciplines regularly travel to conferences such as the Southern Conference Undergraduate Research Forum to present their research to a wider audience and learn from peers. In fall 2021, 11 cadets and two faculty members made the trip to Spartanburg, South Carolina, to present at SURF.

Jackson-Hope funding is also a boon to the Institute’s faculty members. Jackson-Hope New Direction and Research Grants allow faculty to purchase equipment, redesign curricula, and keep up with cutting-edge research within their disciplines. Today, the fund provides more than 75% of the funds that the Institute commits to faculty development.

Thanks to the fund’s support, VMI faculty have developed e-textbooks for cadet use, studied the potential use of lasers for broadband signaling, and established a structures testing laboratory in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, among many other endeavors.

In addition to this, the Jackson-Hope Fund supports five chaired faculty positions, one in each of the Institute’s five divisions: Humanities, social sciences, life sciences, natural sciences, and engineering. The funds that would otherwise be spent on those faculty members’ salaries are reallocated across the entire faculty, providing a salary boost that would otherwise not be possible. Thanks to Jackson-Hope funding and other private support, approximately 16% of each faculty member’s salary now comes from private funds.

“For the VMI academic program, the Jackson-Hope Fund is truly transformational,” said Brig. Gen. Robert “Bob” Moreschi, Ph.D., deputy superintendent for academics and dean of the faculty. “From chaired faculty positions to faculty and cadet development, in 20-plus years, the Fund has provided more than $20 million in total academic support. Without the vision and generosity of alumni and friends, academics at VMI would simply not be able to maintain its level of excellence, year in and year out.”

  • Mary Price

    Mary Price Development Writer/Communications Specialist

    The development writer plays a key role in producing advancement communications. This role imagines, creates, and produces a variety of written communication to inspire donors to make gifts benefiting VMI. Utilizing journalistic features and storytelling, the development writer will produce content for areas such as Annual Giving, stewardship, and gift planning.