Investing in innovation, education, creativity, and interdisciplinary research
By Joel Brown
Forget about the numbers. Think about their impact. As the Campaign for Boston University concludes, donations large and small, from more than 175,000 people, top $1.85 billion, almost double the original target of $1 billion when the fundraising effort launched in 2012. Because of the campaign’s success, the University has been able to widen its margin of excellence—erecting new buildings, creating new interdisciplinary research efforts, remaking entire schools, and boosting financial aid with the goal of increasing student diversity and access to a world-class education.
At the heart of the Charles River Campus, once gritty Commonwealth Avenue is now a mile-long boulevard of innovation, education, and creativity, home to the Rajen Kilachand Center for Integrated Life Sciences & Engineering, the BUild Lab IDG Capital Student Innovation Center, the new quarters for the Howard Thurman Center for Common Ground, the striking, glass-front Joan & Edgar Booth Theatre, and coming soon, the cutting-edge Center for Computing & Data Sciences.
But beyond steel, glass, and concrete, the campaign’s most widespread and profound impact has been on the people who make up the BU community, from the professors with newly endowed chairs to the student entrepreneurs who will change the world with support from Innovate@BU, a $20 million, 10-year initiative headquartered at the BUild Lab IDG Capital Student Innovation Center. The campaign will reroute the lives of first-generation and underserved minority students through new or expanded scholarships and grants, as well as the thousands of donors whose commitment to support those programs has strengthened their bonds to the University in rewarding ways.
“How do you become a leading research university, how do you hire the great faculty, how do you give access to highly qualified students, how do you undertake the big initiatives?” asks Robert A. Brown, University president. “That’s where philanthropy really matters.”
Trustee Rajen Kilachand (Questrom’74, Hon.’14), the University’s most generous donor, pledged a record $115 million for the life sciences and engineering center, $25 million to establish Kilachand Honors College, and $10 million for renovations to Kilachand Hall, at 91 Bay State Road. Trustee Allen Questrom (Questrom’64, Hon.’15) and his wife, Kelli Questrom (Hon.’15), gave $50 million, which renamed the School of Management as the Questrom School of Business. Frederick S. Pardee (Questrom’54,’54, Hon.’06) gave two separate gifts of $25 million to the global studies school that bears his name.
The generosity of our donors has not only made it possible for us to renew and improve our campus, but to magnify the impact of the University on the world through the work of our students and faculty.” – President Robert A. Brown
The campaign has done more than alter the physical landscape, expand research, increase named professorships, and grow student financial aid, says Board of Trustees chair Kenneth Feld (Questrom’70), who chaired the campaign. “It has changed the culture by showing the alumni and the Boston University community that their support of and investment in the University makes a real difference. That has instilled a sense of pride in being involved with Boston University that bodes well for the future of the institution.”
BU’s donor base is wider and younger than ever, with more than 100 alums contributing to the Century Challenge, in which BU matches distributions from each new endowed undergraduate scholarship of $100,000 or greater for 100 years. Many of those were first-time or younger donors who gave because they themselves had been first-generation college students or had received financial aid, and they saw the campaign as a way to pay it forward.
Among the many gifts from trustee Richard D. Cohen (CGS’67, Questrom’69) was one targeted to Pell Grant recipients that became part of a full-fledged University effort on those students’ behalf, including an expanded scholarship assurance program. Now, remarkably, nearly one in five domestic students at BU is eligible for a Pell Grant, increasing economic diversity among undergraduates by allowing many to graduate without debt.
Donors have given generously to expand the faculty as well, endowing 58 chairs for faculty members who are leaders in their research and teaching fields. Their gifts also recognize junior educators with career development professorships, such as the Peter Paul Career Development Professorship, made possible through the support of BU trustee Peter Paul (Questrom’71), and the Moorman-Simon Interdisciplinary Career Development Professorship, funded by a gift from trustee Ruth Moorman (CAS’88, Wheelock’89,’09) and her husband, Sheldon Simon.
“The generosity of our donors has not only made it possible for us to renew and improve our campus,” says Brown, “but to magnify the impact of the University on the world through the work of our students and faculty.”
AS A HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT in Houston, Chinwe Oparaji knew exactly where she wanted her career to go. She’d won a scholarship for a summer program in graphic design—she was passionate about the subject—at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. “It proved to me that I was good at it,” she says. She was good at computer science, too, so when it came time to look for colleges, she was determined to combine her two interests.
But there was a catch: she needed a full scholarship. “I knew that if I hadn’t gotten a full ride, the financial responsibility for my parents—it was just not possible,” says Oparaji (CAS, CFA), now a BU junior. “It was, literally, all or nothing for me.” Her backup plan? Serve in the military for four years to pay for college.
I think I’m in a good environment to reach my potential, because everyone else is out there having fun but also doing cool things. So, I’m inspired.” – Chinwe Oparaji
She never needed the backup plan. BU offered Oparaji a Richard D. Cohen Scholarship, awarded to students with exceptional financial need and outstanding academic achievement and promise. The scholarship, she says, “meant I was going to college. It was very liberating.”
In her first two years at BU, she has juggled her class load—she’s studying both graphic design and computer science—and extracurriculars. During the last academic year and this past summer, she was an intern at the Boston start-up Armored Things, doing graphic design with the marketing department and web development with the technical team.
She’s joined BostonHacks, the hackathon started at the University in 2015, and helped launch its rebrand; she heads its four-member graphic design team. She also creates stationery—cards, stickers, and pins—and established an art shop, the Smile Market, on Etsy. She is starting a nonprofit by the same name “to renew the importance of handmade craftsmanship through a body of young, diverse artists.”
Even with all of that on her plate, Oparaji says she’s determined to do things she’s never done before. “I don’t think I would have pushed to get an internship this early if it weren’t for my close set of friends, who were also looking for internships as sophomores. I have to push myself. I have to be on the same level. I think I’m in a good environment to reach my potential, because everyone else is out there having fun but also doing cool things. So, I’m inspired.” – Cindy Buccini
Megan Cole is ready to see the United States treat quality healthcare as a right—not something that depends on insurance status, income, race, geography, or employment. Cole, a School of Public Health assistant professor of health law, policy, and management, studies healthcare coverage for Medicaid and safety-net populations. She is particularly interested in how state and federal healthcare reforms affect care quality, access, and equity for the 27 million low-income and medically underserved people who seek primary care services from community health centers across the United States.
“In a rapidly changing health policy landscape, providing timely and robust evidence on how policies and health reform efforts affect patients, especially the most vulnerable, is really critical,” she says.
Cole, awarded a Peter Paul Career Development Professorship in 2018, says it will allow her to better focus on this quickly changing policy landscape by providing more time and funding to conduct analysis, write, and present findings.
Most recently, Cole evaluated the impact of state Medicaid expansion on insurance coverage, quality of care, and service use for community health center patients; she also studied the impact on patients in urban and rural areas. She found that expanding Medicaid led to more people gaining insurance, improvements in quality of care, and an increased number of people having doctor visits for primary care services. In rural areas, she observed improvements in asthma treatment and hypertension control and an increase in most types of doctor visits, especially for mammograms, abnormal breast findings, and substance use treatments.
On the flip side, Cole says, repealing Medicaid expansion, or restricting eligibility through policies like work requirements, could reverse these gains. Rural areas, she says, “stand to disproportionately benefit from expanding Medicaid eligibility.” – Jessica Colarossi
Corporate philanthropy may appear like a win-win-win. Say a senator volunteers for charities. Corporate foundations give to those charities, which in turn help those in need. It sounds straightforward enough. But corporate philanthropy is not as straightforward—or as philanthropic—as it might seem, says College of Arts & Sciences economist Raymond Fisman.
In a 2019 study, Fisman, along with three colleagues, investigated the business-oriented motivations of philanthropic foundations established by companies. They looked specifically at Fortune 500 and S&P 500 corporations and discovered that their foundations have been donating to politicians’ pet charities.
This is one channel, one hidden channel, by which companies influence politicians. Making these things transparent can be a big, big step in the right direction.” – Raymond Fisman
“Our analysis suggests that firms deploy their charitable foundations as a form of tax-exempt influence seeking,” the researchers write; they estimate that “16.1 percent of total US corporate charitable giving can be interpreted as politically motivated…. Given the lack of formal electoral or regulatory disclosure requirements, charitable giving may be a form of political influence that goes mostly undetected by voters and shareholders, and which is directly subsidized by taxpayers.” In effect, corporations have been spending money, tax free, to influence politicians—and we had no idea.
“This is one channel, one hidden channel, by which companies influence politicians,” says Fisman, the Slater Family Professor in Behavioral Economics (the study of how human factors influence economic decision-making). “Making these things transparent can be a big, big step in the right direction.”
The professorship has provided Fisman with a research budget, which “created this fantastic cushion, such that I have to worry much less about how to make ends meet from a research perspective,” he says. “It frees my mind and energy to focus on other things.” – Michael S. Goldberg and Lara Ehrlich
Ahmed Ghappour’s first career, as a computer engineer, involved searching for vulnerabilities in supercomputer chips—and what he found was unsettling. “I learned that everything is broken,” he says. “There is no practical way to build bug-free software or hardware.”
When Ghappour transitioned to law—he’s now a School of Law associate professor—he saw something broken in the criminal justice system. “I was surprised to learn the low level of scrutiny afforded to information produced by highly complex and error-prone software,” he says of the many forms of digital data that legal proceedings could hinge on. “Attorneys, witnesses, and even judges often lacked access to critical information about software that was used to generate ‘facts.’” In other words, the legal system isn’t equipped to deal with a networked world that demands a nuanced understanding of increasingly technical crimes, and the computational tools that are used to solve them.
Ghappour, a data science faculty fellow at the Rafik B. Hariri Institute for Computing and Computational Science & Engineering, researches the challenges modern technology poses to security and criminal justice. “This computational era renders many of our existing conceptions of power, process, and privacy obsolete,” he says. For instance, if a case hinges on the transmission of sensitive data, does sending a URL that leads to that information qualify? What if investigators use malware to remotely access evidence stored on a defendant’s computer, or if proprietary DNA software identifies a defendant by performing calculations beyond the realm of human cognition—should that defendant’s access to the software’s code be protected by law enforcement privilege or trade secrets? And if so, can it still be said that the defendant had their day in court?
Ghappour hopes his work will help bring about institutional reforms for our digital age. “This doesn’t mean we should stop relying on computers for information. But we should be aware of the risks we bring upon ourselves when relying on them,” he says, and calibrate our existing legal protections to the realities of modern fact-finding. – Marc Chalufour
When University trustee Richard C. Shipley was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2014, he found that the treatment offered to most men was, in his words, “from the Dark Ages.” After searching out more “humane and high-tech” approaches to secure his own health, he gave $10.5 million to the School of Medicine to establish the Shipley Prostate Cancer Research Center on the Medical Campus as well as a website offering information about treatment options.
“I was frustrated with how little useful information there was on the web regarding newer technologies for both diagnosing and treating prostate cancer,” says Shipley (Questrom’68,’72). “It was kind of like, ‘Go to your urologist, check your brain at the reception desk, submit to a painful, invasive blind biopsy, and a few weeks later, walk out of the hospital with no prostate.’ It’s Neanderthal.
“Noninvasive, more accurate imaging technologies were available on the diagnosis side, and there were other, newer technologies available on the treatment side,” he says. “So, short term, I wanted to get the word out, and longer term, support research on the treatment side.”
The website is up and running, and the center’s research is underway. The Shipley prostate biobank has been collecting tissues for research, and faculty have obtained grant funding (from the National Cancer Institute, the Department of Defense, and the American Cancer Society) to determine the reasons for differences in survival outcomes, reduce overtreatment and overdiagnosis, and identify new treatments. The site and the center make up a one-two punch intended to offer “Help for today’s patients” and “Hope for tomorrow’s breakthroughs,” according to the website.
Philanthropist Shipley is the founder of the private equity firm Shiprock Capital. In 2013, he gave $4 million to fund the Beverly A. Brown Professorship for the Improvement of Urban Health in 2013, named for the director of development, industry, at the School of Public Health, who is also the wife of BU President Robert A. Brown. He is a supporter of the Questrom School of Business Undergraduate Fund.
“Why BU? The primary driver and the consistent thread in all the gifts is a sense of community. But more than that, too,” he says, “BU has great leadership producing results—rankings, endowment, caliber of students, faculty, and the like. I feel a part of it, along with our other trustees. There is a bond among all of us to do what we can to support the University. And that bond extends to the University leadership as well. All of us are proud to be part of a winning team, and don’t want to let each other down…. BU is a wonderful place with great people, which is a magnet if you have a curious mind. I have learned a lot here.” – Joel Brown
As the daughter of immigrants from a small town in Fujian, China, Shu Yi Shi had to be more independent than other children her age.
“My parents worked long hours,” says Shi (CAS, Sargent), a junior who grew up in Honolulu, “so I had to learn English, do homework, and take care of myself on my own. In addition to independence, I had to learn how to translate English to Mandarin for my parents.”
Shi, who has two younger sisters and is the first in her family to attend college, continues to challenge herself. A human physiology major, she plans to attend medical school after graduating—the culmination of a lifelong interest in health sciences.
“I love learning about how each cell makes up each tissue, how each tissue makes up each organ, and how each organ system comes into play with one another,” she says. The support she’s received from the Rob and Cynthia Birmingham Scholarship Fund has reduced her financial load and allowed her to focus on her academics “rather than worrying so much about paying for tuition.”
“I love my experience at BU,” says Shi, the treasurer of BU’s Hawaii Cultural Association and a member of Alpha Phi Omega, a coed service fraternity. “I have learned to step out of my comfort zone and make new friends that seem completely different from my friends at home.”
She says her parents initially had doubts about her ambitions. “Most of my family comes from a minimally educated background,” Shi says. “But now that they have seen my hard work and motivation, they are more confident, and proud of my achievements.” – Cindy Buccini
The thousands of South Sudanese refugees in the Ayilo I Settlement Camp in northern Uganda have fled war, but they still have to fight for survival: for food, for sanitation, for medical care. In July 2019, senior Mohammad Ahsan Fuzail (ENG) and 15 other students traveled to the east African country to study its humanitarian crisis—and help generate solutions. They were part of BU’s Program in Interdisciplinary Humanitarian Engineering & Refugee Studies, a three-week travel opportunity mixing classes with field visits to refugee camps. The program is funded, in part, by Jim Rullo (Questrom’81) and his wife, Eileen Rullo.
In Uganda, Ahsan Fuzail and his group focused on slashing a camp healthcare clinic’s four-hour wait time. They came up with a new triage system and better health education for residents.
“They’re putting boots on the ground and giving students opportunities to make a difference in real-life settings,” says Jim.
Before you graduate, you get this extraordinary opportunity to see the reality of solving a problem and the team effort of solving a problem.” – Eileen Rullo
As well as fueling the program’s expansion—from an initial site in Lebanon—the Rullos’ contributions help cover participants’ expenses, allowing students to travel regardless of need.
“Before you even graduate, you’re getting this extraordinary opportunity to see the reality of solving a problem—and the team effort of solving a problem,” says Eileen.
After each trip, the Rullos, who were both first-generation college students, speak with program participants about their experiences and projects. They find it inspiring. “The students we’ve met are not only smart,” Jim says, “they’re hardworking, and they’ve really got their priorities set.”
Ahsan Fuzail says he would not have been able to make the trip without the Rullos’ contributions. “I am eternally grateful to every single person who made my participation in this program possible,” he says, “and look forward to doing whatever I can to ensure others can experience the same.”
Because of their own backgrounds, much of the Rullos’ philanthropic work is focused on helping young people with unmet financial needs. They’ve also joined BU’s Century Challenge, supporting a scholarship for undergraduate students in financial need, with a preference for those studying at Kilachand Honors College. “It’s giving an opportunity to a student who might otherwise miss out,” says Eileen. – Andrew Thurston
Portia Pedro may look like she’s from another era, with her retro eyeglasses and fondness for vintage hats. But her legal research? It’s cutting-edge.
A School of Law associate professor, Pedro is researching the use of nationwide injunctions—the strategy of pushing back against executive and legislative mandates, such as the Trump administration’s immigration orders, a hot-button political issue, in the federal courts.
Pedro says eliminating this public law remedy would transform the relationship among the branches of government and politicize the judicial branch. She argues that people and organizations should be able to challenge executive branch policies they view as unconstitutional or illegal in the courts. “So far, nobody has said that and built a scholarly argument out of it,” she says. “Maybe when I flesh out my argument, everyone will agree with me.”
Fleshing out that argument is ambitious work, made possible by a Peter Paul Career Development Professorship, which she received in 2018. Pedro says the funds help her travel to conferences, like a recent one at Notre Dame University, where she got insights from top legal scholars that will help her hone her ideas. “It was mind-blowingly generative” for her scholarship, she says.
The funds also enabled her to host a May workshop at BU for legal scholars to discuss how the structure of court procedures reinforces differences by race, gender, sexual orientation, and disability. Those insights will help her edit a book on the subject with workshop participants and write one of the chapters herself. “Without the support of my dean and the Peter Paul funds, there is no way a first-year law professor would be able to do this,” Pedro says. “I can get feedback from scholars and from different institutions, and also see what they’re doing at the same time. It’s extremely helpful.” – Megan Woolhouse
In 2014, Alex Gitungano was 25 and living in the war-torn African nation of Burundi when missionaries came to him with an almost unthinkable request: Would he accompany a little boy to America? Leo Ikoribitangaza had suffered horrific facial burns in a cooking fire when he was two, and because he was at risk of infection, he desperately needed life-saving surgeries that American doctors would perform free. Today, the lives of both Leo, now nine years old, and Alex are forever changed—and eternally entwined. Gitungano (SPH’19) has been by Leo’s side for more than a dozen surgeries.
After Leo started kindergarten, Gitungano decided to work toward a degree in counseling. BU’s School of Public Health accepted him as a visiting student in fall 2016, with the caveat that if he did well in the classes, he would be formally accepted into the program. When the time came, 44 of his classmates gave him a boost, submitting a letter to admissions on his behalf. “If public health is about translation,” they wrote, “Alex is a natural student and teacher: from language to language, from country to country, from culture to culture, from science to practice. We urgently need to learn from peers with these skills and experiences if we are to be effective practitioners, both domestically and abroad. A world-class university needs world-class students.”
Alex cried when he read the letter. He was accepted, and focused on program management and global health. His tuition was covered by two scholarships. The first, the school’s Emerging Leaders program, recognizes academic achievement and public health potential, and it is part of the school’s intention to increase student diversity. The second was the Lamstein Family/JSI Scholarship. Its benefactor, Joel Lamstein, an SPH adjunct associate professor of global health who serves on the school’s advisory board, founded the public health consultancy John Snow, Inc. (JSI), which applies management concepts to public sector issues.
Gitungano says their impact was immeasurable: “I have so much on my plate—Leo’s everyday and medical needs, paying for housing—it’s so much on me. Adding fees and tuition to that would be too much. So, having the scholarships helped me not worry about the tuition, and instead focus on my education and provide the care that Leo needs.”
At the 2019 SPH Convocation, he and Leo, holding hands, walked across the stage in matching scarlet robes, and earned a standing ovation. Gitungano recently accepted a job as a planning and program implementation manager at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Health and Human Services. He’s also appealing the US Citizenship and Immigration Services’ decision denying his request for asylum (Leo has a green card). “God has been generous to us,” Gitungano says. “Now I need to get on my feet.” – Amy Laskowski
Charlene Ong is on a mission to improve how doctors, like herself, detect life-threatening brain swelling that can occur after a head injury or stroke.
“I feel like I’m always working toward improving the lives of my sick patients, whether I’m in the ICU or doing research,” says Ong, a School of Medicine assistant professor of neurology and a neurocritical care physician at Boston Medical Center. Ong is working to create personalized health assessments for high-risk patients using both meticulously collected data and a variety of machine-learning tools. She came to BU in July 2018, and that fall, she was awarded a Peter Paul Career Development Professorship.
“I love the fact that my research interests perfectly align with my clinical work—I aim to develop tools that can be immediately applicable in the clinical setting,” Ong says.
After suffering a catastrophic brain injury, a person can experience secondary swelling or bleeding that causes pressure on other parts of the brain. Swelling can be unpredictable and result in further damage of adjacent brain structures. Ong investigates whether bedside devices like a pupillometer, which automatically measures and records the size of a patient’s pupil, can identify subtle pupil changes that signal increased swelling earlier than standard of care. She also studies whether artificial intelligence–based systems that incorporate large amounts of patient data can help physicians better stratify risks for individual patients.
Ong says the professorship provides the support that “young, inquisitive faculty desperately need in order to develop their research program and transition to other sources of funding. It is a signal to the BU community that our work is meaningful and worthy of attention. I am very grateful for the opportunities it has provided me.” – Jessica Colarossi
When Springfield, Mass., native Javier Rivera transferred to BU as a junior in fall 2016, he was searching for “more research opportunities, course options, student diversity, and an overall more rigorous academic program.” He found all of that, and in 2018 he graduated with a degree in psychology, with highest honors, and a minor in special education.
The more courses he took at BU, the more he wanted to go into school psychology and work with children. In 2017, he landed a summer internship teaching at a private school for students with autism. “This internship introduced me to the fields of applied behavior analysis, a behavioral psychology approach to educating students with disabilities, and special education,” says Rivera (CAS’18, Wheelock’20).
He enjoyed the internship so much that he completed a special education minor in the two semesters of his senior year. Faculty members encouraged him to apply to Wheelock’s Master of Education in Special Education program with a concentration in severe disabilities. But Rivera wasn’t sure he could afford graduate school—until he learned he would be awarded the Susan H. Lek Scholarship and the George and Catherine Anderson Scholarship. Now in his second year of the program, Rivera hopes to teach in a Boston-area district. “My scholarships—in tandem with working for Residence Life—did so much more than make graduate school possible,” Rivera says. “They have allowed me to take advantage of opportunities like conducting research, serving as a teaching assistant, and being on the Graduate Student Association executive board. I was afforded these opportunities because I didn’t need to worry about finances as much. My graduate school experience would not be as transformative as it has been if it weren’t for these scholarships.” – Mara Sassoon
For Victor Kumar, these are interesting times. The College of Arts & Sciences assistant professor of philosophy studies the evolution of ethics and morality and he’s particularly interested in the ways they’re impacted by tribalism—family, religious, political, or other. “This is another way of talking about the information bubbles that we live in—and the way that people on the left and the right only trust other people within their tribe,” he says. “It’s a bad year for the rest of the world—but a good year for science and ethics.”
Kumar’s approach to these big questions crosses many disciplines. “It’s really hard to tackle any of these problems with one particular scientific field, so I try to triangulate different sources of evidence,” he says. By surveying psychology, sociology, economics, and other fields, Kumar tries to better understand how, for instance, antigay sentiment has shifted. “It’s one of the most significant cases of moral progress in my lifetime,” he says. “Within a decade or two, things have totally flipped.”
His theory? Many straight people realized they knew someone within their tribe who is gay, forcing a reevaluation of their own beliefs. “People can feel more empathy for in-group members,” he says.
Kumar, who arrived at CAS in 2017, was one of five recipients of a Peter Paul Career Development Professorship in 2018—an honor that’s helped advance his work on several fronts. As director of BU’s Mind and Morality Lab, he’s created an interdisciplinary talk series and he now hosts a conference each semester that brings leading scientists and ethicists together. And with the help of a new research assistant, he’s begun studying whether considering a social category such as sexual orientation as innate versus chosen impacts people’s attitudes about injustice or harm suffered by people in that group.
Kumar is also cowriting a book, called A Better Ape, which examines the evolution of morality. With support from the professorship, he was able to invite guests from other universities to discuss the manuscript, and the project is now months ahead of schedule, with the goal to publish it in late 2020. That’s allowed him to start thinking about his next book. “One subject that I’ve toyed with is the evolution of sexism and gender,” he says. “I think this is the natural next project for me.” – Marc Chalufour
Sharon Ryan thinks it’s important that students have a place where they can feed their souls as well as their minds. The Howard Thurman Center for Common Ground is such a place, says Ryan (Sargent’70), a member of the BU Board of Trustees. She and her husband, Robert Ryan, retired CFO and senior vice president of Medtronic, Inc., have made the lead gift toward the center’s expansion and relocation, from being tucked away inside the George Sherman Union to the prominent corner building at 808 Commonwealth Avenue.
“We did that because we see what’s happening in the country now, where people don’t understand one another,” says Ryan, a retired occupational therapist and former chair of the trustees’ student affairs committee (2003–2009). “The Thurman Center is a place for students to go to figure out who they are, who they can become, who others are around them, and how we all fit together.”
“We were really doing it more from the standpoint of what will happen to our grandchildren,” says Ryan, who has two children and three grandchildren. “I would hate to see them grow up in a world where they don’t understand people who don’t look like them.”
The Thurman Center is a place for students to go to figure out who they are, who they can become, who others are around them, and how we all fit together.” – Sharon Ryan
With her husband, Ryan has been a major supporter of University building projects, including the Yawkey Center for Student Services, the Ryan Center for Sports Medicine & Rehabilitation, and the 1999 Marsh Plaza restoration. The Ryans also provide a scholarship for students at the Wheelock College of Education & Human Development. The scholarship reflects their gratitude for BU’s role in helping make their daughter, Lesley Ryan Miller (CGS’94, Wheelock’96), into the committed educator she is, says Ryan. In 2018, Miller, a former teacher and administrator, was named principal of the John Pierce School, a public elementary school in Brookline, Mass.
“I think BU pulled out the best in her and gave her the tools she needed to be the kind of person, and teacher, she is,” says her mother.
The couple’s gifts to BU are also a way of expressing their shared belief in the power of education to transform lives, she says. Ryan’s father, who was a pharmacist, went to college, but her husband was the first in his family to graduate from college. “I think it’s important for us, as African Americans—and we’ve been successful—to give back,” she says. – Sara Rimer
In order to afford BU, Molly McCombe worked a number of jobs and took out some loans. But it was not until she received a full academic scholarship, she says, that the University became within reach.
Whoever funded that scholarship made a smart investment: not only has McCombe (Questrom’87) risen to be managing director and chief of business operations at Citigroup’s Citi Retail Services, she is also paying her scholarship forward, supporting a Questrom School of Business scholarship for other promising—but financially strapped—women aiming for a career in finance.
McCombe says she and her husband, TJ Callahan, chose to focus their philanthropic giving on Questrom because they value education—her mother was a teacher—and to ensure their donations have an immediate and lasting impact. “I work hard for my money; I don’t part with it lightly,” says McCombe, whose scholarship is part of the Century Challenge, meaning BU will match, dollar-for-dollar, the fund’s payouts for 100 years. “For me it doesn’t feel good just to write a check and it goes into a black hole. And I was a finance major, so I want to see a return on my investment.”
I had a great experience at BU; I made wonderful friends, and it started me off on a great professional career. If I can help re-create that experience with someone else at BU, that feels really good.” – Molly McCombe
Since starting to give to BU in a serious way in 2012, McCombe has also backed faculty research and career exploration funds. She’s been surprised at how personal some of the returns have been, particularly when she meets the students who tell her they could come to BU only with her support.
“I had a great experience at BU; I made wonderful friends, and it started me off on a great professional career,” she says. “If I can help re-create that experience with someone else at BU, that feels really good.”
McCombe has also donated her time and expertise to Questrom. She’s spoken to marketing classes, delivered a Convocation address, and helped shape the school’s future as part of its Dean’s Advisory Board, all professional firsts.
“BU saw something in me when I was a 16- or 17-year-old applying that I didn’t necessarily see in myself,” says McCombe. “And 30 years later, BU is continuing to see opportunities for me to grow and develop—and that is very rewarding.” – Andrew Thurston
In the United States, black women are 40 percent more likely to die of breast cancer than white women. School of Medicine epidemiologist Kimberly Bertrand wants to know why.
While the overall incidence of breast cancer in black women and white women is approximately equal, black women tend to be diagnosed at a younger age, and are more at risk for estrogen receptor negative breast cancer, an aggressive subtype. Bertrand (SPH’05), the Dahod Breast Cancer Assistant Professor of Medicine, is working to identify the risk factors for black women so they can be modified or reduced. She hopes her current research on breast density will yield answers. In a four-year grant through the National Institutes of Health, Bertrand is tracking down the relationship between high mammographic breast density and breast tumor subtypes in black women. Previous research has established that women with higher mammographic breast density have a higher risk of developing breast cancer later in life—but the majority of these studies looked at populations of European ancestry. Bertrand’s research, which is based in the long-standing Black Women’s Health Study, is one of only a few studies focused on black women.
“The biological mechanism by which breast density impacts breast cancer risk is really not known,” she says. Combining mammographic density as a predictor with other established breast cancer risk factors—family history, age, reproductive health—could improve risk assessment for black women, Bertrand says, “so they can make informed decisions about their health.” They may decide to have more frequent breast cancer screenings, for example.
Bertrand says it can be a challenge for an early-career faculty member to “get research off the ground.” The professorship, established by BU trustee Shamim Dahod (CGS’76, CAS’78, MED’87) and her husband, Ashraf Dahod, “relieved me of funding pressure so that I can focus on the research that is critical for this population.” – Lara Ehrlich