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Devoted to UT: Engineer Leaves Largest Bequest Ever to Physics

Olga Ovchinnikova

Without a three-month stipend from the James W. McConnell Physics Excellence Endowment, Olga Ovchinnikova would not have graduated in May with her doctorate in physics. The funds allowed her to take maternity leave with her daughter, Elizabeth Jesse, who is now 2, and stay on track to complete her studies. She is continuing her postdoctoral work at Oak Ridge National Laboratory where she is part of the organic and biological mass spectrometry group.
PHOTO: Steven Bridges

By Chandra Harris-McCray

The road to earning her doctorate in physics and giving birth to her first child was made easier for Olga Ovchinnikova with a three-month stipend for maternity leave.

Without the support from the James W. McConnell Physics Excellence Endowment, Ovchinnikova would not have graduated in May. "I would have been a semester behind," she said. "It made all the difference for me and my family."

"It is a transformative difference" that is hard to adequately put into words for Soren Sorensen, the head of the UT Department of Physics and Astronomy.

James W. McConnell established the endowment with a $25,000 gift, and after his death in 2008, he supplemented this contribution by leaving a generous bequest for $1.4 million—the largest gift the physics department has ever received. McConnell, who received his bachelor's and master's degrees in electrical engineering from UT, also established an identical fund in the College of Engineering.

With a chuckle of disbelief, Sorensen said, "Let's just say this—there is a distinct difference to the physics department before this gift and after this gift."

McConnell's legacy will be experienced a thousand times over through scholarships, fellowships, faculty support, and research efforts. Sorensen said, "His gift allows us to continue to be visionary and enhance the department's academic mission.

"We are now creating a planetarium to strengthen our educational and outreach efforts partly based on the McConnell endowment. We will also be able to establish a distinguished professorship which will be very important for our research efforts."

While Sorensen never had the privilege of meeting McConnell, he remains extremely grateful by his act of kindness. "He was an engineering graduate, not a physics graduate, but that did not matter to him because he understood the importance of scientists and engineers collaborating."

This concept was something McConnell not only understood, but also experienced as a neutron scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory for more than 35 years.

The seeds he helped plant at ORNL continue to grow as the University of Tennessee partners with ORNL on a number of efforts, including the UTK/ORNL Distinguished Graduate Fellowship program.

This innovative interdisciplinary doctoral program in energy science and engineering give budding scientists, like Ovchinnikova, a rare opportunity to complete their research at ORNL.

"ORNL is a dream come true for any researcher because you have access to the best scientists in the world," she says.

As part of the organic and biological mass spectrometry group, Ovchinnikova will continue her postdoctoral work at ORNL, where her father is a theoretical atomic physicist and also a UT research professor. Her husband, Stephen Jesse, also works at ORNL as a materials scientist.

"I applaud McConnell and others like him who give so students have more opportunities to succeed. It matters," she says. "When I was an undergraduate physics student at UT, there were hardly any scholarships available. That has changed."

"He is the ultimate Torchbearer," said Sorensen, referring to the highest student award UT bestows.

With no desire to receive any recognition or adulation for his gifts to UT, McConnell "shadowed himself to give light to others"—forever.

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A charitable bequest is one or two sentences in your will or living trust that leave to The University Of Tennessee a specific item, an amount of money, a gift contingent upon certain events or a percentage of your estate.

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