Cavalier Autonomous Racing Team leaves their mark

The Cavalier Autonomous Racing Team with their car
Photo Credit: UVA Engineering/Chris Tyree

In late October, the Cavalier Autonomous Racing team competed in the Indy Autonomous Challenge at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The team finished as the fastest all-American self-driving car, reaching speeds of 120 mph.

Faculty advisor Madhur Behl received a $50,000 Trust grant in 2020 to help establish the Cavalier Autonomous Racing Club. The team worked for more than a year to develop, test, and modify their car and software to be race-ready. Despite COVID delays, the team continued to innovate, remained positive, and worked diligently to create a winning car. We’re thrilled to see their progress and the impact they’ve made, and we’re excited for the future!

Grants in the News

Ziyuan Wang
Third-year physics and psychology major, Ziyuan Wang, works on an apparatus to observe the behaviors of superfluid helium droplets. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Many grant projects have been busy this fall by continuing their work, conducting research, and hosting events. Their efforts have drawn attention from news outlets in Charlottesville, in Virginia, and beyond.

A 2021 annual grant recipient, the Fralin Museum’s “Skyscraper Gothic” exhibit was featured in the Wall Street Journal and is open through December 31, 2021.

In September, the UVA Student Veteran Center opened in Newcomb Hall, receiving coverage from UVA Today, Cavalier Daily, NBC29 News and CBS19 News. The Trust awarded an annual grant in 2019 to the Student Veteran’s Support Initiative, which helped fund their new center.

A student partnership with the Lake Traverse Reservation in South Dakota received an annual grant in 2018. With continued support, the team has experienced consistent growth and expanded impact of their work, as featured in UVA Today.

The Architecture of The Green Book: A Digital Database received a flash grant in February 2021. This UVA Today article highlights the team’s motivation behind the work, their progress and next steps.

nanoSTAR Summer Program for Entrepreneurial Nanoscale Engineering received an annual grant in 2020. The project was delayed due to COVID, but this UVA Today article provides a great overview of some of the work and research that started this summer.

“Words on Paper, Write Climate” received an annual grant in 2018. While funding from the Trust finished a year ago, they’re still partnering around the community, as shown on NBC29 News.

We are thrilled to see the hard work of our grantees and impact of their projects highlighted!

Jenn & John Nisi: Committed to Innovation

Jenn and John Nisi met as engineering students at UVA in the mid-90’s. A lot has changed in nearly three decades since they met; they both accepted roles at Microsoft, they got married and moved to NYC and later moved to the Hudson Valley, they’re raising three amazing kids, and they own two very scruffy, but lovable, bird dogs. But a few key things have remained steady for the Nisi’s: they’re both still working for Microsoft; they’re committed to excellence in technical innovation; they’re firm believers that technology, when used appropriately, can help solve the world’s problems; and they’re unflagging in their efforts to keep the human experience at the center of technology.

Jenn and John Nisi at the RotundaBoth Jenn and John studied systems engineering at UVA, graduating in 1998. Each has spent over 20 years at Microsoft – and they’re still going. Jenn leads the Industry Solutions team for Business Applications for the Microsoft North, South and Central American region, and John leads the Data & AI Intelligent Cloud group for Microsoft United States. In the digital revolution we’re experiencing — where every company is now becoming a “tech” company — the words “applications” and “cloud” are leading the way, and Jenn and John are at the forefront.

When they’re not working from their home offices, they’re spending time with their kids, exploring the beauty of the Hudson Valley, and investing in people and ideas that will create the next big thing. Both Jenn and John invest in early-stage seed startups as well as established technology funds, and new businesses in the Hudson Valley area. This technical, business and entrepreneurship expertise lends itself well to the Trust, and the Trust staff was eager to hear their perspective about the industry’s future, their vision, and how it impacts UVA.

What led you to join Microsoft?

John: After I graduated from UVA, I knew two things for certain. The first is that I loved systems engineering and solving complex problems, and the other is that I didn’t want to be a software engineer. When I was approached by Microsoft, I thought it was just a software development company, but I went to the interview and I quickly learned that Microsoft had a professional services function that was entirely committed to working with customers to understand and provide solutions for their complex technical challenges and needs. I was hooked from that moment and energized by the idea of working with teams to solve complex problems and to move technical innovation forward. For context, Jenn and I had been dating throughout college and all her job offers were in the DC area, so I let Microsoft know I was looking for roles in the DC area rather than the New York City area. When they found out that Jenn had a systems engineering degree, they asked me to make a connection.

Jenn: I also didn’t see myself as an engineer. John came home raving about his experience, and it was a noticeable change from how he felt when he first left for the interview. I wasn’t super interested initially but I took an interview anyway and what struck me was their willingness to take bets on people with potential. They didn’t have a university hiring program at the time, but when I interviewed, I could tell that they were willing to take a chance on me and they weren’t bound by process. It was a company of excellence and rigor, but there was a human aspect that set them apart.

What’s the biggest or most exciting period of change you’ve experienced in Microsoft?

Jenn: For me, it was when the cloud launched. We talk about the cloud so much now that it seems ingrained in all that we do, but when the cloud launched at Microsoft you could feel the energy in the company — we truly were all-in on the cloud and we know that what we were doing was going to change the world. We had to shift our value proposition with our customers, which is no small task, and it was incredible watching as a huge and established company made a giant pivot from being the “Windows” company to being a cloud company.

John: For me, it’s the advancement of artificial intelligence both generally in the world of technology but also at Microsoft as we’ve worked to be on the leading edge of AI and AI ethics. The advancement of intelligence driven from software has been incredible to watch over the last 20+ years because we now have the ability to capture and store huge amounts of data that we never dreamed we would encounter. Even as recently as 20 years ago we didn’t know we would see this rate of data increase. Not only that, but the fact that we can create statistical models to analyze the data and predict outcomes, and the compute power to do something about it — it’s been incredible to watch and I’m grateful that I’ve had a front row seat.

What are you most excited about for the future of tech?

Jenn: The thing that gets me most excited about technology is that its role in our world is changing. It used to be that technology was something we interacted with at certain times, but that’s changed as we see technology being integrated into all that we do. For example, schools used to have a dedicated computer lab, and this was the only time students would interact with the computer. Now, computers and technology are integrated into the way those students learn. There is no hard barrier between life and technology anymore as they become more integrated.

We’re seeing this in smart appliances, smart prosthetics and even in our hobbies. I’m an avid gardener and my garden brings me tremendous joy. I’ve installed a smart system that considers the temperature, rain conditions, previous water cycles, etc., and it waters the garden when it’s needed based on those factors, rather than me having to remember to water the plants or hire someone to do that when I’m out of town. It’s made something that I love even better.

John: For me, I’m excited to see more advancement in education, sustainability and equity. Those are three topics that really energize me. Narrowing it down to the topic of sustainability, there are infinite ways that technology can advance the cause of sustainability. Every discipline of engineering needs to come together to help solve problems that we haven’t tackled or solved for the planet. The combination of human intuition and quantum computers can make a difference as we tackle challenges related to climate change and urban sprawl.

Today it seems like we’re solving problems that solve a bottom line, which is certainly important in every industry. But the world’s problems don’t exist only in businesses where there’s a revenue target, and we need a targeted approach to solve the problems that the world is encountering, and that approach should involve a diverse set of human perspectives and voices, and technology that can help identify trends, make predictions, and solve some of these problems. Quantum computing can expedite this once it becomes a commodity. That’s what gets me energized for the future of tech.

How can UVA and the Trust advance this future in technology, innovation, and entrepreneurship?

Jenn: I think UVA is doing a great job of advancing the future of both technology and the community by investing in innovative ideas. There are so many amazing ideas out there that drive innovation through community development programs, new technologies, startup ideas and more. The Jefferson Trust has made it clear that their vision is to allow great ideas to come to fruition, and to help ensure that those ideas are getting the visibility needed for advancement and maximum impact. Investment in great ideas is critical and it empowers people from all backgrounds to further change that benefits the world at large.

John: One thing that has made me proud as the School of Data Science is created at UVA is that it’s being talked about as “the school without walls.” Data science is so important in each and every industry, and therefore in each and every major at the University. With the school of data science, UVA is showing their commitment to building and strengthening connections between data science and technology and the business, engineering, policy, and law schools, among others. The continued focus on that goal will help leaders of all kinds at UVA get a jump start out in the world because they’ll know the power that data science can bring to help their company meet its goals, solve problems or scale for impact.

Annual Grant Cycle Updated & Open!

We fund great ideas. To apply, start with a Letter of Inquiry.

The Jefferson Trust Annual Cycle application is open for the 2021-22 academic year, and we’ve streamlined our process! We have implemented a two-step application to help grant seekers refine their project and opportunity for funding. Applicants must now complete a short Letter of Inquiry (LOI), which will be reviewed to determine if their proposal moves forward to the full application. Letters of Inquiry will be reviewed on a rolling basis, with notifications made within two weeks of LOI submission. In addition, the full application has been revised and simplified.

Timeline of New Process:

  1. Now – LOI forms are currently available in the grant portal and may be submitted any time prior to October 1!
  2. October 1, 2021 – Last day to submit a LOI. LOIs submitted after 10/1 will NOT be eligible to apply.
  3. October 25, 2021 – Full applications due for approved LOIs
  4. January 28, 2022 – Some applicants will be asked to meet with the board to provide more information.
  5. Early February 2022 – Funding status notifications sent to applicants.

The spring Flash Funding cycles will not be impacted by the LOI change and will be conducted with the simplified one-step application document. We encourage you to plan ahead, register to participate in our upcoming Grants Information Session, or contact Amy, Director of Grants & Oversight, with questions.

Light at the End of Tunnel

Astronomical constellations digitally projected onto the interior dome of the Rotunda. This project was funded by the Jefferson Trust.

This time last year we had no idea what the future would hold. Everyone on Grounds and across the Country was masked, and markets were stagnant, but we were “alone together.” We were walking into a tunnel not knowing where it would lead but knowing we had to move forward.

There were rays of light along the way. In the Trust’s 15th year, we hit records in proposal funding requests of $4,063,323 and grant funding of $1,112,157. The University of Virginia Investment Management Company posted phenomenal returns leading to dramatic endowment growth. Zoom proficiency made Trustees halfway around the world seem as close as colleagues in Charlottesville.

As the tunnel’s end grows brighter, the path forward is clear and full of optimism.

The Trust welcomes a new Chair, Sharon Owlett (Law ’75), and Vice Chair, Alex Arriaga (Col ’87). Both are in their second Trustee terms and have a deep understanding of the organization and what lies ahead.

“The future of The Jefferson Trust is all about impact,” says Sharon.

“Every idea we fund is designed to change lives, from student-led projects to University-wide initiatives. The strength of our endowment and the dedication of our Trustees and staff, past and present, have given us the foundation not only to fund innovation, but to fund it first.

“We want all of the creative, exciting minds we have here at UVA to have only one thought: Let’s take this to the Trust.”

A new annual grants process will help bring those new ideas to fruition. The Trustees have implemented a letter of inquiry (LOI) system to help grant-seekers develop the best proposals possible, which we hope will increase the yield of proposals receiving funding as well as allowing funding at larger amounts. This development will be supported by an increased annual cycle funding amount of $1.25 million.

As students, faculty and staff return to Grounds, the Trust is ready to help chart the next path for UVA.

Grant Projects in the News

A small autonomous car built by the Cavalier Autonomous Racing Club

Many grant projects are working over the summer, and their efforts have been highlighted in news outlets!

The Cavalier Autonomous Racing Club is testing, training, and preparing to race at the Indy Autonomous Challenge in October. To take a look behind the scenes and follow their journey, visit the School of Engineering and Applied Science’s YouTube page.

UVA’s School of Architecture arctic exhibition has opened at the Venice Biennale; the team received a Trust flash grant in 2020.

Trust funding is supporting UVA’s partnership and work in the “Green Book” digital project, which received a flash grant in 2021.

UVA Edge, a 2021 annual grant recipient from the School of Continuing and Professional Studies, has recently launched a partnership with Univision to provide employees access to higher education workforce development.

Teachers in the Movement received a Trust grant in 2014 as they began capturing early oral histories from educators who taught between 1950 and 1980 throughout the South. They’ve launched a podcast featuring the voices and stories of those teachers.

The Buzz about Infrastructure

Infrastructure. It’s becoming a bit of a buzz word, but what does it actually mean? According to the Oxford dictionary, it comprises “the basic physical and organizational structures and facilities (e.g. buildings, roads, power supplies) needed for the operation of a society or enterprise.” So infrastructure is…everything!

Will PikeWill Pike (Engr ’16) serves as a regional vice president at Pike Corporation, which is described as “a leading provider of turnkey infrastructure solutions for electric and gas utilities, as well as telecommunications companies.” So, what does “infrastructure” mean today and what does the future hold? The Trust Staff asked Will Pike to find out.

Jefferson Trust: What’s happening in infrastructure?

Will Pike: Infrastructure has certainly been a big conversation topic nationally, and events such as Winter Storm Uri in Texas last February and President Biden’s legislative agenda have brought critical infrastructure even more into the spotlight. Our company actively serves hundreds of utilities and cooperatives across the nation, and I can say, without question, this is the most exciting time to be in our space. The levels of investment in grid modernization and hardening coupled with a focus on technological innovation are unprecedented. These opportunities do not come without their challenges though. Our industry faces an aging skilled workforce and must continuously seek new ways to attract and develop the talent of tomorrow.

Jefferson Trust: What does the future of our electric grid look like?

Will Pike: We will continue to see technology as the driving force for not only the operation and resiliency of the grid, but also more broadly in the context of how work is performed and how critical infrastructure personnel collaborate in real time across complex systems and large geographies. With my engineering background, I’m particularly excited by the opportunities for software and data science innovation. These two areas will be critical to empowering people to accomplish more with the tools they have at their disposal and developing more data-driven approaches to skills assessment and development, which will help to compress the overall training curve for future infrastructure workers.

Jefferson Trust: Is renewable energy a big driver?

Will Pike: The landscape of energy generation changed over the last decade with greater focus on distributed energy resources, such as wind, solar and battery storage. We have been heavily involved with solar projects as well as battery storage, which we see as a critical part of the future grid. The combination of smart grid technology and storage resources, such as large-scale battery storage, will better equip utilities to manage peak demand scenarios as well as provide sustainable reliability and resiliency improvements. We are also following the advancement of electric vehicles very closely and see considerable opportunity in the buildout of charging infrastructure and the possibility to leverage EVs as distributed energy resources.

Jefferson Trust: What role does/can UVA play in this space?

Will Pike: I think the University is extraordinarily well-positioned to be a catalyst for infrastructure advancement given its extensive depth across disciplines, access to industry leaders and policymakers, and highly respected national reputation. Students at the University are also fortunate to have such a strong and diverse alumni network, which is an incredible resource for anyone interested in pursuing careers or launching entrepreneurial ventures related to infrastructure.

Jefferson Trust awards $109,800 in flash grants

This spring, the Jefferson Trust has awarded $109,800 to 14 flash grants through three funding cycles, making this the most successful flash-funding process yet. A majority of grants are focused on the student experience, at all levels.

Unlike the Jefferson Trust’s annual grants, its flash grants are capped at $10,000 per project, and are awarded monthly beginning in January.

“It is clear that the University community is working hard to make a positive impact on students of all ages. Flash grants affect local toddlers, high school students, and, of course, UVA students at all levels. The trustees are pleased to be able to support so many high-quality proposals,” shares Grants Administrator, Amy Bonner.

The 2021 Flash grants:

Girls Who Code at UVA—Raspberry Pi and Arduino Workshops: $7,700

Girls Who Code (GWC) provides a gender-inclusive community for anyone interested in coding, at all levels of experience. The workshops provide hands-on experiences with Arduino and Raspberry Pi via remote learning.

2020: Extraordinary Moments: $7,131

“2020: Extraordinary Moments” will showcase a documentary featuring interviews from 100 UVA students and a magazine featuring writing and art submissions from the UVA community. The project will dive deeply into the year 2020 from the perspective of the UVA community, focusing on the positive moments that made the year special.

Hands-On History: the Letters of a Civil War Chaplain: $10,000

This student-led project is collaborating with both the Nau Center for Civil War History and the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities in engaging a team of undergraduate researchers in the digitization, transcription, and curation of private letters written by the Rev. John W. Alvord, a Civil War Army Chaplain and Freedmen’s Bureau Superintendent of Schools and Finance.

Virginia Medical Review: $1,400

The Virginia Medical Review will provide an online platform for the publication of scientific and medical articles written by student contributors, with a goal of creating professional and academic articles that remain accessible to all with an engaging, plain-language voice.

Starting Off on the Right Foot: Outfitting the 10th & Page Montessori Lab School: $10,000

The Toddler’s House of 10th & Page is a joint initiative of the psychology department’s Montessori Science Program (MSP), the UVA Equity Center, and community partners Pilgrim Baptist Church and City of Promise. The Toddler’s House will offer high-quality, evidence-based childcare in the Montessori tradition for low-income children in the neighborhood, fulfilling an urgent need in the community. It will also provide a demonstration and research site for UVA faculty and students investigating the principles and characteristics of evidence-based early-childhood learning and its potential for multi-generational, transformative impact within under-resourced communities.

i+DEAL: Interactive + Digital Electronic Arts Lab: $1,927.96

Technological skills are vital in a world where production, consumption, and interaction are increasingly shifting toward the digital realm. This initiative focuses on introducing high school students to STEM concepts through a remote, hands-on creative experience involving arts and crafts, circuits, and musical experimentation.

COVID-19 Pandemic Education and Support: Children’s Book Collection: $8,739

This project builds and catalogs a children’s book collection of 119 titles that can be used in the classroom, in counseling settings, and at home, to address issues of loss, trauma, and anxiety due to the pandemic. In addition to the core collection, this project will develop community partnerships with local school districts to host drive-thru book fairs open and free to all in targeted communities with low vaccination rates.

Teaching Writing and Anti-Racism in the ENWR 1510 Classroom Project: $6,200

A group of faculty and graduate students from UVA’s Writing and Rhetoric Program will produce a syllabus for an ENWR 1510 course that focuses on Thomas Jefferson, UVA, Charlottesville, and their relationships to colonization, slavery, and white supremacy. The immediate goal is to encourage and support instructors who wish to teach such a course, with a broader goal of widespread adoption of a course that would build student awareness of racial inequity.

The College Scoop Textbook Loaner Library: $10,000

This library will be operated by The College Scoop’s executive leadership and will serve as an alternative to purchasing expensive textbooks every semester.

Extending Jefferson’s Vision on Leadership: Learning How To Discuss Race and Racism Through Humility: $9,189

With the COVID-19 pandemic, tragic events of August 11-12, 2017, and police violence against Black Americans as the backdrop, the current moment presents a cultural shift that moves discussions of race and racial inequalities to front and center. Although the public’s appetite for these discussions is fervent, very few people know how to broach these conversations in an effective manner, particularly across racial boundaries. This project seeks to teach UVA students strategies to reframe anxiety surrounding these conversations as an opportunity to learn. As a result, we hope this instruction will help create humble, thoughtful, and courageous leaders who will be both motivated and better equipped to directly address issues of race and racial inequity.

The Architecture of The Green Book: a Digital Database: $10,000

The Negro Motorist’s Green Book, made famous by the 2018 movie, was an essential print resource for African American families who wished to travel by car from 1936 to 1966. With listings of safe harbors in unfamiliar towns and organized first by state and then locality, The Green Book offers an extraordinary window into the landscapes of racism and resistance across mid-century America. By 2026, this project seeks to recruit scholars from all 50 states—many of them graduates of our own Department of Architectural History—to document all of the surviving buildings and sites across America, making them available to the public on a single, searchable online platform.

Book Arts Fellowship: $9,600

A new Book Arts Fellowship, within the Virginia Center for the Book program, expands on the role of an intern in duration and scope, with hands-on learning experiences of printing and papermaking, a hallmark of book arts. This will create a unique, year-long academic leadership experience for two undergraduate UVA students interested in arts administration, public relations, project management, and community engagement.

Ultracold Multipurpose Molecular Manipulation and Imaging Laboratory for Undergraduate Research: $8,310

Construction of an undergraduate-led multipurpose laboratory for experimental molecular science will allow collaborative interdisciplinary research, spanning several subfields of physics and chemistry. Over the next five years, undergraduates working with the setup will gain valuable experience with cryostats and advanced optical technologies including lasers for imaging and ablation.

Time Tables: Leveraging Our Material Past Toward Shared Futures: $9,605

A team of students, with faculty support and oversight, will make meaningful use of a series of logs from a 125-year-old Poplar tree that was taken down near the Alderman Library. A single large table from a slab of this wood will be crafted and installed in the outdoor classroom of Campbell Hall in August, while the remainder of the heritage wood will be milled and preserved for use in future pieces.

Starting Off on the Right Foot: Outfitting the 10th & Page Montessori Lab School

Montessori classroom

Research indicates that a child’s engagement with a specially prepared educational environment and the materials within it can increase the child’s focus, concentration, executive function, sense of positivity and wellbeing about school. Montessori classrooms are among the best at creating this nurturing environment.

Montessori classrooms are distinctive for their aesthetic beauty, their use of furniture and materials made from natural materials (such as wood and glass), and the abundance of artifacts of nature and beauty, like houseplants and art or cultural objects. This opportunity, however, often comes with higher set-up costs than traditional pre-schools.

The Toddler’s House of 10th & Page Montessori Lab School received a $10,000 Jefferson Trust flash grant in January 2021 to offer high-quality, evidence-based childcare in the Montessori format for low-income neighborhood children. Trust funding is helping in the purchase and setup of learning materials and supplies. Director of Operations of the Montessori Science Program, Corey Borgman shares “We have already put Jefferson Trust money to work! We have started a little pilot program and families that have visited the classroom have been blown away by the beauty of the environment and the quality of the materials, all of which were purchased with JT investment.”

The project is a joint initiative of the UVA Psychology department’s Montessori Science Program (MSP), the UVA Equity Center, and community partners Pilgrim Baptist Church and City of Promise. The school is prioritizing children between the ages of 16 months and 3 years who reside within a tri-neighborhood service footprint (Westhaven, 10th & Page and Starr Hill) and whose families have financial need.

“Our driving purpose is to counteract the multi-generational effects of systemic racism and chronic underinvestment in low-income and minoritized communities. Our primary strategy in that work is to leverage the evidence-based power of high-quality Montessori early-childhood education,” Corey says.

Scheduled to open in September, the lab school expands UVA into the community, extending UVA resources and making research and teaching an experiential process. As a research and demonstration site for UVA students and faculty, the school has the potential to adapt to and showcase how the Montessori model can work within under-resourced and minoritized communities.

Grant Cycle Process Change: Important news for grant-seekers

We fund great ideas from students, faculty, and staff

The Jefferson Trust is implementing a two-step application process for the annual grant cycle, beginning with the 2021-22 cycle, available now. Applicants must now complete a short Letter of Inquiry (LOI), which will be reviewed to determine if their proposal moves forward to the full application. Letters of Inquiry will be reviewed on a rolling basis, with notifications made within two weeks of LOI submission.

Timeline of New Process:

  1. April 15, 2021:  LOI forms are available in the grant portal.
  2. October 1, 2021:  Last day to submit a LOI. LOIs submitted after 10/1 will NOT be eligible to apply.
  3. October 25, 2021:  Full applications due for approved LOIs
  4. January 28, 2022:  Some applicants will be asked to meet with the board to provide more information.
  5. Early February 2022:  Funding status notifications sent to applicants.

The spring Flash Funding cycles will not be impacted by this change and will be conducted with the existing one-step application process. We encourage you to plan ahead and to visit our page with information for grant-seekers or contact Amy, our Grants Administrator, with questions.