Couple endows astrophysics chair to 'give back' to UI


UI officials honored a young couple on Nov. 5 who, after making it big in the high-tech world of computer software, has given the UI $1.25 million as a way to say thanks for helping them get their start.

Brand and Monica Fortner of Columbia, Md., have endowed an academic chair in theoretical astrophysics on the UI campus. The gift was announced at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology in Urbana during a luncheon honoring the couple and their three children.

Brand Fortner, 40, who earned three UI degrees -- including bachelor's and master's degrees in physics in 1977 and 1982, as well as a doctorate in physics in 1993 -- is the founder, chairman and chief executive officer of Fortner Research LLC in Sterling, Va. Fortner Research is the leading provider of powerful but easy-to-use software that allows scientists and engineers to analyze masses of raw data through computer visualization.

One of the most recognized and respected figures in the visualization field, Fortner said the endowment was his and his wife's way of giving back to the UI. He also co-founded Spyglass, Inc., the highly successful Naperville, Ill., company that develops commercial software for the Internet.

"We all have a responsibility to give something back: to help the poor, to protect the environment, and so on," he said. "This gift is just our contribution."

Monica Fortner, who earned a UI master's degree in computer science in 1987 and worked as a programmer for the former Computer-Based Education Resource Laboratory (CERL) on the UI campus, said she and her husband have distinct reasons for endowing a chair at Illinois.

"The first is simple: The two companies that Brand founded benefited tremendously from Illinois-developed technology," she said. "It is only fitting that the university should see some return on the investment."

The Fortners also said they simply want to contribute to the accumulation of knowledge of the universe.

"This search for knowledge is one of the most important things that we do as a species," Brand Fortner said. "We can contribute to this search in different ways. Some contribute by becoming scientists. Our way of contributing is through this gift, which benefits my chosen field of astrophysics, and through our company, which supplies tools to scientists worldwide."

Monica Fortner, who now works as a technical writer at Fortner Research, said both she and her husband hope their actions impact the world at large as well as the scientific community.

"Our fondest hope is that our endeavors will make a difference in the advancement of science," she said. "That's all that any of us can ask."

The Brand and Monica Fortner Endowed Chair in Theoretical Astrophysics will foster teaching and research in theoretical astrophysics in the department of physics in the UI College of Engineering, according to Dean William Schowalter. The Fortner Chair also will support post doctoral fellowships and graduate research assistantships, as well as fostering the chairholder's research activities.

Schowalter said the endowment's emphasis on fundamental science is especially appropriate for a university like Illinois.

"The Fortner gift is especially timely because it emphasizes the core value of a research university: teaching through the acquisition of fundamental knowledge," he said. "This chair will permit the University of Illinois to consolidate and sharpen its considerable strengths in theoretical astrophysics in ways that will ensure Urbana's position as a leader in this field."

The Fortner Chair also will strengthen a proposal to establish a center for theoretical astrophysics at the UI, noted Schowalter.

He also said that the Fortner Chair is part of a new initiative that will enhance teaching and research in astrophysics on the Urbana campus, stimulating interaction and collaboration among researchers from three campus units: the College of Engineering's department of physics, the College of Liberal Arts and Science's department of astronomy and the UI's National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA).

"We expect this initiative to attract outstanding faculty and important new resources to the Urbana campus," he said.

Michael Aiken, chancellor of the Urbana campus, said the Fortners' gift will inspire the UI's most gifted faculty.

"Endowed chairs are becoming an increasingly important way for us to honor and compensate some of our most outstanding faculty members," he said. "I am very pleased that the Fortners decided to show their appreciation for the education they received at Illinois in this generous way."

In addition to co-founding Spyglass, Inc., and starting Fortner Research, Brand Fortner also designed the computer data format used by the Earth Observing System, part of NASA's Mission to Planet Earth -- an $8 billion, 15-year project to monitor long-term global environmental change. He also previously served as manager of applications software for the UI's NCSA.

Named by Discover magazine as one of the Top 38 Technological Innovators of 1991, Fortner also has written several books and articles. Fortner served as one of the featured speakers at the first Higgerson forum on Entrepreneurship Through Engineering, held Oct. 31 in Urbana. The Forum was made possible by a gift from Judy and Cliff Higgerson of Palo Alto, Calif.

The Fortner gift adds to the current $1 billion fund drive, Campaign Illinois, administered by the UI Foundation. As of Sept. 30, 1996, the effort has recorded $710 million in gifts and pledges. The campaign is scheduled to conclude at year-end 1998.

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Comments to: Inside Illinois Editor Doris Dahl, (217) 333-2895, d-dahl2@illinois.edu

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