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magazine home > archives > fall 2005 > features

Corporate donations — such as a recent $5 million gift from FedEx — are expanding innovative research opportunities at the U of M's FedEx Institute of Technology.

Delivering Success

Five million is a lot of money — it might buy a few hundred Hummers, a couple of houses in the Hamptons or a small jetliner or two. At the FedEx Institute of Technology, it might buy one carrot, but what a powerful carrot it could turn out to be.

  Joyner in Japan

FedEx Corp.'s recent $5 million gift to the U of M will allow administrators at the University of Memphis FedEx Institute of Technology to attract "some of the best international researchers" to the University, thus boosting innovation in the region.

When FedEx donated $5 million in late August to the institute that bears its name, it armed administrators with money that will be used to recruit what institute official Eric Mathews calls "rock star" researchers to the U of M.

"We wanted a 'carrot' that would help us bring in some of the best international researchers to join the great team we already have at the FedEx Institute of Technology," says Mathews, interim
associate director of the facility.

A large portion of the gift — to be given in annual $1 million installments over five years — will provide capital that will enable the University to offer leading innovators the opportunity to expand their research by moving to the FedEx Institute. Administrators will actively recruit internationally recognized research talent, which will boost innovation in the Mid-South while offering University students the chance to work at the forefront of technology development.

"At FedEx, innovation fuels our vision of the future," says Robert B. Carter, executive vice president and CIO of FedEx Corp. "Our continued support of the FedEx Institute of Technology is an extension of both our vision and culture, and we look forward to the continued development of new ideas that help provide solutions for the real world and improve the communities where we live and work."

The gift will support such initiatives as the institute's Vision Speakers Series. It will provide a residency program for innovators, artists and CEOs and lend support to a variety of programs, including corporate and executive education, conferences, special initiatives for honors and graduate programs and the FedEx Center for Supply Chain Management.

"Gifts such as this one will further our mission of becoming a major urban research institute," says U of M President Shirley C. Raines. "FedEx has already been a major contributor to the institute, and this is an endorsement that they are pleased with the work that is going on there."

Researchers at the institute, located on campus near the corner of Central and Patterson, study artificial intelligence, multimedia design, nanotechnology, biotechnology and other emerging fields.

One of the most visible areas of research at the institute has been artificial intelligence. Dr. Art Graesser, chair of psychology, and Dr. Stan Franklin, professor of mathematical sciences, have spent several years developing artificial intelligence-software systems, such as AutoTutor. This program is a conversational software package that allows students to interact in a tutorial-type exchange with a robot or an animated face on a computer screen, resulting in one of the best tutorial systems in existence. This past summer, U of M doctoral student Andrew Olney won first place in the freestyle robot competition at the 20th annual National Conference of Artificial Intelligence using the artificial intelligence software and hardware. Olney won in the open interaction division for his work in developing the software for the Philip K. Dick robot — software that enables the robot to hear, interpret and respond to individuals speaking to it.

FedEx has long been a major supporter of U of M researchers. Mid-South residents as well as communities worldwide have benefited from this support, according to Gary Patterson, director of information services for the Center for Earthquake Research and Information (CERI).

After the 7.7 magnitude earthquake in India in 2001, CERI was invited by the Indian government to monitor aftershocks. FedEx provided international transport to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars and customs clearance assistance for CERI transportable seismic array to India.

The data collected by CERI had significant ramifications on understanding earthquake hazards in India and understanding earthquake hazards in the central United States, Patterson says.

"The Indian earthquake, and the regional geological structure have proven to be good analogs to the new Madrid seismic zone and the earthquakes of 1811-12," Patterson says.

The resulting research generated additional grants, publications in prominent scientific journals and international recognition for the U of M.

"We need this type of support," Patterson says. "It makes external funding for future efforts more feasible and increases our institutional qualifications."

The FedEx Institute of Technology is the South's premier interdisciplinary research laboratory system, where Fortune 500 companies and other businesses pool people, technical resources and research dollars in a concerted effort to solve modern challenges.

For more information about the institute, call 901/678-5105, or visit fedex.memphis.edu.

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