Karri & Ed Olefirowicz

The Sommer-Olefirowicz Professorship: Keeping the Chemistry in Chemistry

Karri '84 and Ed '83 Olefirowicz in Switzerland

Karri '84 and Ed '83 Olefirowicz

It was the late ‘70s, and Karri’s father, a recruiter for General Electric and well versed about engineering schools, was instrumental in helping her research colleges with engineering programs.  Karri knew she didn’t want the typical engineering school; she was interested in something more dynamic offering the full college experience.  In his dealing with colleagues and friends, he found UNH repeatedly popping up in conversations as a solid engineering school with a reputation for being well-rounded in English, science, sports, and the arts.  Karri loved it, and the family was sold.

Ed, a self-proclaimed confused high school kid, had decided to stay close to home for his first year in college. As his deep love for chemistry from high school blossomed, finding a school with a strong Chemistry Department became his priority, and like Karri, UNH continually won in his research. As a sophomore transfer from Merrimack College, Ed continued to excel in his chemistry classes at UNH. This earned him the early opportunity to work with Dr. Gary Weisman in his UNH lab, something that ultimately would shape the course of his life. Ed had found his place at UNH and never once looked back.

Ed ran track for a season at UNH and Karri cross-country for an equally brief time. However, it was running along the icy UNH sidewalks from one class to the next that brought the two together. Though they had not even really met, Karri and Ed were both enrolled in Differential Equations. Without fail, that class always ran over time, forcing Karri, Ed and three other classmates to rush to their next class Physical Chemistry. They vividly remember Dr. Owens standing at the board, chalk in hand waiting for all of them. Not too much later, Ed was able to leverage his great relationship with research advisor and professor Dr. Edward Wong to get Karri onto his advisory roster and into the UNH Chemistry fold.

UNH Chemistry was a tight-knit group of both students and faculty, a family in its own right. Potlucks at professors’ homes, department picnics, and the Friday afternoon “Marching & Drinking Society” were inclusive events for anyone in the department. Everyone was welcome: faculty, staff, graduate and undergraduate students. Spending time with one another beyond classes allowed students and professors alike to form a family bond that endures to this day.

Ed went on to earn his PhD at UNC Chapel Hill which he chose, with help from Dr. Weisman, for the professor’s focus on an experimental approach to chemistry versus a theoretical approach of the professor at Princeton, another one of his options. Karri joined Ed in North Carolina after they were married. With her UNH bachelor’s thesis under arm, she was able to compete for jobs with some of the best from UNC and Duke. Her BS thesis helped her earn a position with the Research Triangle Institute (now RTI International). After graduation from UNC, Ed secured a job with Sterling Winthrop, a pharmaceutical company, thanks to the world-renowned reputation of his UNC professor. However, he credits UNH for helping him survive the rigor of his UNC doctoral program and for helping to prepare him well as a chemist.

Because of how those years in UNH Chemistry shaped their lives, Karri and Ed began donating to UNH early on, whatever they could, with their early career salaries. All along, it has been critical to them to support the institution that led them to such incredible career opportunities—careers that gave them the financial means to give back. Though many charitable organizations have earned their support—Doctors Without Borders, Habitat for Humanity, Heifer International, and Union of Concerned Scientists, to name a few—UNH remains their first love for bringing them together and setting them on their paths. Says Karri, “There’s a lack of funding [to UNH] from the state, and we can and want to give back. We’re paying it forward by paying it back.”

It was a desire to preserve the “chemistry in [UNH] Chemistry” that led them to the decision to include UNH in their longer-term philanthropic plans. Having supported various scholarships and fellowships in Chemistry over the years, the Olefirowiczs created the Ed ’83 & Karri ’84 Olefirowicz Fund in 2017, providing general program support to the chemistry department.

In 2021, Ed and Karri were interested in how they could do more for Chemistry—to attract top talent while keeping the family culture of the department alive. That’s when the idea of a bequest to establish a named professorship came to life.  “We’re not necessarily into naming things for ourselves—that’s not what we’re like—but since a portion of our estate is from Karri’s parents, we felt this was a wonderful way to honor them,” said Ed. The Sommer-Olefirowicz Professorship was established in the fall of 2021.

The process?

“It was amazingly easy with the help of Advancement. We just needed clarity on how the recipient would be chosen, and we wanted the Chemistry department’s feedback. We didn’t want to disrupt what was going on in the department.” It was important to Karri and Ed that anyone in the department could get the professorship, and that no one person would get the money all the time. Because of their love for the UNH Chemistry Department and the family environment they enjoyed as students, it was a priority that their award was there to entice new faculty and that the department could choose faculty that would embody Chemistry’s stellar academic reputation as well as its family spirit.

In thinking about their bequest and the process, the Olefirowiczs shared this: “Your gift can be big or small.  [A bequest] is just one way of giving back to UNH and remembering the fun times you had there. It was comforting for us to know the money [we leave] will be going in the direction where we want it to go. The UNH experience is something we look back on with great fondness. We’re happy to be part of keeping the ‘chemistry in Chemistry.’”