Aspire: All the Difference in the World

All the difference in the world

ASPIRE: All the Difference in the World

In response to the question,
“What difference does my gift make?”

we turned to these four professors and one student for answers. Armed with gutsy idealism and bold imagination, these researchers and those who support their efforts are tackling big global challenges. Last year, nearly $20 million in gifts supported research and programs at UMass Amherst. From the $25 gift dedicated to saving sea turtles to the $1.4 million gift designed to give every girl and woman around the globe control of her own destiny, philanthropy is at work in brilliant ways.

Spoiler alert: get ready to be amused, empowered, and perhaps even brought to tears.

Download a pdf of the full report.


Students Improve Lives, A Village at a Time

Students Improve Lives, A Village at a Time

Engineers Without Borders

In three African villages, children regularly attend school, disease is reduced, and economic growth has increased —improvements that came after University of Massachusetts Amherst engineering students provided access to clean water.

Water Bucket

The United Nations estimates 40 percent of sub-Saharan Africa lacks access to clean and reliable water, which contributes to high rates of disease and poverty.

For the last 10 years, the engineering students and faculty have worked to bring potable and yearlong water supplies to two villages in Kenya and one in Ghana. Their work, part of the UMass Amherst chapter of Engineers Without Borders, may be a metaphorical drop in the bucket for the water-scarce continent, but to the villagers, clean and sustainable water has dramatically improved their lives.

“Due to their lack of water, the villagers work together and share the water they have. Never before in my life had I seen a group of people so grateful for something seemingly so simple: drinkable water.” —Akhileshwar Borra

Akhileshwar Borra

Children are no longer burdened with daily treks of more than a mile for water. Health clinics shuttered due to inadequate water supplies now operate year-round. With reliable access to water, farmers can now cultivate a mango hybrid that brings more profits than other types of the fruit. “The biggest motivator for us is helping people,” says Akhileshwar Borra ’18, president of the chapter. Over the decade, the students have overseen the drilling of wells, the installation of water pumps and a rain catchment system, and have educated villagers on how to avoid contaminating the water.

“We have provided water where there was none,” notes John Tobiason, an engineering faculty member and founding member of the chapter. The students receive no academic credit and must raise funds for travel expenses and equipment. They make two trips per year, with an estimated cost of $50,000, funded by corporate sponsors and crowdfunding campaigns. The university's chapter of EWB has a loyal following of alumni and friends who have generously supported it for years.



Understanding Controversy

Social media has become an important new tool of grassroots democracy, but at the same time, has hardened political and cultural divides. With all of the controversy playing out on the Twitterverse each day, it is hard to imagine social media disputes turning more rigorous, fact-driven, or civil. But, it’s that very possibility of finding resolutions on contentious issues  that drove College of Information and Computer Sciences (CICS) doctoral student Shiri Dori-Hacohen ’15G, ’17 PhD to develop an algorithm that detects, and potentially predicts, controversy on the web. The research could also be used to offer visitors opposing viewpoints.

“The hope is that if we can understand conflict better, then we can take steps toward resolution.”  —Shiri Dori-Hacohen


It took the analysis of 100 million tweets to define the nature of controversy.

Dori-Hacohen worked with CICS Professor James Allan, an expert in intelligent information retrieval, and Myungha Jang ’18, a PhD student in information and computer sciences, on the research used to identify and better understand contentious and trending topics. Some of those topics are the 2016 U.S. elections, gun control, climate change, and disputed medical treatments. They found that other subjects while they be highly contentious are of low importance to people.

Dori-Hacohen is now developing and testing the computational method through the company she founded, AuCoDe, and adapting it to the financial sector, where online events might potentially be used to predict stock movement. The commercial value of Dori-Hacohen’s work earned her a first-place award in last year’s UMass Amherst Innovation Challenge and $35,000 in start-up funding. This annual event is one of the programs of the Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship established in 2014 by a gift to the Isenberg School of Management from Douglas ’71 and Diana Berthiaume.  Funds awarded as prizes to start-up entrepreneurs via the innovation challenge are provided through philanthropic gifts from alumni and business professionals.


Sea Turtle

Art and Science for Saving Sea Turtles

Meet the Beastcam (TM): an ingenious device that produces stunning 3-D photographs for use in sea turtle education and conservation and to digitally preserve the majestic sea creatures. The octopus like device, loaded with 30 cameras set off by a wireless trigger, is the brainchild of Duncan Irschick, a University of Massachusetts Amherst biology professor, and his undergraduate students in the College of Natural Sciences.


Six of seven species of sea turtles, critical to ocean ecology, are facing extinction with humans their most dangerous predator.

With the turtles’ imminent potential for demise, Irschick plans to use the Beastcam’s photogrammetry technology to create art to inspire save-the-sea-turtles campaigns and give scientists a new tool to study the charismatic mariners that swam the oceans when dinosaurs roamed the earth. His quest to add the sea turtles to his digital Noah’s ark started in June in Florida and will take him to Australia, the Bahamas, Costa Rica, Greece, and Texas. Through crowdfunding, alumni and friends have contributed $4,200 for the sea turtle project.

“You can’t imagine a world without sea turtles. It comes down to that.” —Duncan Irschick

Duncan Irschick

“Essentially, we are saying we are so worried about these animals that we are taking the trouble to go around the world and preserve them digitally so future generations can know them,” says Irschick. Researchers will be looking at unlocking secrets of the enigmatic sea turtles, the best navigators in the animal kingdom, by studying their anatomy and migratory patterns.

Visit to view 3-D models of animals and watch a video of the sea turtles.



The U.S. in the Age of Mass Incarceration

A Spotlight on our Carceral Crisis

Through a series of public and community events, UMass Amherst historians led a comprehensive examination of mass incarceration, in particular the rising imprisonment of women and the deep and far-reaching ways the carceral state affects communities. “The U.S. in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” the 2016–17 topic of the Feinberg Family Distinguished Lecture Series, reached more than 3,000 people in western Massachusetts through two dozen lectures, panel discussions, bilingual museum and art gallery exhibits, workshops, university courses, and performances. Comic books (pictured above) about prison by activist and organizer Lois Ahrens of Northampton, Massachusetts, were included in the exhibits.


Between 1980 and 2014, the number of incarcerated women in the U.S. increased by more than 700 percent, from 26,378 to 215,332.

For students, staff, faculty, and community members, the seventh Feinberg series raised awareness about many subjects, including the history of women’s incarceration in Massachusetts—home to one of the oldest, and among the newest, women’s prisons and jails in the country. Other issues reviewed were migrant detention and the imprisoned laborers who produce American flags, institutional furniture, and other products. “One of the things participants learned is how we are all complicit in the system. It’s a real eye-opener,” says Marla Miller, professor of history and director of the Public History Program. Miller, Jessica Johnson, outreach and community engagement director, and Jennifer Nye, lecturer in law and social justice, steered the yearlong series.

“The statistics are themselves shocking, saddening, and alarming—and then you learn about the heartbreaking human experience and what mass incarceration does to families and communities.”  —Marla Miller

Marla Miller

These interdisciplinary programs—their impact extended by an associated initiative for K–12 teachers, and free transportation between campus and nearby cities—were made possible by Kenneth Feinberg ’67, who endowed the biennial series. The series also stood out for its collaboration with national and community-based organizations and activists. “Without the generosity of Ken Feinberg, we would not be able to dig as deeply or have as sustained conversations around these urgent topics,” notes Miller.


Family Planning

120 Million More

The goal of the global partnership Family Planning 2020 or “FP2020” is ambitious and lifesaving: provide 120 million more women and girls around the world with access to contraceptives by 2020. Sexual and reproductive rights and health services for girls and women improve quality of life, prevent maternal and newborn deaths, and ameliorate poverty.

Family Planning

Last year, an estimated 204 million women worldwide had an unmet need for modern contraceptive methods. For comparison, the entire population of women in the U.S. is 162 million.

“This work will help move toward the goal of providing every woman with access to the contraceptive method of her choice.” —Leontine Alkema

Leontine Alkema

UMass Amherst received a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to develop new statistical methods and tools for monitoring family planning indicators including contraceptives, which are critical to meeting the goal of FP2020. The grant will be used to explore and analyze family planning and contraceptive use in 69 of the world’s poorest countries. A focus of the research by biostatistician and School of Public Health and Health Sciences faculty member Leontine Alkema is to develop a statistical model for subnational analysis to detect disparities in access to family planning services within a particular area. Alkema’s involvement in the estimation of the family planning indicators started with the creation of a statistical model to produce national-level estimates for all countries in the world in collaboration with the United Nations Population Division.


Caitlin Cherry

A Teaching Museum

With orange-yellow flames and violet embers, Caitlin Cherry paints her first encounter with the colonial architecture characteristic of western Massachusetts and New England. The up-and-coming artist created a series of eight works in residency this past spring at the University Museum of Contemporary Art (UMCA) based on her first experiments with the art of printmaking.

Not yet 30, the Brooklyn-based artist has already made a name for herself and is best known for her hybrid of painting and sculptural installation. To understand Cherry’s work is to peel away the layers of her creative process. During her residency, Cherry began by creating small architectural maquettes, or 3-D representations, made of paper and metal. Working in collaboration with the Department of Art’s Printmaking Studio, Cherry altered digital photos of the maquettes creating inkjet prints.

Cherry’s visit was made possible through a gift by the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation and from the Class of 1961 Artists Residency Program fund. The mission of the Artists Residency Program is to enliven the cultural life of campus, enhance educational opportunities, and to bring artists together with a wide spectrum of people: students, faculty, and the public. Considered a teaching museum of UMass Amherst, UMCA has a permanent collection valued at approximately $5 million that consists almost entirely of donated works. The five prints Cherry donated from the series she created at UMass Amherst are valued at $11,000.

Alumni and Giving 2017


Living alumni


of alumni live in Massachusetts


Alumni who have either a parent, step parent, or parent-in-law who are alumni


Alumni and friends who made a gift for 5 years or more


Alumni who made their first gift


of the Class of 2017 made a gift


Total amount donated by alumni