Rosenstiel School awards two endowed chairs

Pamela Edward, 11-03-2021

Two longtime supporters of the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science—the G. Unger Vetlesen Foundation and the late Professor Robert N. Ginsburg—are celebrated in a recent chair installation ceremony.
The G. Unger Vetlesen Professor of Earth Sciences was awarded to Ved Chirayath, associate professor in the department of ocean sciences. And the Robert N. Ginsburg Endowed Chair in Marine Geosciences was awarded to Gregor Eberli, professor in the department of marine geosciences.
Ved Chirayath, associate professor in the department of ocean sciences, and Gregor Eberli, professor in the department of marine geosciences. Photo: Jenny Abreu/University of Miami


A Norwegian-American shipbuilder and a South Florida-based marine geologist may not appear to have much in common. Yet although Georg Unger Vetlesen and Robert Nathan Ginsburg were born a generation apart and grew up on different continents, they shared a passion for the sea—and understood the importance of philanthropy in advancing vital scientific discovery.

Through their visionary generosity, Vetlesen and Ginsburg have helped ensure that the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science will continue to shed light on climate change and other pressing challenges facing humanity in the 21st century.

This generosity was celebrated on Oct. 26 with the formal installation of two endowed faculty chairs at the Rosenstiel School. The G. Unger Vetlesen Professor of Earth Sciences was awarded to Ved Chirayath, associate professor in the department of ocean sciences. And the Robert N. Ginsburg Endowed Chair in Marine Geosciences was awarded to Gregor Eberli, professor in the department of marine geosciences.

“We recognize in those who hold a named faculty chair an intellectual, scholarly authority that is the essence of any university,” said President Julio Frenk. “They are experts who can touch thousands of lives through their teaching, mentorship, and the research and innovation they generate.” 

The Vetlesen and Ginsburg chairs are two of the 100 Talents, an initiative Frenk announced in his inaugural address in 2016, through which the University seeks to endow 100 faculty positions by its centennial in 2025.

Philanthropic support is the cornerstone of this effort. “Donors such as the G. Unger Vetlesen Foundation and the late Professor Robert Ginsburg, who make these permanent investments in our faculty, are ensuring a bright future for current and future generations,” Frenk said

During his lifetime, Vetlesen, who trained as a naval architect and mechanical engineer, forged a career in shipbuilding in Britain and the United States. He served in the U.S Navy during World War II and afterward was the founder of Scandinavian Airlines System Inc. Shortly before he passed away in 1955, he established the G. Unger Vetlesen Foundation, which supports research and discovery in earth sciences and is dedicated to academic, environmental, and economic innovation.

The foundation is a longtime benefactor of the Rosenstiel School, having also supported the Marine Technology and Life Sciences Seawater Research building, the Helicopter Observation Platform, and various other climate related research projects.

Chirayath, the inaugural Vetlesen Professor, is an award-winning researcher and inventor of advanced sensing technologies.

He joined the Rosenstiel School this year as director of the new Aircraft Center for Earth Studies. This multidisciplinary initiative will, said Roni Avissar, dean of the Rosenstiel School, “inaugurate the next generation of scientific aerial platforms and observations for Earth science and open the door to many vital atmospheric and marine studies.” 

Chirayath works at the intersection of earth sciences, astrophysics, aeronautics, engineering, and optics. His research focuses on inventing, developing, and testing sensing technologies for studying the natural world—be it underwater, airborne, or in outer space.

He came to the University of Miami from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, where for eight years he directed the NASA Laboratory for Advanced Sensing at the Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. His inventions include MiDar, a next-generation remote sensing instrument that was recognized in 2019 as a NASA Invention of the Year for its potentially broad applications in aerospace, geology, oceanography, medicine, human space flight, and manufacturing.

“What attracted me here was, firstly, I was already working with a number of faculty at the University of Miami,” Chirayath said. “And they were just some of the top minds in their field. And I think of the potential that comes with that and the responsibility to make sure that we’re doing good science, developing new technologies, and then passing that knowledge on to the next generation,’’ he added.

“I want to leave a legacy and help inform science in the future,” he explained. “For me, the endowment is not only proof of concept—the future is bright—but there are people out there who can provide resources to kids like me from a completely different world, but [with] the common connection to the science and [a] shared understanding and appreciation of the natural world.”

Ginsburg, who passed away in 2017, devoted nearly half a century of his professional life to the Rosenstiel School as a professor of marine geology. He believed strongly in the importance of supporting future generations of scientists and researchers, and the endowment created by his bequest will help illuminate vital new discoveries in marine geology for years to come.

A pioneer in the study of carbonate sedimentary rocks—such as limestone and their formation—Ginsburg was also passionate about coral reefs and their preservation and made important contributions to our understanding of reef decline. He was one of the most influential thinkers in his field and a mentor to generations of students and post-doctoral associates. 

One of his mentees was Eberli, the inaugural holder of the Ginsburg chair and director of the Rosenstiel School’s Comparative Sedimentology Laboratory, which Ginsburg founded in 1970. Eberli and Ginsburg crossed paths in 1985, when Eberli came to the Rosenstiel School from Switzerland as a post-doctoral researcher.

Together, they used the first available seismic data across the Grand Bahama Bank to reveal the internal architecture of the Earth’s largest isolated carbonate platform, built by the sedimentation of fossilized coral and other sea life over millions of years.

In 1991, Eberli returned to the Rosenstiel School as an associate professor and has built a distinguished career as a researcher and educator. In his 30 years at the University, he has conducted extensive research worldwide on sea levels, seismic stratigraphy, and using the carbonate sedimentary record to unlock the secrets of Earth’s changing climate.

“After I came back to Miami as faculty, [Ginsburg] became my mentor,” Eberli said. “Now, with this endowment, he sort of looks after me in his afterlife and I’m so grateful to him for that. And to thank him, I want to continue his legacy. I have a long list of things I still want to do.”

 “This, of course, is a great honor. It’s rooted in the recognition of having done well so far. But it’s also an incredible boost for the future—it gives me so much motivation to attack new challenges and ventures for years to come,” said Eberli, about receiving the endowed chair.