The Art and Science of Aviation

Helen Wessel funds chair to establish new aerospace physiology program

For nearly 20 years, Helen Wessel has transformed Embry-Riddle’s Daytona Beach Campus with her donations of iconic artwork. Now, she has given a gift poised to expand the curriculum at Embry-Riddle to include biological sciences and pre-medicine.

With her gift, Embry-Riddle will become the first university in the country to offer aerospace physiology at the undergraduate level. As a world leader in aviation and aerospace education, the university is a natural fit for the program, says Karen Gaines, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

The Dr. Robert H. Wessel and Dr. Helen M. Wessel Endowed Chair for Aerospace Physiology, funded by Wessel’s generous contribution, is also expected to increase the diversity of the student body and attract more female students.

“I wanted to do something other than art,” says Wessel, a longtime arts educator whose gifts to the Daytona Beach Campus include the iconic stainless-steel sculpture, Pathways to the Sky. “This is the perfect model for my interests – science and smart women.”

Biology is the leading science major among women, minorities and minority women and opens a wealth of opportunities for students to pursue careers in the growing healthcare field, Gaines says.

“Our physical sciences department has offered premier coursework and has brought in large grants leading to groundbreaking research. Supporting biology and chemistry brings a balance of the sciences to the college,” she adds. “The aerospace physiology program will be the pathway for pre-health majors, and open doors for students who want to enter the armed forces, the private sector or pursue careers in research.”

Helen Wessel, left, and Interim University President Karen A. Holbrook.
The new aerospace physiology program is slated to launch in fall 2017 with the endowed chair giving Gaines resources to start the program and attract top faculty in the field.

“Aerospace physiology looks at the body in response to air and space flight,” Gaines says. “If we are going to be leaders in aerospace, this is absolutely a component. Helen is jumpstarting this program.”

As part of the program, Embry-Riddle is already looking to establish matriculation partnerships with chiropractic, physical therapy and pharmacy schools. Gaines says she plans to partner with Florida Hospital on a clinical rotation course and an instrumentation course.

The new program will also greatly expand the university’s opportunities for research and development funding, including potential partnerships with Kennedy Space Center, NASA and others.

Wessel says she is excited to have the chance to make a significant impact on advancing science education at Embry-Riddle and encouraging more women to enroll at the university. Her husband, Bob, who passed away in 1996, was vice provost for graduate education at the University of Cincinnati and an economics professor. He was also an advocate for more educational opportunities for women, she says.

“Bob would be thrilled to pieces about this endowment,” Wessel says. “I hope he is plugged in and saying, ‘Oh yeah!’”

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