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Dr. Ghanshyam D. Sharma completed his Ph.D. in Geology at the University Michigan in only two and a half years, but he experienced enough kindness here to last a lifetime – and to inspire a transformational $1 million gift to the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences (EES).
The gift, made in 2017, qualified for the university’s Bicentennial Opportunity Matching Initiative, and the G.D. Sharma Fellowship is endowed for $1.5 million to provide need-based financial support to graduate students in EES.
“A lot of incredibly nice things happened to me in Ann Arbor—the support I was fortunate enough to receive made it possible for me to attend and succeed at the University of Michigan,” said Dr. Sharma by telephone from his home in Spain. “I was inspired by the kindness of those in my department, and wanted to find a way to repay it by helping new graduate students.”
A Warm Welcome
Sharma grew up in New Delhi and graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in 1952 from Banaras Hindu University in India. He received his Diploma in 1958 from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. When he first arrived in Ann Arbor to begin Ph.D. studies in September 1958, he had less than $500 in his pocket—and the University of Michigan’s geology department had no idea he was coming.
Sharma had initially accepted an offer to enter a graduate studies program at a different university in the western United States, where he’d been awarded a stipend. But a chance conversation with a colleague who’d recently returned from the U.S. changed the course of his life. His friend told him if he was going to get a degree in the United States, he really should go to the University of Michigan.
He’d had only preliminary contact with U-M about graduate studies, but he decided to take a chance. He changed the destination on his plane ticket and headed to Michigan by way of New York City, where he made a quick stop to visit the American Museum of Natural History. Michigan's geology department was surprised at his arrival, but impressed by his qualifications and welcomed him to stay. Sharma spent the first few months in Ann Arbor—and most of his money—preparing for his cadidacy exam. When it came time to enroll in the Ph.D. program and pay the tuition fee in January 1959, he realized he’d underestimated the cost of attending the university.
Without money for tuition, he decided to put his graduate studies on hold to take a rigorous (and profitable) field assistant position on an eighteen-month expedition to the South Pole. Screening for the expedition had been rigorous, but Sharma was readily accepted. However, when Dr. James T. Wilson, chair of the geology department, learned of his plans, he interceded and found the financial support Sharma needed. To Sharma, the gesture embodied the University of Michigan’s vision of ‘an uncommon education for the common man.’ He remembers Dr. Wilson telling him, “We cannot deny you an education based on your inability to pay.”
“I enjoyed the intellectual atmosphere in Ann Arbor. My professors welcomed debate. It was one of the things that attracted me to the department, and they took my input seriously,” recalls Sharma. “I think they appreciated the different point-of-view that I contributed, having studied in Europe. It was probably one of the reasons they thought I should stay and complete my program.”
The fundamentals of geology were at a critical juncture at that time, and Sharma brought with him from Europe an understanding of plate tectonics, which wasn’t yet a widely accepted theory in the United States. Sharma remembers when his doctoral advisor Professor Kenneth Knight Landes, who had literally written the book on petroleum geology (Petroleum Geology was published in 1951), encouraged him to pursue his theory about a new way of defining the geologic column in the Michigan Basin based on sedimentation processes—which was counter to Landes’s own established classification of the basin. As a result, Sharma's work was recognized by the American Association of Petroleum Geologists.
Dr. Sharma describes Dr. Landes as a thoughtful and generous man, and remembers that, shortly after he had completed his Ph.D., the professor asked him why his fiancée had not yet joined him in Michigan. Upon learning that she hadn’t been able to secure a visa, Landes called two senators he knew and, within weeks, she was in the United States. They were soon married in a ceremony planned and hosted with the help of Dr. Landes’s wife, Susan.
Sharma went on to enjoy a successful career as professor of petroleum geology and the founder and director of the Petroleum Development Laboratory at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, where he worked for nearly 30 years until he returned to Europe. He then served as a consultant for the Norwegian government, where he established another petroleum research institute. His book, The Alaskan Shelf: Hydrographic, Sedimentary, and Geochemical Environment, was published in 1979.
As he neared his 87th birthday, Dr. Sharma began to think about how he could make a sizable impact on the university that had welcomed him, encouraged him, and given him many fond memories. The G.D. Sharma Fellowship in Earth and Environmental Sciences honors the relationships that were so meaningful to him and have carried him so far in his life and career.
“We are deeply moved and honored by alumni legacy gifts, such as Dr. Sharma’s, that enable us to honor our long tradition of attracting top students from around the world with the commitment of full financial support,” said Dr. Marin Clark, associate professor and acting chair of the Department of Earth and Environmental Science. “His gift will enrich our program and contribute significantly to academic achievement and scientific discovery in the field of Earth and environmental sciences. Dr. Sharma has made a positive impact by making it possible to offer fellowship support to high potential Ph.D. applicants this recruiting season.”
"It made an impression on me that my department and professors at the University of Michigan made such an effort to help me find the funding I needed for my graduate studies," reflects Sharma. "I wanted to make it possible for Earth and Environmental Sciences to continue to be generous in supporting graduate students who may be in a similar situation."
Endowing a Scholarship or Fellowship
Graduate student support is a major priority at LSA, and establishing an endowed scholarship fund is an investment in such support for the long term. Scholarships can be awarded to students based on academic merit, special talents, interests, or qualities, financial need, or other criteria defined by you. You designate the purpose of your endowment, and earnings from that investment will grow over time to fund your philanthropic priorities forever.
Scholarships make an LSA education accessible for students who might otherwise not be able to afford a college experience. Gifts for student support provide deserving students with access to the world-class faculty and resources in LSA and across the entire U-M campus. Graduate student fellowships help students meet educational and living expenses by paying tuition and stipends, and may support dissertation research and travel for field study.