University of California, Riverside

Alumni Awards of Distinction


Alumni Awards of Distinction

Since 1986, the UCR Alumni Association has honored graduates who personify the university’s tradition of excellence and service.  Through their personal and professional achievements, these individuals bring distinction to UCR, contribute to the betterment of society and enhance their communities.

The recipients of the 31st Annual Alumni Awards of Distinction will be honored and recognized at the Chancellor’s Dinner on Saturday, October 21, 2017. For more information visit the Chancellor’s Dinner website.

2017 Award Recipients

Distinguished Alumnus Award: John Leonard, Ph.D. ’78 

The most prestigious of the honors bestowed by the UCR Alumni Association. The award is based on national and international distinction in one’s field and significant contribution to humankind.

Leonard is the Sr. Vice President of Development for Vaccinex Inc. in Rochester, New York, and the President & CEO of the John & Elizabeth Family Foundation in Carlsbad.

UCR AFFILIATIONS:  UCR Foundation Board of Trustees since July 2014; CNAS Board of Advisors (2005-); Technology Commercialization Committee, Research and Economic Development; Established CNAS Undergraduate Scholarship for the Freshman Summer Research Program.

AFFILIATIONS INCLUDE:  The John and Elizabeth Leonard Family Foundation (President/CEO); The AACR Foundation for the Prevention and Cure of Cancer (Trustee, 2014-); American Association for Cancer Research (member); American Society of Clinical Oncologists (member); 49er Foundation, Cal State University Long Beach (Trustee, 2015).

AWARDS INCLUDE: College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, California State University, Long Beach (2012); Recipient, National Cancer Institute, New Investigator Research Award.

Alumni Service Award: Tom Tolbert ’71 

The public sector or a sustained pattern of volunteer service in the community, arts or for the benefit of UCR that has positively represented the University and fellow citizens.

Tolbert graduated from UCR with a BA degree in Political Science.  He lettered in three varsity sports; football, rugby and soccer. Unsure of where to apply his entrepreneurial spirit, he pursued careers as a Real Estate broker/mgr., an advertising account executive and ten years as a Hollywood Stuntman and producer. He also served as the LA Chamber of Commerce liaison between the Board of Directors and the 1984 Olympics.

In 1984 he co-founded a marketing/technology firm acting as its VP of Sales and Marketing. Over the next ten years the firm grew to thirteen employees and four million dollars in annual revenue. During that time Tom bought out his partner and moved the company to Newport Beach.
In 1994 Tom’s world changed dramatically. Suffering a ruptured Cerebral Aneurysm, which had a 5% survival rate and being given 6 months to live, he’s adapted to his new life with all of its limitations. Through a strong faith in God and the nurturing help of a very committed wife, one of Tom’s greatest accomplishments is sustaining his marriage to Nina for thirty-eight years.
In 1996, at the persistence of Nina and much emotional struggle, he became one of Sailing Fascination’s first students. Shortly thereafter he became an Instructor, then a Director and, in 2007, President. With over 20 years of sailing experience, combined with his recent venture into the world of being disabled, the fit seemed natural. Under his guidance the foundation has grown significantly. Now with forty volunteers, an alliance with the Oasis Sailing Club, the support of the City Newport Beach and other donors, free sailing lessons are being given to Wounded Warriors, Special Olympic Athletes, United Cerebral Palsy members and many other disabled sailors.
Besides the work of the Sailing Fascination duties, he has been a Long-term Care Insurance broker for twenty years and is an active Community Pastor for RockHarbor Church in Costa Mesa.

Outstanding Young Alumnus Award: Charles Cai, Ph.D. ’15 

Presented to alumni 35 years and younger with a significant record of career and/or civic achievement and promise in their profession.

Cai co-founded MG Fuels to commercialize a biofuels process he helped develop at the University of California, Riverside that reduces the amount of enzymes used to breakdown biomass to make ethanol. The patented method licensed by MG Fuels, called Co-Solvent Enhanced Lignocellulosic Fractionation (CELF), was developed as a versatile and efficient way to convert raw agricultural and forestry residues and other plant matter into both biofuels and chemicals. The project aims to bring industry closer to producing fuels and chemicals from biomass at high enough yields and low enough costs to become a viable alternative or replacement for petroleum-based fuels and chemicals. His research has been supported by such agencies as the Department of Energy and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Cai was recently named one of Forbes 30 Under 30  in the Energy category in January 2017.

Nominations are accepted year-round. To submit a nomination visit our online form.

View criteria and nomination process

View a complete list of past recipients