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 graduated from UCR in 1978 with a Ph.D. in Biochemistry. He 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.

He has been a UCR Foundation Board of Trustees since July 2014, on the CNAS Board of Advisors, served on the Technology Commercialization Committee, and established a CNAS Undergraduate Scholarship for the Freshman Summer Research Program.

Leonard is involved with the John and Elizabeth Leonard Family Foundation as the President/CEO, the AACR Foundation for the Prevention and Cure of Cancer as a trustee since 2014, the American Association for Cancer Research, the American Society of Clinical Oncologists, the 49er Foundation, and Cal State University Long Beach as a trustee since 2015. He has been honored many awards including the National Cancer Institutes 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. 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, 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.

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 graduated from UCR in 2015 with a Ph.D. in Chemical and Environmental Engineering. After graduating he 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 and works as an Assistant Research Engineer at CE-CERT and Assistant Adjunct Professor of Chemical & Environmental Engineering at UCR.

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