An artist illustration of a world map among a forest backdrop.
November 28, 2022

Scholarship helps students chart course for science-to-policy careers 

Six UCR alumni teamed up to establish The Geographers Scholarship for Global Change Science and Sustainability

Author: Sarah Nightingale
November 28, 2022

When six lifelong friends gathered in 2018 for a reunion in California’s Anza-Borrego State Park, they didn’t sit around the campfire telling spooky stories. Instead, they brainstormed ways they could help students at the University of California, Riverside.

“We wanted to do something to recognize the excellent education we received at UCR,” said David Nichols, who retired in 2015 as assistant director of Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Engineering and Science Directorate. “We are also very proud of UCR — both in terms of its academic status and as an institution that plays a role in supporting students from diverse backgrounds.”

A photo of the six alumni who created the scholarship
Left to right: Charles Hutchinson, Martin Pasqualetti, James Huning, Donald Chambers, David Nichols, and Richard (Tony) VanCuren, who established the scholarship.

Nichols and his fellow alumni, all of whom completed graduate degrees in UCR’s Department of Geography in the 1970s, formulated a plan to establish a scholarship for students in the university’s College of Natural and Agricultural Sciences. Awarded for the first time this year, the scholarship supports students committed to efforts to understand and tackle global climate change — to either further global change science or to facilitate the application of science to policies. 

While the six geographers’ careers took different trajectories, the scholarship reflects a common thread among their professional work — understanding and exploring issues of human sustainability in the face of global change. 

For geography professors Charles Hutchinson and Mike Pasqualetti, that work is through teaching and research at the University of Arizona and Arizona State University, respectively. James Huning retired as a program manager at the National Science Foundation, overseeing the management and operation of the National Center for Atmospheric Research; Richard (Tony) VanCuren retired as a research professor at UC Davis’ Air Quality Research Center; and Don Chambers retired as director of Consulting Services for Esri, a Redlands-based global leader in the development of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software and applications.

Nichols said, in the 1970s, UCR’s Geography Department was at the forefront of automated cartography — the production of maps using computers rather than manual methods. For Nichols and many other students, this created opportunities to work with Esri — then a fledgling company.

“Automated cartography led to the birth of GIS. I did a lot of work developing very early software related to GIS and producing the products that Esri used,” said Nichols, who worked part-time for Esri while a UCR student and subsequently as a research associate. “There was a lot of inter-dependency between the Geography Department and Esri at that time.”

By accessing time on UCR’s IBM mainframe computer, and the Geography Department’s Cartographic Laboratory, Esri had the computing power it needed to undertake early GIS applications and to develop its first software; in turn sharing that software with UCR. Another UCR resource helped Esri grow in those early days: students who turned into employees.

Nichols and his fellow alumni parted ways after graduate school, but their professional lives remained intertwined, and they remained in contact with one another. Reunited in Anza Borrego State Park, they discussed how to help support their alma mater in a meaningful way.

“We liked the idea of a scholarship, so we joined forces. Then we reached out to a lot of other alumni and friends,” Nichols said. Among those who pledged support were Jack Dangermond, Esri’s co-founder and president, and Bill Derrenbacher, who taught geography at UCR and UC Davis in the early 1970s before being recruited to Esri.

“UCR was a wonderful place to be,” recalled Derrenbacher, who spent his career leading Esri’s Professional Services Division. “It was a team of faculty who worked in a collaborative way, really cared about students, and were academically distinguished as well as practically minded. I was excited about the university then, and I am equally excited about how it has grown and diversified.”

The $40,000 pledged by the six geographers soon grew to $100,000. Thanks to a matching grant provided through UCR’s Beyond Brilliant student fundraising initiative, the scholarship fund now totals more than $220,000. 

Administered through UCR’s Environmental Dynamics and GeoEcology (EDGE) Institute, the Geographers Scholarship for Global Change Science and Sustainability provides annual awards of $5,000-10,000 to senior undergraduates and graduate students from a variety of disciplines.

This year, the first four recipients were named: Rebecca Crust, a doctoral student in the Department of Plant Pathology; James Gomez, a doctoral student in Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences; and Alyssa Valdez and Aral Greene, both doctoral students in the Department of Environmental Sciences.

“The Geographers Scholarship was established by alumni who have had successful careers and have made a positive impact in the world,” said Monique Dozier, Vice Chancellor for University Advancement at UCR. “I’m grateful for their investment and commitment to helping the next generation of leaders tackle global climate change. Their gift is also a wonderful example of the value of a UCR education, power of the Highlander community, and the deep connection between Esri and UCR.” 

To support the Geographers Scholarship, click here or to support broader student success initiatives (e.g., undergraduate student research, professional development, study abroad), please give to the Industry Alumni & Friends of UCR Fund by clicking here

To learn more about setting up a scholarship or about UCR’s Beyond Brilliant campaign, please contact DuBron Rabb at

Header image: Getty Images/wildpixel


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