UM to Honor Four Distinguished Alumni at Homecoming

August 05, 2015

MISSOULA – Four outstanding University of Montana graduates will receive 2015 Distinguished Alumni Awards during Homecoming weekend festivities on Friday and Saturday, Sept. 25-26. The awards are the highest honor presented by UM’s Alumni Association.

This year’s distinguished alumni are John Grotzinger, M.S. ’81, of San Marino, Calif.; Jennifer F. Isern ’89 of New Delhi, India; Sheila MacDonald Stearns ’68, M.A. ’69, Ed.D. ’83, of Missoula; and Sidney R. Thomas, J.D. ’78, of Billings.

John GrotzingerGrotzinger, who received a master’s degree in geology at UM, is the mission leader and project scientist for NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory Mission and the Fletcher Jones Professor of Geology at California Institute of Technology. He has conducted field research on every continent except Antarctica and now directs a team of more than 400 scientists as they explore Mars via the Curiosity rover. Grotzinger has fulfilled several appointments at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, including Waldemar Lindgren Distinguished Scholar, director of the Earth Resources Laboratory and Schrock Professor of Earth Sciences. His awards include the Presidential Young Investigator Award of the National Science Foundation; the Donath Medal, recognizing a scientist under age 36 for outstanding original research marking a major advance in earth sciences; the Henno Martin Medal from the Geological Society of Namibia; and the Charles Doolittle Walcott Medal from the National Academy of Sciences. In 2014, he received the NASA Group Achievement Award for the Mars Science Laboratory Mission, the NASA Outstanding Public Leadership Medal and the Roy Chapman Andrews Explorer Award.

IsernIsern, who received a bachelor’s degree in political science from UM, is senior manager with the Finance and Markets Global Practice in the Asia Pacific region for the World Bank and the International Finance Corporation. With 27 years of international finance experience across more than 65 countries, she is a global expert in financial sector development, including access to finance for the poorest populations. She previously served as regional manager of access to finance for South Asia with the International Finance Corporation and served as a visiting professor at Princeton University. For 13 years, she worked for the Consultative Group to Assist the Poor based in the World Bank Group, including serving in the management team, leading work in Africa and China, and launching several global initiatives. With CARE International, she launched and managed projects in microfinance, community development, and girls’ education in Africa. Isern has published widely on international issues, financial sector development and financial inclusion, and is a founding member of the board of directors for PAMIGA, a network of rural microfinance institutions that reaches 1.2 million rural people in Africa.

Sheila Stearns

Stearns, who earned a bachelor’s degree in English, master’s degree in history and doctorate of education at UM, was Montana’s longest-serving commissioner of higher education and is a highly respected advocate for educational opportunity. As a vice president of the University of Montana, she led the external relations of the University, including legislative, alumni and foundation relations. As chancellor of the University of Montana-Western for six years, she supported faculty as they led a complete transformation of curriculum from the typical semester structure to the only block scheduling program offered by a public college in the country. As president of Wayne State University in Nebraska, she maintained strong support and morale through a period of recession and budget cuts. As Montana’s commissioner of higher education for nine years, she built a stronger alignment with K-12 education, a focus that now is a nationally recommended best practice. Stearns was named Commissioner Emerita by the Board of Regents in 2012. 

ThomasThomas, who earned a juris doctorate at UM, is chief judge of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the largest judicial circuit in the country. The third Montanan to serve as chief judge in the history of the Ninth Circuit, Thomas is the administrator for Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, California, Arizona, Hawaii, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands. He was nominated to serve as a judge on the Ninth Circuit by President Clinton in 1995 and confirmed by the U.S. Senate in 1996. In the past 20 years, he has served as the en banc coordinator and capital case coordinator for the Circuit. He also serves on the National Committee on Information Technology and chairs the Court of Appeals’ Committee on Automation and Technology. He was interviewed by President Barack Obama and placed on the short list for the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010. Previously, Thomas practiced law with the firm of Moulton, Bellingham, Longo, and Mather in Billings. For 15 years, he was an adjunct instructor in law at Rocky Mountain College, from which he received an honorary doctorate of law in 1998. 

The public is invited to attend a panel discussion featuring all four Distinguished Alumni Award recipients at 5:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 25, in the University Center Ballroom on the UM campus. An awards ceremony and reception will follow. 

Contact: Jodi Moreau, events coordinator/board liaison, UM Office of Alumni Relations and Alumni Association, 406-243-6124,