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Winter 2020

2019 Distinguished Science Awardees
2019 Distinguished Science Awardees

2019 Alumni Awards

Teacher turned executive, adept entrepreneur are honored Physics and Astronomy alumni

Writing and reporting by William Fornes, Elizabeth Gardner and the College of Science

James Jennings
James Jennings (MS 1967) received a 2019 Distinguished Alumni Award.

Beginning his career as a physics teacher, Jennings eventually made his way to the oil and natural gas industry, where he rose to the highest ranks. He credits many of his achievements to the guidance he received from the late Ralph Lefler, a pioneer of physics education at Purdue.

In his remarks at the awards event, Jennings referenced his experience as a young high school teacher in a Purdue program to help teachers gain additional physics training.

"If you remember, this is the time of Sputnik and there was a real emphasis on bringing science to the school systems," he said. "I ended up being a physics teacher with one year of college physics, and I really needed a lot of help."

The program was supported by the National Science Foundation and led by Lefler from the early 1960s through the early 1970s. Lefler took a personal interest in Jennings, he said.

"Between the first summer and the second summer, Professor Lefler called me … and said 'Look, there is a great opportunity in Northwest Indiana in a place called Munster, Indiana,'" Jennings said. "And he convinced me to move from Texas to Munster. … and it changed my life. And Lefler did a lot more things for me other than that. … He was a tremendous influence on my life and the life of 200-300 other people who participated in this program."

Jennings went on to hold positions — including president and chairman of the board — at Hunt Oil Co. from 1991 to 2007. He also served on the board of directors of VAALCO Energy Inc. from June 2013 until his retirement in December 2015, and was lead independent director of VAALCO from September 2013 through December 2015.


Gene Cambridge Tsai
Gene Cambridge Tsai (BS 2006) received a 2019 Early Career Award.

Within five years of graduating from Purdue and moving to the San Francisco Bay Area to pursue a career in software, Tsai's skills and entrepreneurial spirit led him to the pinnacles of success in the industry.

Tsai was a founding employee at Flipboard, where he envisioned and created the foundations of the personalized social news app. He was able to pitch the idea to Apple Inc. co-founder Steve Jobs in 2010 and, in the following months, the app was added to all new Apple products. That same year Flipboard was named one of Time magazine's top 50 inventions of the year and was named App of the Year by Apple. It has been installed on nearly 1 billion mobile devices and has more than 145 million regular users.

Tsai, who was born in Boston and grew up in Taiwan, also was a "zoo musicologist" for Aardvark and worked on a team that built the Aardvark Mobile iPhone App in 2009. The app became the No. 1 featured app within one week and ranked fifth on the list of top social networking apps in the Apple App Store. Tsai also was a part of YourVersion, a personalized web news aggregator, which won the People's Choice Award at the TechCrunch
50 conference.

He currently is founder of SircambridgeWorks, which develops iPhone apps for an Asian audience and has achieved more than 1.4 million downloads. He also is involved in hackathons at middle schools in underprivileged local communities and is a fan and true believer in the future of e-sports.

While a student at Purdue, Tsai was founder and president of the Chinese Calligraphy Club, and a photographer and photo editor for The Exponent.