Established in 1957, the Distinguished Engineering Graduate Award is the highest honor that the Cockrell School bestows on its alumni. The five distinguished engineering graduates for 2021 are pioneers, entrepreneurs and highly respected leaders in their fields and in their communities. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and challenges to hosting in-person events last year, the 2021 distinguished graduates were honored this year at a special event on September 9.

Including this year's honorees, 291 alumni have been selected for this award, recognizing them as highly respected professionals, dedicated engineers and supporters of higher education. We honor them for their dedication and generosity, and we are proud to call them Cockrell School alumni.

Learn more about the 2021 honorees:

Hongming Chen

Hongming Chen

B.S. Chemical Engineering 1992
President, Head of R&D, Co-founder, Metis Therapeutics

Hongming Chen is President and Head of R&D at Metis Therapeutics, a biotech company she co-founded. Previously, she was Chief Scientific Officer at Kala Pharmaceuticals, which she helped to start in 2010. At Kala, she successfully translated a novel nanoparticle technology from bench discovery through Phase III clinical trials and FDA approval and helped to attract >$250 million investments, including a $104 million IPO in 2017. Prior to Kala, Chen helped to start and build TransForm Pharmaceuticals, which was acquired by Johnson & Johnson in 2005 for $230 million. Before TransForm, she held various research positions at AstraZeneca and Merck.

Chen is a member of the National Academy of Engineering, a fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering and a fellow of the Controlled Release Society. In 2014, she was named by the Massachusetts High Technology Council as one of the “Women to Watch,” an award recognizing female thought leaders shaping the future of the life sciences industry.

She received her B.S. in chemical engineering from UT Austin in 1992 and her M.S. and Sc.D. in chemical engineering from MIT in 1995 and 1996.


Rick Church

Richard M. Church Jr.

B.S. Mechanical Engineering 1977
President, Church Engineering Services Inc.

Richard (Rick) M. Church Jr. was born in Los Angeles, California. His father worked as a machinist for Rockwell, which began Church’s lifelong connection to the space industry. When Church was six years old, his family moved to a farm in southwest Missouri where they milked cows and managed the family farm for the next six years. They moved to Houston in 1966 and his father started a manufacturing company doing work for NASA and other aerospace companies. Church worked at the machine shop business through high school and, in the seventh grade, he decided to become an engineer. He graduated from UT Austin in 1977 with a degree in mechanical engineering.

Church began his career in 1977 at Cameron, working in the drilling products engineering group. His first design project was for 25,000-psi working pressure blowout preventers, the highest-pressure units ever made. He received two patents for blowout preventer designs. In 1979, at 25 years old, Church was promoted to engineering manager of Cameron’s Louisiana operations, which, at that time, employed over 800 people.

In 1984, he began working for McEvoy and was transferred to Aberdeen as engineering manager of subsea systems in Europe, and in 1988, he transferred to a Norwegian oil company, working as a consultant on subsea production systems. In 1991, he formed an oilfield services company, Church Oil Tools, with his brother, Dan. After the business took off, they sold the company in 1998 to start a new company, Church Energy Services, in 2001. They sold the business in 2010 and are currently starting a new business venture, Church Upstream Technologies.

Church credits his family values as the foundation for achieving his goals and gaining the respect of his peers. He is a passionate supporter of the Walker Department of Mechanical Engineering and the Longhorn Band. Church and his family live in Houston.


Jim Derryberry

Jim H. Derryberry

B.S. Electrical Engineering 1967
M.S. Electrical Engineering 1968
Special Advisor and Former Managing Director, Riverstone Holdings LLC

Jim Derryberry is a Special Advisor and co-founder at Riverstone Holdings LLC, a private equity firm focused on investments in energy-related projects for institutional and private clients. Derryberry has served on the boards of directors of Magellan Midstream Partners and USA Compression and is currently a member of the Board of Directors of Enviva, a supplier of wood chip fuel for power generation in Europe and Asia.

Derryberry began his career in 1968 at Bell Telephone Laboratories where he was involved in systems research and development for the Department of Defense. He continued this focus at Teledyne in Huntsville, Alabama, where his group served as technical consultant to the 1972 Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) negotiations.

After receiving his B.S. and M.S. in electrical engineering in 1967 and 1968 respectively, Derryberry earned his MBA from Stanford University in 1976. He began his career in finance working at JP Morgan, specializing in energy project finance before moving to the Goldman Sachs Energy Group in 1986. There he helped clients raise debt and equity financing and advised on merger and acquisitions, helping several European governments as they privatized their holdings in energy companies.

In 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Goldman was selected to advise the Russian Federation on foreign investment and Derryberry worked with the Yeltsin government to develop outside investment in Russian energy. In 1994, he returned to JP Morgan to become Department Head of the Mergers and Acquisitions Energy Group, leading the privatization of the U.S. Enrichment Corporation by the U.S. government.

Derryberry has served on the Board of Overseers for the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and is currently a member of the Cockrell School’s Engineering Advisory Board. He is married to Patricia (McMahon).


Jeannie Leavitt

Maj. Gen. Jeannie M.Leavitt

B.S. Aerospace Engineering 1990
Commander, Air Force Safety Center, Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico

Maj. Gen. Jeannie M. Leavitt is the Department of the Air Force Chief of Safety, Headquarters U.S. Air Force, Arlington, Virginia, and Commander, Air Force Safety Center, Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico. She develops, executes and evaluates all of the Air and Space Forces’ aviation, ground, weapons, space and system mishap prevention and nuclear surety programs to preserve combat capability. Additionally, she directs research to promote safety awareness and mishap prevention, oversees mishap investigations, evaluates corrective actions and ensures implementation. Finally, she manages, develops and directs all safety and risk management courses.

Maj. Gen. Leavitt entered the Air Force in 1992 after earning her bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering from The University of Texas at Austin and her master’s degree in aeronautics and astronautics from Stanford University. She earned her commission as a distinguished graduate of the Air Force ROTC program. She was the first female fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force, and she has served in a variety of flying, staff and command assignments, and has commanded at the flight, squadron and wing level. Maj. Gen. Leavitt is a graduate and former instructor of the U.S. Air Force Weapons School and is a command pilot with more than 3,000 hours. Her operational experiences include operations Southern Watch, Northern Watch, Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom.

Prior to her current assignment, the major general served as Director of Operations and Communications, Headquarters Air Education and Training Command, Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas, where she was responsible for the world‘s largest training organization, providing initial skills, undergraduate flying, post graduate combat crew and supplemental training for more than 300,000 Air Force, joint and international personnel at 65 Air Force and Department of Defense locations.

Jeff Sparks


W. Jeffrey Sparks

B.S. Petroleum Engineering 1983
Chief Operating Officer, Discovery Operating Inc.

Jeff Sparks grew up in Midland before attending The University of Texas at Austin, where he graduated with his B.S. in petroleum engineering in 1983. After graduation, he returned to Midland where he and his wife, Val, raised their four children, Jarrod, Joshua, Justin and Kristina. They are proud grandparents to seven grandchildren and attend First Baptist Church of Midland, where Sparks has served as a junior high Sunday school leader for over 25 years and sings in the choir.

Sparks has been a registered professional engineer in Texas since February 1988 and is the Chief Operating Officer at Discovery Operating, Inc., a family-owned oil and gas business. He is the regional director of the Permian Basin region for the Independent Petroleum Association of America and an area VP for the Permian Basin Petroleum Association. He has served as the chairman of the Permian Basin Petroleum Pioneers organization, is a member of the Society of Petroleum Engineers, has served on the External Advisory Committee for the Cockrell School’s Hildebrand Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering and currently sits on the Cockrell School’s Engineering Advisory Board. In 2017, the Permian Basin chapter of the Texas Society of Professional Engineers honored Sparks with their “Engineer of the Year” award.

Sparks is proud to be part of a legacy of professional engineers. His father, Don L. Sparks, has been a registered professional engineer in Texas since 1969, his son, Jarrod, has been a registered professional engineer in Texas since 2014, and his son, Joshua, received his seal in 2016. All four have earned their engineering degrees from UT Austin.