A former Mason soccer star who has become one of the leading entrepreneurs in the United Kingdom. An alumnus known for his tireless work on every Mason committee and cause that needs him. A biology major who has been researching dendrite morphology since her freshman year. And a professor of music who also directs one of the nation’s most popular college pep bands.
Those were the leading honorees at the 2016 Celebration of Distinction, the annual gathering hosted by the George Mason University Alumni Association. Since 1976, the Alumni Association has been recognizing the accomplishments and contributions of Mason’s alumni. More than 200 alumni and supporters attended the awards dinner, held April 13 at the Hyatt Regency in Fairfax.
“It’s the Alumni Association’s longest-standing tradition and a highlight of the year,” says Christine Clark-Talley, associate vice president for alumni relations. “It is always inspiring to share alumni success stories that span the entire university. They demonstrate the power and impact of a Mason education.”
Martin Dunphy, Alumnus of the Year
Irish-born finance mogul Martin Dunphy, BS Marketing ’90, MBA ’91, knew he wanted to be his own boss since the late 1980s.
Back then, he was still a teen kicking around a ball and setting records for the Mason soccer team (it’s “football,” of course, to the Irishman).
Some 25 years later, he’s not only his own boss, but he’s head of an international team of business people. He’s also Mason’s Alumnus of the Year.
“There’s only so much you can do by yourself,” Dunphy says. “You have to find the right people who want to come along on the journey with you.”
He still works with many of the people who helped him build Marlin Financial Group, a company he started in his London living room in 2002. With Dunphy at the helm, the company dealt mostly with banks, bought billons in assets, and then managed those assets. After years as the company’s CEO, Dunphy sold the venture for $485 million in 2014.
He now owns Ascot Capital Partners, a new venture he says is fun to operate. The company essentially invests in emerging entrepreneurial companies—much like the one he established.
Currently Dunphy splits his time between the United Kingdom and Northern Virginia, where he owns a farm near Leesburg. The former goalkeeper says he’s in Northern Virginia every month and is always sure to head to campus to see his alma mater play a soccer match or two. He attended Mason on a soccer scholarship and still holds the school record for the most saves. He’s also established an endowment with Mason’s Patriot Club that supports the university’s soccer program.
Scott Hine, Alumni Service Award
Scott Hine, BS Decision Science ’85, likes to give things away.
Long after he left behind the halls of Mason, Hine still returned to the Johnson Center as a volunteer as part of the Alumni Association effort to hand out free Scantrons—those multiple choice, fill-in-the-bubble test answer sheets—to students before exams. His twin daughters, one of whom graduated from Mason twice, have even helped him in the task a few times.
Before Southside dining hall was built on the Fairfax Campus, Hine would often spend Friday nights distributing food to freshmen. But his favorite things to hand out are alumni lapel pins to brand-new Mason alumni, right after they cross the Commencement stage.
Hine has distributed alumni pins at four Winter Graduation ceremonies and at eight of the past eleven spring Commencements. “I believe that I’ve pinned more grads than anyone in Mason history,” he says.
“Things like that don’t take a lot of effort, but they are the right things to do,” he says.
It is this dedicated spirit that earned Hine the 2016 Alumni Service Award.
Hine was a member of the Alumni Association’s Strategic Planning Committee and played a vital role in the development of a new strategic plan. He just completed his term as an at-large director on the Alumni Association Board. Now a member of the group’s Scholarship Committee, he counts among his most joyous moments calling applicants to tell them they are scholarship recipients.
Hine is currently a project manager at the U.S. Department of Energy, where he provides program and project management guidance and oversight of a multibillion-dollar research and development portfolio. One of his after-retirement goals, he says, is to work at Mason.
Michael “Doc Nix” Nickens, Faculty Member of the Year
Traveling the globe as a working musician and gifting his melodies to the masses are rewarding undertakings for Michael Nickens, a man who bleeds charisma and finds his sustenance in human interaction.
But nothing quite has his heart like teaching.
Nickens, a tenured professor at George Mason University, director of the Green Machine pep band, an avid tuba player, and now the Faculty Member of the Year, says teaching at the university level is a way to accomplish many things.
“Higher education allows for a wide range of experiences and interactions, from the absolute beginner all the way through the world-class performer,” he says. “I like that kind of variety, and access to that whole spectrum improves how I interact with every part of it.”
Northern Virginia, his home, is a place of cultural convergence, Nickens says, and there’s a way to express that cultural influence through music.
“I wanted to make the [Green Machine] band less segregated than a radio station,” he says. “I want as many people as possible to see themselves in our repertoire. I want them to see the richness of the community.”
Faculty members at other universities are looking for Mason alumni to come to their schools and do what we do here at Mason, Nickens says. He wants to help develop a curriculum at Mason that prepares students to do that.
“I am from a family of teachers and it is in my blood,” he says. “The type of professional I have always [been] and still want to be is one that creates, performs, teaches, and advocates.”
Caroline Thomas, Senior of the Year
A light fueled by admiration and love appears in biology major Caroline Thomas’s eyes as she talks about her younger brother Eric, who has Down syndrome and autism.
“I have a voice for Eric, because he isn’t able to speak for himself,” says Thomas. Eric is her motivation, and the reason for all her accomplishments, including being named Senior of the Year.
Thomas does clinical research at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and was accepted into the Early Selection Program at the George Washington University School of Medicine, where she’ll pursue her medical degree in the fall.
Her journey in research and medicine began as a freshman at Mason. That’s when she met neuroscientist Daniel Cox, then principal investigator of the Cox Laboratory at Mason’s Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study.
“He gave me a chance to do research,” she says. Under Cox’s mentorship, she had two research projects funded by the Office of Student Scholarship, Creative Activities, and Research (OSCAR), and was selected as an OSCAR Fellow.
Thomas also counts her mentor Donna M. Fox, associate dean of student affairs in the College of Science, as being instrumental in her achievements. Those include receiving a national scholarship through Alpha Lambda Delta Honor Society, as well as the Provost Academic Achievement Award.
She’s thinking of becoming a pediatrician so she can work with children like Eric.
Rob Riordan contributed to this story.