Richard Thomas, WVU’s newly named chair of the Department of Biology, knew he wanted to be a biologist after his first undergraduate class in ecology. After graduating and working on the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina for a year, he found his niche in the field of plant physiological ecology.

The Department of Biology is one of the University’s largest, with more than 900 pre-biology and biology majors. In addition, it is very diverse with 30 research and teaching faculty members and 45 graduate students.

Thomas thinks that these numbers present many opportunities for the Department but also many challenges. He is committed to undergraduate retention and to building and developing graduate programs. Additionally, he is excited about President Jim Clements’ pledge to hire 100 new faculty in the next three years.

“We need to retain our faculty and help them develop their research and teaching careers,” Thomas said. “And we need to add new excellent scientists to our faculty to add new research and teaching directions to those already present in our Department.”

Thomas identifies several ways that alumni can help the Department reach its goals. He says support for undergraduate research projects in the form of scholarship dollars is crucial to maintaining the level of instruction the Department currently provides. He also sees support for graduate student travel to national meetings to present their work and to develop contacts for their future careers as a pressing need.

“Research and presentation of that research is a crucial component in the development of a well-rounded academic,” he said. “In order to improve the national standing of WVU we need to grow our graduate programs and to do that we need funds to offer the most comprehensive and competitive experience to our graduate students.”

Thomas’ research addresses issues related to global environmental change including complex, interrelated phenomena such as greenhouse warming, stratospheric ozone depletion, tropical deforestation, loss of biodiversity, atmospheric nitrogen deposition, elevated atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations and a host of other environmental changes.

Specifically, he focuses on understanding how plants interact with a changing environment, both physical and biotic, and the physiological adaptations of plants to environmental stress. His is also interested in scaling plant physiological processes to the ecosystem level, for example, defining the role of nitrogen-fixing plants in ecosystem nitrogen balance or understanding the role of forest productivity in the global carbon balance.

Early in his career at Duke University, he developed the Free-Air CO2 Enrichment (FACE) experiment with Boyd Strain, one of the pioneers of plant physiological ecology. Their FACE experiment was the first to manipulate an intact forest ecosystem.

The main objective of FACE research is to understand the role of forests in the global carbon cycle. FACE builds on many greenhouse and chamber experiments where individual plants are examined under different conditions of climate change. Today there is a whole network of FACE experiments worldwide that examines many types of ecosystems.

Richard Thomas received his doctorate from Clemson University in 1987. He joined WVU’s Department of Biology in 1995 and was promoted to full professor in 2006. He has published over seven book chapters and over 56 articles in referred journals including, Science, Plant and Soil, Oecologia and Plant, Cell and Environment. In 2000, he received the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences Outstanding Researcher Award.

Messages may be sent to Richard Thomas at richard.thomas@mail.wvu.

-WVU-

rh/11/5/09

CONTACT: Rebecca Herod, Eberly College of Arts and Sciences
304-293-7405, ext. 5251, Rebecca.Herod@mail.wvu.edu