Diversity strengthens the FTPP project, says Auburn’s Dr. Edward Thomas Jr.

dr. edward thomas jr. and team feb2024
Dr. Edward Thomas Jr., center, with his Magnetized Plasma Research Laboratory research team and visitors. Clockwise from left are Cameron Royer, lab manager; Dr. Ellie Williamson, post-doctoral researcher; Edward Cowles, undergraduate student; Elon Price, doctoral student (sitting); Dr. Mustafizur Rahman, post-doctoral researcher; Siddharth Bachoti, doctoral student; Bhavesh Ramkorun, doctoral student; Vedant Singh, Dinil Jose and Ravi Kumar, visiting doctoral students from the University of Memphis; Dr. Jalaan Avritte, post-doctoral researcher (sideways); Blake Koford, doctoral student (sideways); James Middlebrooks, undergraduate student; Jared Powell, doctoral student; Matthew Shepherd, undergraduate student; and Dr. Saikat Chakraborty Thakur, principal research scientist. Photo courtesy Dr. Thomas

From his start as a “nerdy kid” with an interest in science growing up on St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands to his current position as the dean of the College of Sciences and Mathematics (COSAM) and professor of physics at Auburn University, Dr. Edward Thomas Jr. says his career has been strongly impacted and shaped by the generations of black physicists who came before him.

Dr. Thomas is a lead investigator for Future Technologies & enabling Plasma Processes (FTPP), an Alabama coalition of nine universities and a research corporation that aims to expand and commercialize plasma research and create an in-state plasma workforce. He says he had “a pretty normal childhood” growing up with two younger sisters and his parents on the island.

“Both of my parents worked for the local tax revenue office, and the economy of the Virgin Islands is largely focused on tourism,” he says. “So, I was a bit of an outlier because of my interest in science from a young age.”

His parents did a good job of indulging his science interests.

“On trips to the U.S. mainland, we did things like visit the Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., or visiting Kennedy Space Center,” Dr. Thomas says. “And when there were science camps hosted by our local university, the University of the Virgin Islands, I participated in those.”

early standout

That kind of encouragement paid off. Dr. Thomas graduated as one of three co-valedictorians of his high school at age 16. From there, he earned a bachelor’s degree in physics at the Florida Institute of Technology and then a master’s degree in physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“I then attended Auburn to earn my PhD in physics,” he says. “My graduate school research at both the master’s and PhD level focused on topics in fusion energy research.”

During all of that journey, Dr. Thomas says his aunt and uncle, Drs. Ambrose and Anna Jearld, were very influential.

“Ambrose, in particular, was a marine biologist and researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute who first took me to a research lab and introduced me to the first scientists that I ever met.”

In the Virgin Islands, he credits teachers Austin Walters and Howard Gumbs for guiding him through all of his science classes in high school “and for giving me the drive to become a successful scientist.”

After earning his doctorate, Dr. Thomas became an assistant professor at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., in 1996 and began to shift his focus from fusion to a broader range of topics in plasma science.

“After a trip back to Auburn in 1999, the department reached out to me about a possible move back to Auburn as a faculty member,” he says. “So, in January 2000, I returned to Auburn as an assistant professor of physics.” 

Over the years, he moved up in rank to become an associate, then a full professor. Dr. Thomas served from August 2017 to August 2021 as the COSAM associate dean for research and graduate studies and from September 2021 to February 2023 as interim dean. He began serving as dean of COSAM on March 1, 2023.

shaped by generations

“My own career has certainly been strongly impacted and shaped by the generations of black physicists who came before me,” Dr. Thomas says. “They faced enormous challenges to create pathways and opportunities that have made it possible to achieve success in my own career.”

Yet he points out that, as a black physicist, he still is an outlier.  

“The reality is that African-Americans and persons from other historically marginalized groups still remain woefully unrepresented in physics,” Dr. Thomas says.

Data provided in 2021 by the American Physical Society says that among all physics groups, only about 8% are African-Americans or underrepresented minorities.

“It is still surprising, and occasionally alarming, to me how many professional situations I have been in where I am the only person of color in the room,” he says.

inclusivity counts

Diversity strengthens FTPP, which is funded by a $20 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, Dr. Thomas says.

“I personally believe that the best thing that we can all do to is to exemplify the principles of inclusivity and belonging,” he says. “What do I mean by this? It means fully embracing the complexity and richness of humanity and recognizing that everyone can contribute to addressing the deep scientific and societal issues that we are trying to solve in the FTPP project.”

He says that inclusivity starts within each FTPP lead investigator’s research group, by creating teams that bring together groups of diverse people and perspectives.

“As the principal investigators of the FTPP project, it is incumbent upon us to demonstrate our commitment to these principles through leadership by example,” Dr. Thomas says. “Moreover, it is more than just having a diverse team, it is creating a sense of ownership and belonging for everyone involved.”