Edward Thomas

Professor in the Department of Physics
College of Sciences and Mathematics

Edward Thomas, professor in the Department of Physics, was born and raised in St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. He received his B.S., M.S. and Ph.D. in physics from the Florida Institute of Technology, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Auburn University, respectively. He has been a faculty member at Auburn for 16 years and is the Lawrence C. Wit Professor in the College of Sciences and Mathematics, as well as a Charles W. Barkley Endowed Professor. His research is in the area of experimental plasma physics with an emphasis on laboratory simulations of the space environment and fundamental processes of particle and energy transport in plasmas and dusty plasmas. This work is funded through numerous sources including the National Science Foundation, NASA, the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense. Thomas is also very active in science policy and in fostering the next generation of scientists through his advisory roles for the federal government, international organizations, universities, professional societies and his work with the nonprofit organization, Quality Education for Minorities Network.

1. What brought you to Auburn?

For more than 30 years, Auburn University has been building a significant research effort in laboratory, space and fusion plasma physics. This is what originally attracted me to Auburn as a graduate student in the early 1990s to work with the fusion energy research group. After I completed my Ph.D. and was working at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, I was contacted by the Department of Physics at Auburn University with an offer to return as a faculty member. Because there are only a handful of institutions in the United States where plasma science is a major research activity, I was very happy to have the opportunity to pursue a professional career at Auburn and to contribute to the growth of the plasma physics research program.

2. You were recently selected as a Charles W. Barkley Endowed Professor. What does that mean to you and what do you do in this role?

Being selected as one of the Charles W. Barkley Endowed Professors has been a real honor because it recognizes both academic achievements as well as a commitment to fostering a diverse university community. As a Barkley Professor, I serve as faculty resource to the Office of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs (ODMA), contributing to activities planned by the office, serving as a mentor for students and faculty, and working on ODMA initiatives that enhance the inclusiveness of the Auburn University community. I also work with ODMA to lead a pre-freshman Auburn Abroad activity to the U.S. and British Virgin Islands.

3. What has been the most rewarding part of your career?

Without a doubt, the most rewarding part of my career has been working with both undergraduate and graduate students in my laboratory. I have had the pleasure of serving as a research mentor for more than 30 undergraduate students and more than a dozen graduate students. Six of my graduate students earned their doctorate degrees with me and have gone onto successful careers in academia, industry and national labs. Many of the undergraduate students who began working with me when I started at Auburn have gone on to receive Ph.D. and medical degrees, and one has recently become a physics professor. That makes me feel that I've had an impact as a professor.

4. Tell us about your research in the magnet laboratory and its uniqueness to Auburn. How does your research impact the "real world?"

The design, construction and operation of the Magnetized Dusty Plasma Experiment (MDPX) device and the magnet lab have been a major focus of my professional life for the last seven years. When the lab was finally commissioned and we began operating the magnet for the first time in summer 2014, it was amazing! The MDPX device is a superconducting, variable configuration, high-magnetic field system for studying plasmas and "dusty" plasmas under conditions that have previously been inaccessible in experiments. This allows us to explore plasma conditions that are relevant to problems in fusion energy, astrophysical plasmas and planetary formation. Because the MDPX device is truly a one-of-a-kind instrument for this type of research, our research team has committed to operating the laboratory as a user facility. This means that researchers from across the United States and around the world will be coming to Auburn to work with us. In October 2015, we had our first international user from Germany and last month, we had a user from South Korea. Throughout the remainder of 2016, we have plans for several more domestic and international users.

5. In your opinion, what sets Auburn apart from other universities?

I feel that Auburn really tries to create a sense of community and belonging among its students, faculty and alumni. I've had the good fortune to travel to many institutions around the world, and few places I've been to have that same sense of camaraderie. As both a faculty member and an alumnus, I am proud to be associated with Auburn University.

Last Updated: Feb. 8, 2015

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