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Edward Thomas

Professor of Physics
College of Sciences and Mathematics

Physics Professor Edward Thomas was born and raised on the island of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. He received his Ph.D. in physics from Auburn University in 1996 and joined the faculty at Auburn in 2000. He is also actively involved in several national advisory committees for plasma science and physics including: member of U.S. Department of Energy - Fusion Energy Sciences Advisory Committee; member of the Executive Committee of the University Fusion Association; and member of the Facility Science Team for the PK-4 and PlasmaLab microgravity projects, which are joint Russian-German International Space Station projects. Noted for his enthusiasm for physics, in addition to his international research, Thomas is the director of the Plasma Sciences Laboratory at Auburn University, and he also dedicates time to assist with the College of Sciences and Mathematics's(COSAM) K-12 outreach events.

1. What is the most rewarding aspect of teaching at Auburn?

While I enjoy teaching all levels of physics courses, I particularly enjoy the upper-division courses for our undergraduate physics majors - that is, those beyond the introductory, first-year courses. These classes are the ones that really introduce our majors to the scientific and mathematical concepts that form the core of physics. It is exhilarating to observe the students as they are simultaneously challenged by the material and gaining new insights into the "big questions" that physicists have been pondering since the days of Sir Isaac Newton.

2. As the director of the Plasma Sciences Laboratory, what is it about plasma physics that you enjoy so much and why is plasma physics important?

A plasma is an ionized gas and represents a fourth state of matter (as in solids, liquids, gases and plasmas). In space, plasmas are very common in the form of stars and the solar wind. On earth, naturally occurring plasmas are lightning bolts and the aurora. Over many decades, scientists have learned to harness plasmas as tools in areas such as manufacturing things like computer chips or for lighting technologies like fluorescent light bulbs - but truly controlling a very hot, highly charged plasma using the electric and magnetic properties of the plasma remains elusive. My group's research is focused on gaining a very fundamental understanding of how particles, waves and energy are transported in laboratory and space plasmas. Our research is very much basic science, but with the potential to obtain knowledge that could be used in many areas of applied physics, science and engineering. The thing that I enjoy the most at Auburn is my interaction with the undergraduate and graduate student researchers in my laboratory. Even though my group is growing into a pretty sizeable team, I make sure that I spend time with each person to discuss their projects. Being in daily contact with people developing into scientists is very rewarding.

3. What has been the proudest moment of your career thus far?

In one of my earliest funded research grants, I had proposed to use a particular optical diagnostic technique known as particle image velocimetry (PIV) to measure particle transport in a type of plasma system known as a "complex" or "dusty" plasma. It had never before been used on a dusty plasma and I had no idea if it would even work. The measurement not only worked, but has been adopted by other laboratories in the dusty plasma field. My research group is now in the process of working with national and international collaborators to develop a PIV system for use on the International Space Station.

4. When did you know you wanted to be a scientist?

I think I've pretty much always known that I wanted to be a scientist. It really coalesced for me when I spent the summer between eighth and ninth grades at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) with my uncle, who is a marine biologist. He took me to the WHOI labs as his very, very junior assistant and I was able to interact with the students and scientists there. While I did like the biological research, what really impressed me was just how excited and enthusiastic everyone was about their work and how they would stop what they were doing to explain things to me. I thought that was amazing.

5. You often help with COSAM Outreach events. Why did you decide to assist with COSAM Outreach and what do you hope the young students gain from your presentations?

My own interest in science was encouraged while I was at a young age and I owe a huge amount of thanks to the people who influenced me. So, I hope that through my outreach activities that I can have a positive influence on younger students. In particular, my group's outreach activities try to use common objects - things like fluorescent light bulbs, hairdryers, Wii controllers, etc. - to demonstrate that science can be done in the world students encounter on a daily basis.

May 23, 2011