3/13/2012 Magazine Staff

Roger D.K. Thomas

Roger D.K. Thomas, the John Williamson Nevin Professor of Geosciences, has taught at F&M since 1975. Last year he was elected a fellow of the Geological Society of America in recognition of his substantial contributions to the geosciences over nearly four decades of research, teaching and service to the profession. Last fall Thomas also received an award for distinguished service from the Paleontological Society. The intellectual theme of his work centers on patterns, processes and the evolution of complex systems in nature.

Why did you choose geology as a field of study?

I knew I wanted to be a geologist since I was 12 or 13. It started in the simplest of ways. As a small boy throwing stones into the sea, I noticed some that contained cavities filled with tiny crystals. This intrigued me, and I became ever more excited by geology, collecting rocks, minerals and fossils from quarries and sea cliffs all over southern England.

The senior science teacher at my school encouraged me. The bad news was that I had to take the equivalent of AP chemistry, physics and math, and I was not a strong science student. But I was able get into the Imperial College of Science and Technology in London. It was the best place to study geology at that time, so I was very fortunate.

What drew you to teaching?

People. I love geology, and as a teenager I spent many solitary hours looking for fossils. But once I got to the university, I made many friends and I became involved in lots of activities. I’m really quite gregarious. Two things drew me to teaching. One is the interaction with people. The other is that if you know things you think are exciting and important, you want to share them with others. One way to do so is by writing books. A more direct and personal way is by teaching.

What brought you to F&M?

Nearing completion of my Ph.D. at Harvard, I thought about teaching or working for an oil company. I wrote to British Petroleum, but they didn’t seem very interested. I was offered a position as senior tutor of Quincy House at Harvard. So I did that for three years, spent a year doing research in Germany, and returned for a final year at Harvard.

Then a one-year position opened up at F&M. I asked my senior colleagues about F&M, and one said, ‘It’s just the place for you.’ Knowing I wanted to teach and continue my research, he recognized that F&M, with its strong reputation in geology, would be a good fit for me. I got the job, and I’ve been here ever since. 

You’re a paleontologist, so I have to ask: What’s your favorite dinosaur? 

I’d have to say Stegosaurus. Some very clever experimental work was done in the 1970s to test interpretations of the triangular plates that run along its back. One model said they were protective, another that they were for display. A third model argued that they were heat exchangers. Results of the experiments and other evidence definitively show that they’re heat exchangers. The structure of the argument developed to arrive at this conclusion is very elegant.

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