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Currents: the science guy

William A. Thomas, a Professor Unlike any Other

By Lisa Stanulonis '13

Professor of Natural Sciences William A. Thomas goes by many names--Professor Bill, Professor Thomas, Bill, or my personal favorite, Bill Nye the Science Guy. Yet he is mainly known across campus as an extraordinary and notoriously difficult professor.

There is great value in his teaching that only a select few students comprehend and appreciate. As a first-year student who intends to major in Exercise and Sport Sciences, I am currently taking Professor Thomas's class in Introduction to Biology. The class is an ESS requirement, and I'll need it to progress to other ESS-related classes such as Anatomy and Physiology. From my experiences with biology I can affirm that his classes require hard work and determination. Those unwilling to rise to the challenge will either earn a low grade or fail. But students who have paid close attention to his lectures and struggled to meet Professor Thomas's high expectations have made a good investment in their own future.

Professor Thomas earned a Bachelor of Arts in French from Hamilton College and a Ph.D. in Cellular and Developmental Biology from Princeton University. He ran a research lab for many years before settling down and joining the Colby-Sawyer faculty in 1991. He recently took a sabbatical leave to continue his research on cell adhesion at the Curie Institute in Paris, where he has been working every summer for many years.

His areas of academic expertise will no doubt sound unfamiliar to non-scientists. These include analysis of diverse cellular adhesion phenomena; biochemical purification; developmental, cellular and molecular biology; immunochemical techniques; and sterile cell and tissue culture techniques. But these arcane areas of expertise aren't what Professor Thomas focuses on in class, and not necessarily what he's most passionate about in life. In the classroom and life at large, he's drawn to the world of big ideas. He believes life is extraordinary and wants to understand how it all works. If you're lucky, he'll teach you too.

Nonetheless, his passion for big ideas didn't lead him directly to his current profession. “It was not a conscious decision, it just sort of happened,” he admits. As a child Professor Thomas was always explaining things to anyone who would listen. As time progressed, it became a habit for him to just start teaching other people what he knew. Having grown up with a mother who was a grade school teacher, teaching just seemed to fit.

But why Colby-Sawyer? “I like the fact that teaching here makes a difference,” Professor Thomas says. “People see who they are and what they can become.”

In my biology class, Professor Thomas often talks about the basic building blocks in life such as water and cells. Although these might seem like boring topics, he adds interest by giving us real life examples from his life and research. His biggest ideas revolve around structure and function. He always tells us: Know the structure and function of everything at hand, and from there you will know everything you need for this class.” Opportunities abound for student participation: we can respond to our professor's questions or just offer out take on any topic at hand.

Ten years from now, Professor Thomas is unsure whether he will be teaching here or pursuing other adventures around the world. He imagines himself one day somewhere new, doing something different. Yet if he should still be here he hopes to continue to teach new and interesting classes, along with his same old biology courses.

Through everything Professor Thomas has done in life, he says he finds the most satisfaction in teaching people, especially his students and his daughter. He views the success of his Colby-Sawyer students as one of the greatest contributions of his life. For this science guy, cell adhesion may be fascinating, but he believes that “Without a doubt success comes from the people you touch, not the things you do.”

Lisa Stanulonis is a student writer in College Communications.