Could you give me a little background about yourself?
I grew up in Iowa and I went to Iowa State University as an undergrad in the horticulture department. My specialization was turfgrass management and I got into that because I grew up about two blocks from a golf course. My dad’s a golfer and so the golf course was my babysitter. I started working on the golf course when I was 12, first working in the pro shop and then I graduated to mowing the grass and kept that job all through high school. I’m also a competitive golfer and so it’s fun to have a career doing something I love and working outside.
I ended up at Iowa State and loved being at the University. I loved learning so much I got a minor in philosophy and decided to go to graduate school. I was able to go to Colorado State University with some assistantships and did my Master’s and PhD there.
My Master’s was funded by the Denver Water Board. They’ve always had problems with drought and water scarcity so I looked at which of the three main lawn grass species can be irrigated the smallest amount and remain functional and green throughout the year.
We studied buffalograss which is native to the Colorado short grass prairie and was starting to come on as a potential lawn species. It takes 70 to 80 percent less water than standard tall fescue and Kentucky bluegrass, which we use in the Mid-Atlantic predominantly. In Colorado, most people were still using Kentucky bluegrass and I showed that tall fescue could use 20 percent less water so a lot of people made a transition to it.
For my PhD, I loved the mountains of Colorado and the outdoors so I was able to stay and I studied a new plant growth regulator, trinexapac-ethyl, that was coming out on the market to cut the vertical growth of lawn or any turfgrass species in half so you don’t have to mow as often. I studied the physiological effects. It inhibits a certain hormone in the plant called gibberellic acid which signals cells and shoots to elongate after mowing. That’s when I started becoming a plant growth regulator/hormone physiology specialist, leading to my first job right out of getting my PhD.
What was your first job after getting your PhD?
I became the Turfgrass Extension specialist and research professor at the University of Missouri and kept working on turfgrass stress physiology and plant growth regulation. Missouri’s a big state. You’ve got some big urban areas like St. Louis and Kansas City and there’s a big need in terms of turfgrass, golf courses, lawns and sports fields.
I developed a good program there as a young scientist and got noticed and recruited to Virginia Tech. I moved there in 2001 and spent 17 years going through the ranks and establishing my program.
Could you talk about your time at Virginia Tech?
I was the main person who taught turfgrass classes and advised the turfgrass specific students and kept a strong research program going. As I moved through my career, I’ve always been interested in how the department, college and the University runs. I was always doing a lot of service and wanted to be involved in some of the decisions, not only within my lab and program, but the whole department and University. So my first step into administration was as undergraduate student program coordinator. Then I got the opportunity to go into 50 percent administration within the college as assistant dean of academic programs in 2013. That was a way to try out leadership and ramping down my research program a little bit without having to move.
I went through LEAD21 supported by my dean, associate dean and department head at the time. They saw that I wanted to move my career into academic leadership so I went through LEAD21 with Janine Sherrier and Amy Shober. We were the class of 2015. That’s when I got my first exposure to the great people in this department and the University of Delaware.
In 2016, I got the chance to be interim department head at Virginia Tech and served 13 months in that role. My department was crop and soil environmental sciences. I enjoyed being a department head and started to look around for where I could get a job and start anew with a department of excellence that maybe wanted to take me in and help me do good things so I ended up here.
What about the University of Delaware and the Department drew you in?
The department has very strong faculty and they are doing impactful research. I also saw a real need for somebody to come in and help them grow and improve undergraduate programs and that’s something I’d been working on, and thinking about, at Virginia Tech.
I saw the new and developing bachelor of landscape architecture program and I thought that was exciting because many places around the country you’ll see landscape architecture departments that are very theory and design based and don’t have much of a plant and soils emphasis. I saw that they had a really good combination of those things here which is what I believe in. I also saw some excellent young faculty who may be ready to partner with me to think about new majors like sustainable food systems or things that would have some cache with urban and suburban students that I think are a lot of where our UD students are coming from.
I was really impressed with the CANR campus and how all the outdoor classrooms and UD Botanic Garden are all right here. You step out the door and you’ve got immediate experiential learning. You’ve got the botanic gardens and the greenhouses but you’ve also got the dairy, the corn crop right out your door so we’ve got everything in terms of plant and soil science right here whereas other universities, like at Virginia Tech, our students would have to go 15 minutes, 30 minutes to get to the research plots. The other thing I saw once I got here is world class facilities at the Delaware Biotechnology Institute (DBI) and the Patrick T. Harker Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Laboratory that are quite a bit better than many other land grant universities.
As I’ve been here the last few weeks and meeting people and touring places, my impressions of the strength of the college and the University and the department have just gotten stronger.
What do you think you’ve learned from past experiences that will help inform your time here as chair?
I’ve learned how to have a successful individual P.I. program and how to look at the bigger picture of what your department needs across the three missions of the University and the department. As assistant dean of academic programs in the college of ag and life sciences at Virginia Tech, I looked across what it takes to build a strong college within a big University. I’ve learned to appreciate what success looks like and what collaboration looks like from the individual researcher level to the department level to the college level and so I think I have a pretty good background that allows me to figure out the right questions to ask and the right people to start forming partnerships with to move us forward.
Could you talk a little bit about your former research program and any research interests here at UD?
When I got to Virginia Tech, I was replacing a very well-known professor who had a 40-year career. In the last part of his career, he started working on what are now known as bio-stimulants. Since then it’s become a two-billion-dollar industry of organic and natural based products whether they be beneficial bacteria to seaweed extracts to humic substances. I went into that area because some of these bio-stimulants, which are all natural in origin, have effects on plant hormones and therefore plant growth and development and stress physiology. Back in the 90’s and early 2000’s, there wasn’t much science behind these products. They had the reputation of being snake oils that people were trying to peddle.
He had been the first one in turfgrass science to publish refereed journal articles tracking down that some of these products, and especially kelp or seaweed extracts and humic substances which are just various forms of highly decomposed organic matter, improve stress response of turfgrasses and other plants. Part of what he was able to show is that they would boost antioxidant production within the plant which would then help with drought or heat stress.
A large part of my research program at Virginia Tech was spent establishing that there were high levels of certain plant growth promoting hormones in some of these products, especially the seaweed extracts, and that they, in turn, improved the immune response of plants when they were challenged with various stresses.
At UD I am planning on changing my research program to focus more on landscape ecology. There are a lot of golf courses around the country that are into creating native or naturalized meadows in out of play areas to provide a number of ecosystem services such as attracting pollinators. For example, Bidermann golf course, just north of Wilmington at Winterthur, their superintendent reached out and to be certified as an Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary golf course nationally, he’s got native meadows and bee hives on his site so I contacted him and we might put one of our research plots out there.
As part of that, he saw on Twitter that I was coming to this job and so on January 23, he organized a meeting of all Delaware and Philadelphia area superintendents to come and meet me and talk about how as a turfgrass specialist, I can help them to do their jobs better. One of my hobbies and passions is golf, so I’ll be happy to have a big outreach part of my job working with the golf course superintendents on protecting environmental quality on their golf courses.
The other thing I’d like to do in terms of field research is similar to what we had at Virginia Tech where the athletics department funded a graduate research assistantship and that master’s student worked on the ball fields for athletics. It was on the job training and we came up with a master’s research project, sometimes on their ball fields, that tries to answer a question or solve a problem for them.
Besides golf, any other hobbies?
We have dogs and we do a lot of hiking. We’re going to live near White Clay Creek so I’m looking forward to that and my wife and I do a lot of travel. I was in Italy and Kenya and Ecuador last year.
Article by Adam Thomas