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Women in Science Project
6201 Parker House
Hanover, NH 03755

Phone: 603-646-3690

Perry Thomas '83

An interview by Allison M. Hargreaves '02, January 8, 2001.

When and How Did You First Get Interested in Science?

This is a tough question for me, because it seems as if I always imagined working at the interface between science and the public. My earliest moment of clarity came when a high school Biology teacher inspired me to read original accounts of research in animal behavior. The writings of Niko Tinbergen caught my attention, and before I knew it, I was hooked.

What Was Your Major in College, and What Related Activities Did You Pursue?

I majored in Biology, and took as many Ecology classes as possible. During my junior year I wrote proposals for grant support to pursue an independent project investigating epiphyllic fungal populations among subalpine balsam fir trees on Mt. Moosilauke. The combination of this research experience and a class with newly arrived aquatic biologist, Carol Folt, inspired me to find work in ecological research after graduation.

What Were Your Goals? Did You Follow This Path?

Long term, my goals were to pursue graduate work that would lead me to a career bridging the gap between basic science and the public. I wasn't sure what form this bridging would take, but while at Dartmouth I had taken a class in Science and Public Policy with Gene Lyons. Professor Lyons knew of my interests, and invited me to meet President Carter's Science Advisor. Over lunch I was advised to become a good scientist as a first step‹follow my interest in basic science and see where it led me. The bridging could wait.

My path toward becoming a good scientist led me westward. First I joined a watershed-monitoring project based at a field station in the Sierra Nevada of California for two years. This was a rich time for me because I not only learned much and worked hard in the lab and field, but also spent a lot of time on cross-country skis. During my second year there, Rebecca Todd ('84, WISP Archive, July 31, 2000) joined me to work with another project based in the same laboratory. Our friendship deepened, and has continued to grow stronger over intervening years.

Later, at Northern Arizona University, I received a Patricia Roberts Harris Fellowship (from the U.S. Department of Education) that supported my work toward a Ph.D. in Biology, with an emphasis in Ecology. My dissertation research focused on the evolutionary ecology of freshwater crustaceans (Amphipoda), combining traditional behavioral ecology field methods with molecular genetic analyses. This was a magical time for me, as the answer to one question led to new, more fascinating questions.

What Are You Currently Involved In?

I have been a faculty member at Sterling College since 1998. My teaching assignments range from Conservation Biology to Systems Thinking. Currently, I am also Acting Dean of the College.

Are You Still Involved in the Sciences? In What Ways?

Sterling College is off the beaten path, both geographically and philosophically. Tucked into a corner of the Northeast Kingdom, we recruit students who want to learn by doing. In that spirit, I encourage students to do authentic research in both organized classes and independent studies.

Since many of my students concentrate in Wildlands Ecology and Management, we tend to pursue applied research. For example, a team of Sterling students and I are cooperators in the Vermont Monitoring Cooperative. Over the past year we have developed low-impact methods for biological monitoring of headwater streams on Mt. Mansfield. During the coming year we will implement those methods in conjunction with chemical monitoring conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey.

What Are Your Top Priorities Today? Have These Changed from When You First Graduated?

My top priority today is balance. I strive to do my work — both housework and college duties — as efficiently as possible. In the remaining time I focus on family and health. My husband, Rick, and I spend as much time as we can with our four-year old daughter, Thalia. We especially enjoy snowshoeing together in the wildlands around our home — such outings are a priority on weekends.

My partnership with Rick is a key to creating balance. He and I share parenting responsibilities fully. In addition to supporting each other, we receive support from my parents, who live nearby. Without such a team, it would be much more difficult to work full time while raising a young child.

What Are You Most Passionate About Today?

Doing ecological research with students has become both my passion and my way of bridging science and the public. My current duties as Acting Dean make this difficult, as crises invariably preempt my limited research time with students. I look forward to the completion of our search for a new Dean.

If You Could Change Anything About Your Career Trajectory, What Would It Be and Why?

I would arrange a longer hiatus from full-time work for bearing and raising children. I took a six-week leave with Thalia — six months would have been better. As Rebecca Todd has reminded me, there is always time to work, but those months with a newborn child never return.

What Advice Do You Have for Current Students Who May Be Interested in the Sciences?

The same advice given to me‹follow your interests in basic science and do good work. In other words, listen to your own inner voices.

May Dartmouth Students Contact You?

Yes! My e-mail is; my phone number is (800) 648-3591.

Last Updated: 10/20/10