A renowned researcher, prolific speaker and mentor to college students is the recipient of the Society of American Florists’ 2018 Alex Laurie Award. The association honored Paul A. Thomas, Ph.D., a professor in the University of Georgia’s horticulture department, on Sept. 15 during SAF Palm Springs 2018, SAF’s 134th annual convention at the Westin Mission Hills in Rancho Mirage, California.
Established in 1948, SAF’s Alex Laurie Award is named for the eminent professor at The Ohio State University. Over the course of his 60-year career, Laurie laid the groundwork for research that revolutionized the floriculture industry and left a lineage of students, teachers and researchers continuing to provide the information necessary to ensure the industry’s future.
Paul Fowle, vice president of DVFlora and SAF’s treasurer, introduced Thomas, citing a few of his numerous achievements, including publishing more than 350 peer-reviewed scientific and outreach articles, receiving 41 academic awards and giving more than 600 presentations to industry groups.
“Above all, Paul is dedicated to nurturing and teaching aspiring horticulturists,” he said. “He has over 20 years of service to the UGA College of Agriculture’s chapter of Minorities in Agriculture, as well as the college’s Young Scholars Program, and serves as faculty advisor to the national horticulture honor society.”
In his acceptance speech, Thomas, inspired by one of the convention programs (“Breeding Future Floriculturists”), took a few minutes to thank his many mentors.
“I’m sure this is true for all academics who have been involved in our industry,” he said. “There have been several points along the way in our careers when someone made a decision to support us, someone made a decision to open a door for us, and that made all the difference.”
He also called out a number of convention attendees who have given his former students internships and jobs.
Thomas concluded his remarks by challenging the audience to embrace young people, introducing them to their businesses and encouraging a future in floriculture.
“Try to present what we do as an industry, because we’re very, very good,” he said. “SAF is a phenomenal organization for nurturing people, for nurturing this industry. But what we need to do now is plant more seeds.”
Thomas earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in botany from Southern Illinois University and his doctorate in plant physiology, with a specialization in plant carbohydrate transport in maize, from Pennsylvania State University. His current research involves water conservation, production input reduction, sustainable greenhouse practices and implementation of wireless, sensor-controlled irrigation systems in nurseries and greenhouses.
Prior to joining the UGA faculty, Thomas served as the education greenhouse director at the Chicago Botanic Garden, the greenhouse manager at Southern Illinois University and as a scientist at the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service’s Northern Regional Research Center in Peoria, Illinois.
At UGA, Thomas teaches greenhouse management, horticultural business practices and interiorscaping classes. A key component of his program is facilitating experiential learning through industry internships. Thomas serves as the State Extension Specialist in floriculture. In this position, he plans and implements regional and state programs involving greenhouses and the florist industry.
Thomas serves as a grant reviewer on the American Floral Endowment’s education committee and chairs the American Society for Horticultural Science’s endowment committee. He has also been very active in the Vic and Margaret Ball Internship program managed by the American Floral Endowment.
Notably, he served a six-year term as a committee member of the D.C. Kiplinger Chair in Floriculture’s oversight committee and served as a grant panel manager for the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
Thomas has also served as a judge for the Peach State Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation, a coalition of Georgia colleges created to recruit underrepresented demographics to studies in science, technology, engineering and math; the Georgia Junior Science and Humanities Symposium; and the Georgia Science and Engineering Fair.
Watch his remarks in full (beginning at the 38-minute mark).
Katie Hendrick Vincent is the senior contributing editor for the Society of American Florists.