Faculty Spotlight: Scientist Spotlight with Valerie Thomas

Feb 26, 2016 | Atlanta, GA

E-mail interview conducted by Allison Feldman, FAS

Dr. Valerie Thomas is the Anderson Interface Professor of Natural Systems in the School of Industrial and Systems Engineering at Georgia Tech, with a joint appointment in the School of Public Policy. She is also a member of the FAS Board of Experts. Dr. Thomas's research interests are energy systems, sustainability, industrial ecology, technology assessment, international security, and science and technology policy. Current research projects include the environmental impacts of biofuels and electricity system policy and planning. Dr. Thomas is a member of the USDA/DOE Biomass Research and Development Technical Advisory Committee. In 2004-2005, she was the American Physical Society Congressional Science Fellow. Dr. Thomas is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and of the American Physical Society, and has been a Member of the U.S. EPA Science Advisory Board. She has previously worked at the Department of Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University, and at Princeton University’s Environmental Institute. Dr. Thomas received a B.A. in physics from Swarthmore College and a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from Cornell University.

What made you want to become a scientist or engineer and what is your primary field of focus?

I became a scientist because I was fascinated by quantum physics. I wanted to know about it and I wanted to know more.

But now I am working on a very pragmatic and applied problem: how to create a sustainable energy system. It’s an easy problem. That is, we can solve this and I am confident we will. The challenge is in how gracefully we get there, and the details of the solution.

I keep wanting to get back to theoretical physics. But I love working on energy problems and with so much work to do currently, I haven’t yet found a way to do both.

What was your first science experiment?

Great question. It made me think: What makes something a science experiment, and what makes it mine?

My first experiments were engineering experiments – about making things rather than discovering the world. As a child, I liked to design and make things – out of fabric, paper, yarn, paint – and I liked to explore and build forts in the woods.

So, what makes an experiment “mine"? It’s “mine” simply when I create it and carry it out. In high school  and college, all the science experiments were with a partner, so to me, that doesn’t count. Finally in graduate school, we had a lab course in which we had to carry out the experiment alone, by ourselves. That was great; I worked on superconductivity.

What advice would you give scientists and other technically-trained people in how to apply their knowledge and experience to societal issues and/or to educate policymakers?

I would specifically like to address this question in the context of climate change and energy challenges. In my view, there has been too narrow a focus on the science of climate change and on the impacts of climate change, at the expense of a focus on how we can change our energy and industrial systems. There is huge potential for us to change our systems for the better; there is a very positive message and opportunity here.

My advice is to bring forward any of the myriad innovations, and to convey the happy enthusiasm that we have for continuing to be creative and innovative.

What advice would you give someone trying to break into your field or the scientific and technical worlds in general?

Keep a deep and intense commitment. Make sure to have lots of failures, and remember that it is really fun. Don’t be afraid.

Do you find that people react in a certain way when you tell them you’re a scientist? Do they make any assumptions?

I find that people assume I’m a rigid, narrow-minded, boring, uncreative person, focused on the immediately practical, with no vision, poetry, or spirit. And they definitely assume it would not be fun to ask me much about what I do.

What do you personally find to be the most rewarding and the most irritating parts of studying science?

I like to sink down into a problem, to really work at it hard and thoroughly, and to come up with a new way of thinking (or to at least slightly change how people understand the questions and the solutions).

I also really like working with a wide variety of people – on research projects, in class, in committees – and finding ways to get to better and more satisfying outcomes – whether in my teaching or in the research we are doing, or in how our scientific and engineering institutions are set up. People don’t realize how wildly social science can be.

The most irritating parts? Hm, here’s a list: boring talks, having to sit in my chair for too long, slow computers, unhealthy boxed lunches, so many airplane flights…

What do you believe is FAS’s greatest strength and how can the organization take advantage of it?

FAS’s greatest strength is its clear and consistent record of focus on science and technology issues of international security. This provides a platform, both for building dialogue with policy makers and for providing opportunities for scientists and engineers to engage with policymakers. FAS could further develop this potential by finding more scientists and engineers, from different locations and institutions, who could use FAS as a bridge to communicate with policy makers and the public.

What are the top issues that FAS should focus on in the next five years?

Nuclear power and nuclear proliferation, globally. I used to work in the area of nuclear arms control, and in that field, the challenges of nuclear proliferation are well understood. Now I work in the energy field, and, strangely, nuclear proliferation is generally seen as “out-of-scope.” Developing an integrated understanding of nuclear energy and nuclear proliferation risks as part of the energy future is something that FAS is very well suited to do.

Energy solutions, globally: New approaches to buildings and transportation for large, system-level efficiencies. New technologies – piezo-electrics, thermo-electrics, energy storage.

Nuclear problems have been and continue to be a challenge that FAS can address comprehensively and with credibility. Energy solutions – as mind-blowingly different as nuclear energy was in the 1930s – are what scientists and engineers are working on now; their potential is what we desperately need to communicate to our policy makers and the public

 Complete this sentence: Science is vital because ...

Science is vital because we are exploring the nature of the universe. It is part of what makes us vital.

  • Valerie Thomas, ISyE Anderson Interface Professor of Natural Systems
    Valerie Thomas, ISyE Anderson Interface Professor of Natural Systems