Dave Thomas


  • Time Zone

  • Organization
    University of Oklahoma

  • Role
    Scientist Mentor: I will mentor teams of students online

  • Research Interests (300 words)
    I study switchgrass cell wall biology with the goal to improve biomass yield and composition that will increase the efficiency of biofuel production from vegetative biomass. Improving the digestion efficiency of sugar-rich cell walls is the ultimate goal. We hope to accomplish this by studying how plants grow their cell walls so that we can better understand how to effectively take them apart. However, there are many incremental advancements in our understanding of the diversity cell wall biology that must be achieved first. A major aspect of understanding how cell walls grow is to study how different environments influence cell wall biosynthesis, especially under a changing global climate. I am investigating the influence of genetic variation within a tall prairie grass called switchgrass and how it varies across its natural range from Canada to Mexico. I hope to identify genes and or master regulatory factors that control cellular architecture, cell wall composition, and ultimately cell wall digestibility that can be manipulated to improve sugar release from switchgrass biomass. This in turn can be used to guide breeding practices or genetic engineering to improve biofuel yields. I often work on a microscopes, measure physiological traits, run population genetics analyses, cell wall digestion assays, measure cellular dimensions, clone genes for expression studies, prep DNA or RNA, culture bacteria to utilize as biological factories, and much more. I also like to approach methods challenges with creativity and have learned CAD and 3D printing to create new tools and components to accomplish my goals. I am currently using a plant-sectioning tool I designed and have many other successful designs I use across my projects. Additionally, I love carnivorous plants, grow 100s of them, and am fascinated by their different growth forms and trap anatomy. My hope is to combine my hobby interest in carnivorous plants with my research goals in the biofuel industry.

  • Profile Question 1
    When and why did you decide to go into a science career?

  • Answer the question you selected for profile question 1 here (300 words):
    I decided to begin my science career about 8 years ago while trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I always had an interest in science and nature, but in 2010 I wound up completing a general business bachelor’s degree instead. In 2011 I was bored with my job as a communications specialist at a museum so I switched to a sous-chef job at a catering company, all the while wanting something more rewarding, challenging, and impactful. Finally, in 2012 I was watching a documentary on Netflix about turning old vegetable oil into biofuel. I looked into biofuels more and found out that this was just what I was after. I decided to attend OU for plant biology or microbiology (algae biofuel). I selected plant biology as my focus in the summer of 2013 after my first semester towards a second bachelor’s degree, with plans to start graduate school right after. The turning point that really drew me in and got me hooked to study plants was an introductory botany course taught by Dr. Gordon Uno. I was fascinated by the plant world, while at the same time eager to learn HOW to study the natural world around us. The combination of plant diversity visible by eye combined with the genetic and molecular mechanisms that control these features were captivating. To build on that, being introduced to the tools of research and the idea of biotechnology to modify existing systems to our benefit was something I had to be a part of. It is interesting to me to reflect on this transitional period because it was actually quite difficult, but I’m so very glad I had the support that I did from my department and mentors, as well as simply never giving up.

  • Profile Question 2
    What is your favorite plant? Why?

  • Answer the question you selected for profile question 2 here (300 words):
    This is a very tough question, but I have to say that Nepenthes is my favorite genus, (please don’t make me say species!). It is pretty hard to narrow down since there are so many different forms, functions, and colors out there in the plant world. One of the reasons that I love nepenthes is that they are surprisingly dynamic. The colorful carnivorous pitcher forms on the end of a tendril at the end of a pretty typical looking leaf. What starts as a small growth point a few centimeters long can get as big as a rugby ball that can attract and digest small rodents. The colors and designs of the pitchers are incredibly varied as well as the diversity of shapes and pitcher trap characteristics. This genus is quite popular as an ornamental but is very under appreciated in the research community in my opinion. There are all kinds of nutrient use efficiency and allocation, microbial interactions, anatomical and morphological studies just waiting to be explored and expanded on. Additionally, many nepenthes are difficult to grow with very specific temperature and humidity requirements, and who doesn’t love a good challenge?

  • Profile Question 3
    What is a typical day like for you?

  • Answer the question you selected for profile question 3 here (300 words):
    There is no typical day. That is the truth and that is how I prefer it to be. I thrive on having many different projects going that I can switch around to throughout the day. The projects are of course all related and have the general theme of cell wall biology at their root. However, the typical day really is made up of a handful of activities that fall into three general categories: data generation, data analysis, and teaching. A typical day can include setting up a cell wall digestion assay, then tending to greenhouse plants and taking growth measurements, followed by making some growth media for the bacteria I am about to transform with a new gene of interest I have selected based on a previous project, washing some lab glassware, talking with undergraduate students about their work for the day/week/month/semester, attending a department seminar, coffee break, answering emails, writing a few paragraphs of a completed (or in progress) project for publication, jotting down some new ideas for a series of experiments or field work, running statistics on the previous day’s results in R, or analyzing the anatomical dimensions of some switchgrass internodes in cross section, combing through published literature for methods references and inspiration, and much more. Usually each day is a shorter list that is more focused on a handful of tasks dependent on upcoming deadlines.
    One of the aspects about graduate school and this career path is that for every answer or conclusion I get, many more new questions arise. There really is no lack of interesting topics to chase down or new experiments to ponder. A total absence of boredom.

  • Availability
    I am NOT available, please temporarily remove me from the available mentor list

  • Capacity: How many teams at a time are you comfortable working with?

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