Austin Thomas – Doctoral Student

Austin Thomas, a second year PhD student in the Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources, is studying plant response to insect damage, particularly adelgids on Eastern Hemlock and Fraser Fir.  He chose to come to NC State and to work under Dr. Robert Jetton because of mutual interests in this area.  Austin co-wrote and received a grant from the USDA Specialty Crops Research Initiative to assess Fraser Fir tolerance to Balsam Woolly Adelgid (BWA) in western NC.   He is also investigating the defensive response of the Fraser Fir to BWA attack through analysis of phytochemistry and wood physiology.  Wood physiology is of particular interest because attack by BWA causes the formation of dense tissue called rotholz in the trunk and twigs of the Frasier Fir.  This dense tissue cuts off the tree’s water and nutrient supply, eventually killing the tree.

Austin’s second project is monitoring Hemlock Woolly Adelgid (HWA) and developing a long-term forest management plan for Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve in Cary, NC.  Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve includes a particularly important population of Eastern Hemlock that is isolated and genetically distinct from other populations of Eastern Hemlock.  Austin’s primary concern in managing this population is monitoring and preserving its genetic health and diversity.

Since the funding for this research arrived a year after Austin started his program, Austin has also served as a TA in several courses, as well as helped with GPS instruction in the department.  In addition to his primary dissertation research, Austin is also using Landsat 5 and Landsat 8 imagery to identify evergreen decline in the Southern Appalachians, with the goal of identifying both HWA tolerant and susceptible populations of Eastern Hemlock remotely.  “We know that some hemlock trees are surviving HWA and there might be a genetic component. If we can identify resilient populations, we have a better chance of finding genetic tolerance to HWA”.

Austin traces his interest in invasive insects and native tree conservation to the Emerald Ash Borer, which was first found and confirmed in the US in 2002, in his hometown of Canton, Michigan.  Austin remembers “Within two, maybe three years, most of the ash trees in town and in the surrounding forests were dead.  That had a huge impact on the local ecosystem and on me, personally”.

Austin earned his BS in Biology from Western Michigan University, with a minor in chemistry.  He then took a job with an ag-bio company working with Western Corn Rootworm.  After a year and a half, he decided to return to academia and earned a MS in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from Appalachian State University with Cratis D. Williams Honors.  His thesis research involved semiochemical (signaling chemistry) interactions of herbivorous insects and their host plants.  During this time, he earned a certification in geospatial information science and worked as a statistical consultant for the university.  Through that job, he consulted on a variety of projects ranging from clinical studies to climate studies of the Southern Appalachian region.

After graduation, Austin would like to find a post-doc and then an academic position working on tree conservation and invasive insect pests.  He has a wide range of academic interests but maintains a problem-focused research approach.

“The interdisciplinary nature of the [Forestry and Environmental Resources] program is something that really drew me to NC state.  There is such a wide range of expertise here, from GIS to quantitative genomics to forest economics.  The collaborative nature of the program is great too.  Making connections with so many experts and then bringing all of that diverse knowledge together to attack these problems in tree conservation has been very rewarding.”

In his spare time, Austin enjoys fly fishing in the mountains and brewing craft beer.  He also volunteers with the Blue Ridge Discovery Center in Troutdale, Virginia, where he has a set up long term vegetation monitoring project on White Top mountain.