Centennial Story 83: Ron Thom (PhD, 1978)

I joined SAFS (then called the College of Fisheries) in summer 1974 as a fisheries biologist after completing my MA degree research at California State University, Long Beach. I was accepted into the PhD program in 1976, under Ken Chew. Ken had a project that involved understanding the effects of the five sewage discharges on the shallow water biota in central Puget Sound, and he needed someone to work on the seaweeds. My masters thesis had focused on understanding long-term changes in the seaweed flora at 72 historical collection sites from Point Conception to the Mexican border. In addition, I had spent three years (1971–1974) as a marine biologist for Los Angeles county, monitoring the effects of the largest outfall on the west coast on the coastal ocean ecosystem. Hence, I was already well “immersed” in sewage so to speak.

Jenny Hampel and Ron Thim at Gog-li-hi-te wetland project in Tacoma in the mod-1980s.
Jenny Hampel and Ron Thom at Gog-li-hi-te wetland project in Tacoma in the mid-1980s.

Despite having a large cadre of grad students, Ken provided me with the support I needed to set a direction, pass all the hoops, and receive my PhD in 1978. Even more, he provided me a welcome home to accomplish my goals and to initiate my career.  Taking his shellfish courses as well as the other fisheries courses expanded my knowledge base that ended up being critical to my career. My committee members, Roy Nakatani and Bruce Miller, were also great sources of support and advice. Fellow grad students John Armstrong (PhD, 1977) and Craig Staude (MS, 1979; PhD, 1986) were fantastic to work with, and they taught me the value of developing trusted collaborators. After graduating, I spent a total of nine years (with a two year hiatus working for the Corps of Engineers in 1980-1982) doing research at the Fisheries Research Institute, working with colleagues Charles (Si) Simenstad and Jeff Cordell (MS, 1986) and others…these collaborations continue today. Si and I taught the first wetland ecology and restoration class, and we initiated the Wetland Ecosystem Team (WET). During this period, my focus changed from evaluating the effects of disturbances on nearshore systems to understanding how to restore estuarine and coastal ecosystems.

Rom Thom unloading plants at Gog-li-hi-te.
Rom Thom unloading plants at Gog-li-hi-te.

In August 1990, I was hired by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) Marine Sciences Laboratory in Sequim to develop a wetland research program, and I managed that program until I retired in 2013. During my tenure, I always looked to SAFS for potential new hires because I knew that SAFS grads had a solid training in the sciences as well as in practical issues facing natural resources. I have been able to work on all US coasts, in several major rivers, and in China and Korea…places I never thought I would get to in my career. I have been lucky to serve on regional and national committees and chair several conferences. I now serve as an emeritus staff member at PNNL and remain active in part-time paid positions as the senior science advisor to the Puget Sound Partnership and as a member of a panel that scores restoration projects on the lower Columbia River and estuary. I also am involved in volunteer service as a Governor’s appointee to the Northwest Straits Commission and as president of the Washington State Academy of Sciences.

Bottom line, my experience as a graduate student and fisheries biologist at SAFS prepared me very well in many unexpected ways for a long and enjoyable career in the field that I love.

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