GAINESVILLE — The University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences has appointed internationally acclaimed entomologist and ecologist Matthew Thomas as director of the new Invasion Science Research Institute (ISRI).
In this newly created role, Thomas will establish the framework for ISRI, which will bring together more than 120 UF/IFAS scientists from more than 20 departments currently dedicated to the detection, diversion, tracking and control of nonnative and invasive wildlife and plant species. This interdisciplinary group of scientists make up the Invasion Science Research Initiative.
“There’s no richer environment than Florida for an invasion scientist, so our state and university have long attracted top experts in the field,” said J. Scott Angle, UF’s senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources and head of UF/IFAS. “Under the leadership of Dr. Thomas, I expect the institute will channel this expertise even more effectively in defending our public health, agriculture and economy.”
The institute will support the development and implementation of a portfolio of interdisciplinary research to address key challenges in the prevention and control of invasive species that impact natural, agricultural, and urban environments.
“Dr. Thomas elucidated a compelling plan for developing a shared vision for invasion science at UF/IFAS. I am confident that our invasion science programs will emerge as a world leader under his leadership,” said Robert Gilbert, dean for UF/IFAS Research and director of the Florida Agricultural Experiment Station. “He is a globally-respected scientist with over $30 million in grants who has experience growing and running cross-college institutes.”
Thomas comes to Florida from the United Kingdom, where he most recently served as director of the York Environmental Sustainability Institute and professor at the University of York. Prior to this, Thomas spent 12 years as a professor at Penn State University where amongst his accomplishments, he was the founding director of The Ecology Institute, a cross-college institute under the auspices of the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences and the Penn State Institutes of Energy and the Environment. He was also affiliated with the Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics at Penn State. In his earlier career he served as senior principal research scientist at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), an Australian government agency responsible for scientific research, and was a faculty member at Imperial College London.
Among strategic priorities for ISRI, Thomas hopes to foster research that builds links between disciplines and explores the potential for utilizing novel tools and approaches including biotechnology, biosensors, digital technologies, artificial intelligence and citizen science to advance understanding and management of invasive species.
“Florida is ‘ground zero’ for invasions. It has the highest concentration of invasive species in the United States, despite spending $100 million per year, by the state, and $265 million per year, by the agriculture and forestry sectors, to control invasive plants alone,” said Thomas. “Yet this ongoing challenge also creates a unique opportunity to utilize Florida as a living laboratory and transform invasion science research, teaching and outreach.”
He hopes to strengthen institutional agility, capacity and capability, so that knowledge and data generated from research can be routinely and rapidly rooted into policy and practice. He also plans to increase the range of external partners and coordinate public-private partnerships across the nation.
“Creating an enabling environment that promotes solutions to complex problems requires an interdisciplinary approach. We need to nurture a growing awareness and integrate across social, economic, environmental, epidemiology and public health sciences,” said Thomas. “This will allow ISRI to support UF as a world leader in invasion science, generating new understanding and delivering sustainable solutions for Florida, the United States and beyond.”
Thomas has conducted research around the world and has authored more than 200 peer-reviewed articles exploring the ecology and evolution of pests and diseases. The common theme running through his diverse research is to better understand the impacts of global drivers of change such as invasive species, agricultural intensification, and climate change, and ultimately improve the efficacy and sustainability of pest and disease management.
Thomas is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, fellow of the Entomological Society of America and fellow of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.
Thomas earned a doctorate degree in ecological entomology from the University of Southampton and The Game Conservancy Trust, and earned a joint bachelor’s in zoology and environmental studies from University College Cardiff in the UK.