Thomas and Miller were instrumental in the process of making the lab a reality 12 years ago, and Thomas is very proud of the work accomplished in the lab since. “This lab places us in the league of the best programs in the country,” she said. “It has put Texas A&M University on the map for geosciences and climate science. It has definitely lived up to its promise.” Beyond mere reputation enhancement, the lab has enormous practical value. “The research that has been done here has transformed our understanding of a lot of geologic history,” Thomas added.
The college’s work has never been more urgent. “The scientific community recognizes that in order to understand the global warming scenarios into which we’re headed, we really have to study the geologic past at intervals of time known to have been as warm or warmer than what is predicted for the next century,” said Thomas, whose latest research looks at such a period—50 million years ago.
In the lab, the sediments Thomas collected off the coast of New Zealand from that time period will be dissolved in acid and analyzed to determine how much of certain elements are present. “Everything must be done in an exceptionally sterile environment to achieve accurate results,” Thomas explained. Researchers must wear protective suits, head covers, special shoes and gloves. “It’s similar to the preparation necessary for extraterrestrial missions,” she said.
The isotopes they are seeking occur in such minute abundances in the samples that even the trace amount of lead in the dust in one’s hair could throw off the experiment. The air in the lab is filtered through fume hoods to create an ultra-clean environment. The facility also features separate rooms for wet sample preparation, rock crushing and mineral separation.
The lab space is designed for several researchers to be working at once. A good thing, too, as it is a high-use facility, constantly in demand by graduate students as well as faculty from across campus.
The gift that made this research facility possible was a $2 million commitment from the late Ken Williams and his wife of more than 50 years, Jane. An initial cash gift enabled the construction of the lab and was followed a few years later by an estate gift that provides ongoing support. “This was a truly unique and transformational gift because it was the first gift in the college that not only established a state-of-the-art laboratory but that also provided the excellence funds that are absolutely critical for maintaining it,” Thomas shared. “The excellence fund allows the lab to thrive in perpetuity.”
Thomas recalled meeting with the Williamses when they visited campus during construction of the lab. “The whole family was so excited about what the gift enabled us to do,” she recalled. “Mr. Williams was such a kind, generous, genuinely-engaged Aggie. He wanted to help us do even more excellent work.”
Thanks to his gift, that important work will continue for many years to come, with Texas A&M’s College of Geosciences leading the way.