Sowing a Passion for Science

Sowing a Passion for Science

Laura Thompson doesn’t walk from her office to the classroom, she dashes. In conversations, her train of thought jumps the tracks, careening from one topic of interest to another. When she says she wakes at 6 eager for another day of work, you believe her.

“They probably think I’m the crazy old plant woman,” she says. “But my goal is for students to leave Furman with a good idea of how important plants are to people.”

Thompson has taught biology at Furman University in Greenville, S.C., since 1987. When she was hired, she was her department’s first female tenure-track professor.

“She was such an infusion of infectious energy and enthusiasm, it was like a huge breath of fresh air for me,” says former student Kimberly Chappell. “She was the first real tangible example I had of what a successful woman trained in the sciences looked like.”

Thompson was trained in plant physiology, but her focus today is ethnobotany, or the relationships between people and plants. She works in the Charles H. Townes Center for Science, which opened in 2008 after two years of construction and renovation. The Duke Endowment awarded $10 million in grants for the project.

In the center’s new food laboratory, she teaches about plants as sources of food, fiber and medicine. Students learn about tinctures and oil extracts, which they use to make soap. Outside, in her fiber and dye garden, she shows how to harvest cotton and gin it by hand. Students grow indigo, and then boil it to make dye.

Getting muddy is par for the course. “I tell them, ‘OK, we’re going out in the field. We’ve got to go pick this stuff.’ And it’s wonderful. They’re getting the direct connection between what we are teaching inside during lectures and labs and where this material comes from.”

A slight woman with cropped hair, Thompson dresses casually in blue jeans and handmade sweaters. One corner of her sunny office is filled with flax and cotton plants harvested for the spring.

Her passion for botany came from her parents. During family hikes, they’d identify trees and vegetation, making sure Laura and her brother knew what species surrounded them. She spent summers exploring the woods outside her home in northern Virginia, finding turtles and frogs. Even as a little girl, she set her sights on becoming a biologist.

At Furman, she’s been a role model for female students who now have their own careers as scientists. On return visits to campus, they tell her how important she was to their dreams.

“She saw areas of potential that I could not see in myself,” says Chappell, now a director in U.S. Medical Affairs for Bristol-Myers Squibb in New Jersey. “That’s really what I admire about Dr. Thompson – her desire to help students know and understand all the possibilities open to them.”

Thompson believes that’s what teaching is all about. “When you have someone come back and say, ‘You were important to me,’ it’s amazing,” she says. “Every time I’m with a student, I try to remember that something I say or something I do might be the one thing that makes a difference in their life.”

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