Published on 07/27/17

UGA horticulture professor receives award for cultivation skills, student mentorship

By Merritt Melancon

For University of Georgia horticulture professor Paul Thomas, cultivating the next generation of horticulturists has always been as important as cultivating his next crop of plants.

This fall, the Society of American Florists (SAF) will honor Thomas’ dedication to his students and his contributions to horticultural science with the 2017 Alex Laurie Award, the industry group’s most prestigious award.

Thomas will accept the award at SAF’s 133rd annual convention on Sept. 9 in Palm Beach, Florida.

“For years, Paul’s dedication to his students and the floriculture industry have helped earn him a reputation as an excellent teacher and Extension Specialist at the University of Georgia,” said Doug Bailey, professor and department head at the UGA Department of Horticulture. "We're proud and excited to see that reputation is now national. The Alex Laurie Award is one of the greatest honors in American horticulture and no one deserves it more than Paul." 

Established in 1948, SAF’s Alex Laurie Award is named for the Ohio State University eminent professor. Over the course of his 60-year career, Laurie laid the groundwork for research that revolutionized the floriculture industry and left a lineage of students, teachers and researchers who continue to provide the information necessary to ensure the industry’s future.

Thomas earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in botany from Southern Illinois University and his doctorate in plant physiology, with a specialization in plant carbohydrate transport in maize, from Pennsylvania State University.

Prior to joining the UGA faculty, Thomas served as the education greenhouse director at the Chicago Botanic Garden, the greenhouse manager at Southern Illinois University and as a scientist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agricultural Research Service’s Northern Regional Research Center in Peoria, Illinois.

He currently serves as the UGA Cooperative Extension state specialist in floriculture and conducts research into water conservation, sustainable greenhouse practices and smart greenhouse irrigation systems.

While he has made a mark through both his research and Extension work, his work with students has shaped the future of the floral and greenhouse industries both in the U.S. and around the world.

Thomas teaches classes on greenhouse management, horticultural business practices and interiorscaping — landscaping indoors — and he is known for connecting his students with the greenhouse industry internships to help launch their careers.

Thomas’ mentorship reaches far beyond his horticulture students. For more than 20 years, he has served as an adviser for the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences’ chapter of the Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Sciences organization and as a mentor in the college’s Young Scholars Program, a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) mentoring program for high school students. Currently, he serves as faculty adviser to the Tau Chapter of the Pi Alpha Xi national academic honor society for horticulture.

Thomas has published more than 350 peer-reviewed scientific and outreach articles and has received 41 academic awards. He has given more than 600 presentations to industry groups and has extensive diagnostic experience.

He serves as a grant reviewer on the education committee for the American Floral Endowment (AFE) and chairs the endowment committee for the American Society for Horticultural Science. Thomas has also been very active in the Vic and Margaret Ball Internship Program managed by the AFE.

Notably, he served a six-year term as an oversight committee member for the D.C. Kiplinger Endowment and Chair in Floriculture and served as a grant panel manager for the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

He has also served as a judge for the Peach State Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation, a coalition of Georgia colleges created to recruit underrepresented demographics to STEM studies; the Georgia Junior Science and Humanities Symposium at UGA; and the Georgia Science and Engineering Fair at UGA.

For more information about the UGA Department of Horticulture, visit

(The Society of American Florists contributed to this release.) 

Merritt Melancon is a public relations manager with UGA's Terry College of Business and previously served as a public relations coordinator for the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and UGA Extension.

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