From the desk of President Leslie K. Guice

Dr. Thea Edwards: From Alligators to Environmental Health

Dec 16, 2013 | Faculty Feature

  Thea Edwards 1“I have no doubt that my outdoorsy childhood fueled my innate understanding of nature and many interests in biology,” said Thea Edwards, Assistant Professor of Biology.  Thea was born in Zimbabwe, in southern Africa, and emigrated to the United States when she was 8 years old.  Her childhood was spent outside, observing the wonders of my family’s garden, as well as the larger wild habitats around her. Thea did her undergraduate degree in horticulture at Virginia Tech and then earned Master’s degrees in horticulture, botany, and science education at the University of Florida.  In graduate school, Thea realized how much heart and soul goes into research.  “It made me think carefully about my future and about what contributions were most important to me.  With that in mind, I joined Lou Guillette’s research group at the University of Florida to pursue my PhD in Biology.” Thea Edwards 5Dr. Guillette is world famous for his research on endocrine disruption in alligators.  In 1994, he figured out that the really low hatching rates of alligator eggs from some Florida lakes were due to the legacy of pollution in those lakes.  Since then, he and his students have worked to understand why pollutants are harmful to animal reproduction.  Thea noted, “I learned from Lou that being a scientist is actually the opportunity to do the four best jobs on earth.  You are an adventurer, a detective, an artist, and a storyteller.  This is because research is about discovery, observation, and creativity that build the narrative of knowledge.” After finishing her PhD in 2005, Thea completed three postdoctoral appointments. Her first was working with Dr. Pete Myers, the Chief Scientist of a non-profit organization called Environmental Health Sciences.  They jointly published an article that reviewed what was known about how environmental contaminants affected gene expression and caused disease in humans.  After that, Lou Guillette invited her back to his lab to co-direct a mentoring program newly funded by his Professor’s award from Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Thea’s third postdoc brought her to Louisiana where she joined John McLachlan’s lab in Pharmacology at Tulane. She joined Louisiana Tech as an Assistant Professor in February 2011. Thea Edwards 2This past summer, Thea participated in a National Academies Summer Institute for Undergraduate Education, led by Dr. Michelle Withers at West Virginia University.  The Institute was a powerful training experience that has helped Thea shift her teaching away from lecture and towards guiding students in project-based learning and active discovery.  Due to the Summer Institute training, Thea transformed her Plant Biology course to an entirely project-based format.  Instead of sitting in lectures, students work in teams to develop four projects designed to teach concepts of plant physiology, anatomy, biodiversity, and ecology, in tandem with skills in research, numerical analysis, communication, and teamwork. Thea Edwards 4One goal of active learning is for students to practice scientific method and learn how scientists think.  To accomplish this, Thea’s students grew and observed “mutant” plants that lack a single gene that affects plant growth patterns and pigmentation.  They compared their observations to “wild type” plants that do not lack the gene.  The project enabled students to experience the scientific process while learning how scientists use plant mutants to discover biochemical function in plants. “I like teaching this way because I can assess student understanding much earlier in the learning process and then help them correct misunderstandings before they are graded.” Thea Edwards 3For the past two years, Thea has also involved her Plant Biology class in a service learning project at the Montessori School of Ruston, where they are in the process of building a Nature Explore certified classroom.  Nature Explore classrooms were developed by the Arbor Day Foundation, and are designed to connect children with nature by providing transformative outdoor spaces for children to learn and play.  Since arriving at Louisiana Tech in 2011, Thea has obtained both a Pfund grant and an RCS award from the Board of Regents, totaling $110,000.  The RCS award is funding her to determine if algae contain chemicals that mimic estrogen hormones and if environmental conditions determine how “estrogenic” the algae are.  The last part of the project will investigate if estrogens from algae affect fish reproduction.  “This is cool because, if I am right, I will have discovered a novel way in which environment affects animal reproduction by changing the chemistry of foods animals eat.” Thea recently presented a brown bag luncheon presentation on some of her research entitled “How C15H16O2  Changed Environmental Health Research.”  You can check that out at the following link: