An award-winning biological researcher and international business executive look back on the seeds of their successes


Martha J. Powell ’69 graduated from Western Carolina and built a career in academia, exploring the tiny inner worlds of biological diversity through a microscope. Robert W. “Bob” Thomas ’70 left campus with his diploma and embarked on a career in corporate management that took him literally around the world. But, even though their life paths took sharply different turns, both agree that the self-confidence they gained as students in Cullowhee has been a key to their successes.

Martha Powell

A professor of biological sciences at the University of Alabama, Martha Powell ’69 (seated) wins rave reviews from faculty colleagues for her dedication to students. Photo by Diana Secor

During a fall Homecoming ceremony, Powell, a resident of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and professor of biological sciences at the University of Alabama, received the WCU Alumni Association’s Academic Achievement Award, and Thomas, who lives in the Atlanta suburb of Johns Creek, Georgia, was recipient of the association’s Professional Achievement Award.

A Charlotte native, Powell graduated from Jackson County’s Sylva-Webster High School and enrolled at WCU, where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in science education. She went on to earn her doctorate in botany at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and began her college teaching career at Miami University in Ohio. After 18 years at Miami, including a stint as Distinguished Professor of Botany, Powell moved to James Madison University to serve as chair of that school’s biological sciences department. Three years later, in 1997, she became chair of the biological sciences department at the University of Alabama, and about seven years ago, she stepped down from the chair’s position to focus on teaching and research. She is still on the faculty at Alabama as a professor of biological sciences.

As association president Frances Owl-Smith ’83 presented the award to Powell, she related to the audience that in looking at Powell’s career “one would be hard-pressed to find an example of a university faculty member who has better exemplified the high standard of teaching, research and service.” As a researcher, for many years Powell has studied one particular type of fungus that lives in aquatic environments and the role it plays in maintaining water quality and bio-productivity – crucial elements in the quest to have a sustainable planet, Owl-Smith said.

Powell also has directed programs that provided women and minority students opportunities to learn about careers in scientific research, and another program that helped rising high school seniors learn what it takes to succeed in college.

“One thing Martha’s peers have noted over the years is her pure-hearted dedication to students, both in and out of class, and her many efforts to provide opportunities for students to study biology in the classroom, in the laboratory and out in the field,” Owl-Smith said. “They also have remarked about her outstanding administrative capacity, which includes the ability to bring colleagues together across different research fields.”

As she accepted the award, Powell said it not only represented the work she has done in her career, but also the work of the faculty members who taught her at WCU. “The best gift I received from my professors at Western Carolina was a sense of self-confidence,” she said. “This, I think, is the best thing we can pass on to students.”

Powell told the audience that she has come “full circle” since her days as a WCU student because she strives to pass that feeling of self-confidence along to her students now. “Thank you, Western Carolina, for being here, for your mission of serving the region, and thank you for your support,” Powell said.

Robert Thomas

Executive Robert Thomas ’70 credits his WCU education with equipping him with the tools to compete in the world of international business.

Thomas is a Winston-Salem native who enrolled at WCU in the fall of 1966. After his graduation with a bachelor’s degree in social science, he entered the military and served in U.S. Army Intelligence. When his military service was complete, Thomas joined the commercial sales division of Scott Paper Co. in Houston, Texas, and over the next 23 years he rose through the management ranks and eventually into company leadership. Those positions took Thomas and his family around the world, including four years of living in Hong Kong. He also spent some time at Stanford University in 1987 studying international marketing.

Thomas led Scott Paper’s commercial business in North America before leaving the company in 1996 and joining Morgan Crucible, a manufacturer of engineered products based in the United Kingdom. In his position with that company, Thomas worked out of Atlanta while overseeing the company’s businesses in the U.S., Europe and South Africa. Later, he joined EIS Inc. of Atlanta, one of the four operating divisions of Genuine Parts Co. He was promoted to EIS president and CEO in 2004.

In presenting the award, Owl-Smith related to the audience that Thomas rarely had an opportunity to visit WCU’s campus over a period of three decades following his graduation, but in recent years he has become involved in Atlanta-area alumni functions, including a job shadowing/mentoring program that benefits WCU students. Thomas also serves on the board of the WCU Foundation and is vice president of the board of the Zeta Xi chapter of the alumni association for Pi Kappa Alpha, his fraternity at WCU.

Owl-Smith noted that Thomas has been a faithful contributor to the university’s Loyalty Fund and Catamount Club since his graduation, and he and his wife, Pam, recently provided gifts to establish an endowed scholarship to benefit students majoring in business or engineering.

“Bob, your rise from humble beginnings to top positions in international business is remarkable, and we know it is a reflection of both the mentoring you received here in Cullowhee and the hard work, dedication and intelligence you brought to the table,” Owl-Smith said.

As he accepted the honor, Thomas told the audience that he was a high school student lacking in motivation, but four years at WCU gave him an opportunity to mature and discover “the value of working hard academically to achieve a goal.”

“I received a fine liberal arts education at Western Carolina, and the skills I developed and my experience gave me a strong foundation and the confidence to compete for increasing business responsibilities with three public companies in many parts of the world,” he said. “I want to thank Western Carolina for the opportunities you gave me, and folks like me, for decades and decades, who have been transformed by this school.”