One NIU faculty member was conspicuously absent from the Graduate School commencement ceremonies this past weekend.
Thomas Sims, a veteran professor and director of graduate studies in the Department of Biological Sciences, was a longtime fixture at graduation. This past spring, friend and colleague Barrie Bode pushed Sims in a wheelchair into the Convocation Center, where Sims later hooded his Ph.D. student.
Sims, 64, of DeKalb, had signed up to attend the December ceremony as well, but he succumbed Nov. 20, to head and neck cancer, a disease he battled for more than two years while continuing to mentor NIU students.
“NIU was everything to Tom,” says Bode, chair of biological sciences. “He took his job very seriously and did it well.”
A native of Madison, WI, Sims spent 24 years at NIU, including more than a decade as director of graduate studies in biology. Easygoing and gregarious, he was dedicated to student success, Bode says, noting that Sims served on an extraordinary number of student thesis and dissertation committees.
“Tom was positive, helpful, sympathetic, and very supportive and patient with students,” Bode says. “He was such a good guy, and he just loved life.”
Sims was fascinated with how life worked at its most fundamental levels, too. He specialized in research into plant genetics, gene regulation, and molecular and developmental biology. He served two six-year stints as director of NIU’s Plant Molecular Biology Center.
In recent years, he worked across institutions to coordinate a team of scientists who decoded the DNA sequence of two parent petunia species—a feat that could spur development of more petunia varieties for consumers and advance research within the plant’s family, which includes tomato, potato and pepper.
The project involved researchers from nearly 30 institutions in 10 countries, with Sims directing the overall sequencing plan. The two parent petunia species were described in the May 27 issue of the prestigious journal Nature Plants and discussed in an accompanying editorial.
More generally, Sims was a vocal advocate for science. He was active in dispelling hysteria related to Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), pointing out there was no scientific evidence that GMOs are harmful to people. Sims also wanted it known that the cancer he battled, HPV-positive head/neck squamous cell cancer, is now completely preventable through immunization.
Within his department, Sims was a team player, always willing to step up to meet a challenge, including recently taking the reins for a second time of the Plant Molecular Biology Center to strengthen its research activities. In the classroom, Sims taught the graduate orientation class, which prepared biology students for graduate life and work as teaching assistants, and regularly volunteered to teach the most labor-intensive courses on molecular techniques.
“Tom cared deeply about science, NIU and its students,” Bode adds. “He had an amazing spirit and kept his sense of humor until the end.”
Outside of NIU, Sims played French horn in the Kishwaukee Symphony Orchestra, Kishwaukee Brass Quintet and the DeKalb Municipal Band. Additionally, he was an avid sailor, frequently vacationing in Croatia with his wife, Pam, to sail the Adriatic Sea.
A memorial service for Sims is being planned for early 2017.