Chris Thomas, graduate program coordinator for the Department of Physics in the College of Science, received the university's 2009 President's Award for Excellence.

The President’s Award for Excellence is presented annually to up to five Virginia Tech staff employees who have made extraordinary contributions by consistent excellence in the performance of their job or a single incident, contribution, or heroic act. Each recipient is awarded a $2,000 cash prize.

Thomas has worked in the physics department for 32 of her 33 years at Virginia Tech and is sometimes described as “the soul” of the department. Her tenure has seen eight department heads and chairs, and numerous graduate students succeed.

While her job description is to perform the administrative tasks that make it possible for the department to run smoothly, she often goes far beyond that.

“Just a year or so ago, Chris personally cared for a female graduate student who was sick, taking this student into her own home for an extended time,” says John Simonetti, an associate professor and associate chair of physics.

Beate Schmittmann, professor and department chair, says the department’s graduate students – about half of whom are international – frequently describe Thomas as “their ‘mother’ or their ‘family away from home.’”

“Our students told story upon story about how Chris had steered them though the graduate application process, helped with accommodation and roommate problems, and was always available in a crisis,” Schmittmann said.

In a joint letter, numerous graduate students in physics wrote that “when looking for graduate schools, the Virginia Tech Physics Department stands out from other schools, due in large part to Chris Thomas. She is willing and quick to answer questions and to organize a visit – very, very few schools offer that personal touch.”