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Alumnus Thornton Thompson turns cancer research into a career path

Honors alumnus Thornton Thompson in his Cambridge gown.

Just four years past his time at KU, University Honors Program alumnus Thornton Thompson values both the depth and breadth of his Honors education equally.

Thornton, who is in his second year of his Ph.D. in molecular and cell biology at the University of California-Berkeley, says that his classroom education and research opportunities in biology clearly set him up to succeed in his graduate studies and career. But it is what his other, non-science courses did for him and his classmates that he says sets his Honors Program college experience apart.

“Some people believe that humanities and arts are useful for scientists. Humanities and arts are useful for people,” he says. “It is valuable for students to learn how to think in the ways you learn how to think in those classes. We want to produce people who want to do something with their lives – humanities courses teach you to do that.”

While in the Honors Program, Thornton took advantage of undergraduate research opportunities, both at KU and away, and received the Gates Cambridge Fellowship, which allowed him to do a full year of intensive cancer research at Cambridge University after he graduated in 2009. That is where he became interested in immunology, which is the emphasis for his Ph.D.

He says the Honors Program began broadening his horizons, both intellectually and socially, from the moment he set foot on campus as a freshman.

“I can tell you with all enthusiasm that my Honors classes my first year opened up an intellectual world for me that I had never encountered or imagined,” Thornton says. “The Honors Program also provides a platform for personal interactions among people you wouldn’t normally get to become friends with, across disciplines.”

Thornton came to KU because of the relatively low cost, hoping he would be able to take advantage of some opportunities that the University as a whole had to offer. “It was valuable for me to know that within a large public place like Kansas, there was a school within a school that could offer opportunities,” he says.

He went to the British Summer Institute in the summer after his freshman year, did research at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School cancer research lab after his sophomore year, and did on-campus biology research that he presented at undergraduate research symposia in between. By the time he arrived in Cambridge after graduation, he was well-prepared both as a person and as a scientist.

“I can certainly say that my education at Kansas prepared me incredibly well for what I am doing now, and the Honors Program was a large part of that,” he says.

Thornton plans to pursue a career as a research faculty member at a major research institution, once he completes his Ph.D. in three to four years and a post-doctoral fellowship.

In the meantime, Thornton has stayed in touch with his friends, Honors Program colleagues from KU, who are now all around the United States and even overseas, studying for and embarking on their careers.

“I am always in touch with my friend group – we were and are and always will be close friends,” he says.

That is useful for good people, as well.

KU Today
Course offerings are “among the most comprehensive in the nation,” according to “A Review of Fifty Public University Honors Programs”
98% of University Honors Program graduates are employed or accepted to graduate school within six months of graduation
40% of students in the University Honors Program conduct research before graduation
9 to 1: Average ratio of KU honors students to faculty advisors
1 of only 7 programs nationwide to receive a top rating from “A Review of Fifty Public University Honors Programs” in 2014
60% of University Honors Program students study abroad
KU honors students select their advisors from top-ranked KU faculty