Life Sciences founder passes away, leaves impressive legacy

Hector Miranda-Castro
Contributing Writer

Thomas Huff, vice provost for life sciences and research at Virginia Commonwealth University, died of natural causes at the age of 62 on Jan. 31.

Huff served the VCU and Richmond community for the past 30 years, founding the life sciences department in 2001 when he was appointed vice provost of the program.

“Tom’s legacy is in fact the life sciences unit, there was no VCU life sciences before Tom was the first vice provost. He established its vision, organization and everything we’ve done over the 14-15 years in life sciences,” said Leonard Smock, a colleague and friend of Huff who under an interim basis is now the vice provost of Life Sciences and Research at VCU.

The department of life sciences has expanded since its early founding, now incorporating various scientific disciplines. For instance, there are courses covering topics from biological complexity to environmental ecosystems.

“The way Tom used to describe us (life sciences) was that it was a matrix organization that served as an umbrella over all of the Life Sciences at the University,” Smock said.

As a department head, Huff was charged with connecting all of the different disciplines and studies within the life sciences in order to ensure more cohesive educational output and benefits for several different facets of the university.

As a visionary, Huff extended the capability of life sciences beyond its traditional disciplines into different fields of study by brokering partnerships between units that would not traditionally work together.

Smock said a classic example  of Huff’s character is when he brokered a partnership between the school of business and center for environmental studies. This collaboration effort led to the creation of an environmental economics course and a faculty member attaining a joint appointment between the two departments.

“Those of us who knew Tom could not help but be swept up in his energy, intelligence and passion for the life sciences,” VCU President Michael Rao said in a statement on his blog. “From the labs on our campuses to the living laboratory of the Rice Rivers Center, Tom shepherded a new holistic way of looking at science.”

Among several other accomplishments Huff and VCU as well as six other universities is also noted for the creation in PBS series concerning the human genome, titled “Secrets of the Sequence.”

Huff graduated from Clemson University with a degree in microbiology and he earned his doctorate in immunology from the University of Louisville. He began his teaching career in 1985 at VCU as an assistant professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology.

“Tom always had a smile on his face, he loved having deep discussions about anything scientific anything philosophical,” Smock said. “He was a deeply passionate person. When he latched on to something that really caught his interest, he really dove into it.”

“Dr. Tom Huff was a quintessential VCU faculty member and administrator,” said Eugene Trani, a former president of VCU. “He will be deeply missed. His legacy, however, will endure. As the founding vice provost for VCU Life Sciences, VCU is a greater institution because of Tom’s tremendous efforts.”

Aside from his love of science Huff also served on the board of directors at Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens. He also enjoyed fishing and was an avid photographer.

“He took up photography as sort of a hobby and then got very serious about photographing and technical aspects of photography,” said Francis L. Macrina, VCU vice president for research and innovation. “He was very enthusiastic about this.”

He is survived by his wife, May Ligon Huff; son, Thomas H. Huff; daughter, Elizabeth Farris Sleeman; daughter-in-law, Jennifer Huff; son-in-law, Ford Sleeman; and grandchildren, Laura Elizabeth Huff, James Louis Huff and William Thomas Sleeman. He is also survived by his sister, Anne Huff Weathers, and his brother, Frank Rouse Huff, and their families.

“For nearly 30 years at VCU, Tom was a great collaborator, colleague and friend,” Rao said. “Our condolences go to his entire family. We hope they find comfort in a VCU community who mourns with them and offers our support.”

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