A brief background
Learn the program's history

Who Are You?
1987: Hugo Ferchau becomes the first endowed chair (plan biologist)  1991: Pete Gauss becomes the second endowed chair, launches the molecular biology program 1993: Larry Choate joins Western as the first Thornton visiting scholar. Grant research begins.  1999: Biology program earns Program of Excellence distinction and grant  2000: Hurst Hall remodel  2003: Kevin Alexander begins butterfly research, assisted by students.  2004: Program returns to the Endowed Chair structure with the arrival of Pat Magee 2014: Jonathan Coop and Pat Magee begin their avian ecology and wildfire mitigation research

The Thornton Biology Research Program at Western provides undergraduate Biology students and faculty with research funding. The program also delivers teaching release time for faculty, allowing professors to focus on their own research and support students’ projects.

This program allows Western to offer students something truly unique: one-on-one attention from professors and research opportunities—both student- and faculty-led. Thornton helps recruit top-notch faculty. It also gives students hands-on time in the lab and out in the field. And according to faculty, some of the Biology Program’s best students have said they were drawn to Western because of the Thornton undergraduate research opportunity.

Program alumni have gone on to numerous prestigious graduate schools, and many have successful careers as medical doctors; pharmacists; pathologists; ecologists/managers with Colorado Parks and Wildlife and federal land management agencies; and many other career paths.  

In 1971, Western received $357,350 from Dan and Jessie Thornton to create the Thornton Student Research and Development Fund.  In 1987, the current program was launched with the creation of a Thornton Endowed Chair position filled by Hugo Ferchau, Ph.D., who was asked to develop research experiences for undergraduates. In 1993, the Thornton Research Grants Program was initiated to support undergraduates financially in biology research.

In 1999, the Biology Program earned a Program of Excellence distinction and grant, totaling $653,241, from the Colorado Commission on Higher Education. These funds allowed the Biology Program to purchase equipment for the newly renovated Hurst Hall, including resources for labs and field studies to benefit all students taking Biology courses.

Over the last 30 years, the Thornton Program has taken various forms. However, there have consistently been two key components: reassigned time and grants.

Reassigned time

Patrick Magee, Ph.D., is the director of the Thornton Biology Research Program. From 2005 to 2017, he was the Thornton Endowed Chair of Biology.

Magee teaches approximately 20 credits annually. This course load, paid for by the Thornton Fund, allows other biology faculty to use reassigned time to work with students on research projects.


The Thornton Research Grants Program has provided $1.8 million in funding for 160 research projects, which take two forms.

In student-directed projects, students write research proposals on topics of their interest in collaboration with biology faculty members who have expertise in the topic. The student may request a Thornton Research Award of up to $3,000. In addition, they may request funds for equipment, supplies and related travel.

In faculty-directed projects, professors typically write the research proposals, and students are eligible for a Thornton Research Assistantship. These projects are generally tied to the primary research program of the faculty member and provide students with an opportunity to learn about science and the specific topic of the study. Oftentimes, student-directed projects will grow out of faculty-led ones.