Each year the Prairie Research Institute honors individuals and organizations whose support contributes to the institute's success—whether through a fruitful research collaboration, the donation of data or equipment or funds, or passionate advocacy in support of PRI and our mission. Previous Friends of PRI winners have included our dedicated advisory board chair Kay Whitlock, and three local legislators who are our champions in the General Assembly, Rep. Carol Ammons, Sen. Scott Bennett, and Sen. Chapin Rose.
This year, PRI honored two people who have played pivotal roles in the PRI story: Dr. William W. Shilts and Dr. David L. Thomas.
Dr. Shilts and Dr. Thomas were indispensable leaders who made a compelling case to transfer the surveys from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to the University of Illinois. Their foresight, relentless determination, and passionate advocacy led to the successful creation of the Prairie Research Institute in 2008.
Dr. Shilts was a research scientist for the Geological Survey of Canada for 30 years, leading studies in environmental geochemistry, glacial sedimentology and stratigraphy, permafrost and patterned ground, atmospheric contaminants in lakes, and the impacts of historic and prehistoric earthquakes on lakes. He led the Illinois State Geological Survey from 1995 to 2008. During that time he made detailed three-dimensional geologic mapping a priority and strengthened efforts to create an energy program at ISGS.
In 2008, he became the founding executive director of PRI. Under his leadership the Institute doubled its grant funding. Dr. Shilts also was instrumental in bringing the Archaeological Survey into the institute in 2010, and he spearheaded the effort to pass legislation in 2013 that officially created PRI's seven state scientist positions.
Dr. Thomas worked on a range of environmental projects in the private sector before becoming the founding director of the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center, originally known as the Hazardous Waste Research and Information Center, in 1985.
In 1997 he then became director of the Illinois Natural History Survey, where he focused on issues related to invasive exotic species and on restoration of the Illinois River, including the Emiquon effort, one of the largest floodplain restoration projects in the United States.
Dr. Thomas retired in 2008, but graciously returned in 2012 to serve as acting director at ISTC for a year. He continues to share his expertise as a member of the ISTC Advisory Board.
Next year will mark the 15th anniversary of PRI’s creation. With that milestone in mind, Dr. Shilts and Dr. Thomas have agreed to embark on a project to document and share their unique perspective on PRI's founding.