By Judy Williams
It would have been easy for Tommy Finley to accept life’s circumstances. Instead, he took the hard road, which eventually led him to the international scientific community.
Born and raised in Malvern, Ark., he was one of eight children in a family of modest income. While a good student in public schools, he needed to earn a living after high school. At age 19, his father died.
“We were pretty poor,” recounted Finley. “I kind of figured I had to go to work.”
Finley worked in the Malvern area as a welder until he was 33, when he decided to go back to school. He missed learning.
As a part-time student, Finley earned an associate degree six years later from Ouachita Technical College in his hometown — making him the first in his family to earn a college degree. Graduating with a 4.0 GPA, he landed a full scholarship to Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, just 30 minutes away from his home. Three years later he completed a bachelor’s degree in biology, again with a 4.0 GPA.
Finley scouted several options for his next degree, deciding on UALR after visiting the campus and being wooed by Dr. Gary Heidt, a professor of mammalogy and animal behavior who got him excited about the master’s program in science and biology.
The Hot Spring County native began to expand his worldview. As a graduate student, he had the opportunity to attend science conferences with his adviser/mentor, Dr. Robert Sikes, UALR biology professor, traveling by car from coast to coast. One trip was to Atlanta, where he took his first flight.
“I’m embarrassed to say it, but I had never been out of Arkansas except across to bordering states,” said Finley.
His second flight took him to China, about 8,000 miles from home, for a month as a member of a UALR research team studying giant pandas at the Chengdu Research Base for Giant Panda Breeding. UALR’s project was part of a collaborative effort of several research entities, underwritten by the Memphis Zoo, to help researchers learn how a pair of rare giant pandas can thrive and successfully procreate in their new home at the Memphis Zoo.
The People’s Republic of China loaned the pandas to Memphis for 10 years in exchange for scientific research that potentially promotes conservation of the species. Only 1,500 giant pandas exist in the world. Finley worked on the project with Dr. Sikes, a behavioral ecologist, investigating how pandas deal with their diet of bamboo, the animal’s favorite but low-quality food source.
Finley’s doctoral dissertation was from his research on the energetics of giant pandas. He gave this overview of the project: “Although giant pandas are bears and have a carnivore digestive system, they eat bamboo exclusively.
Consequently, they have a difficult time getting enough energy from their diets and must spend most of their active time eating.
“Our study found that this endangered species saves energy during sleep by dramatically slowing its metabolism. We discovered this adaptation by recording heart rate in captive individuals with Doppler radar. By also recording heart rates in captive black and brown bears during the winter, we discovered that the level of daily slowing in giant pandas was equivalent to what other bears do seasonally.”
Finley is confident his breakthrough research in panda physiology will appear soon in a leading scientific journal.
In December, he obtained his doctorate from UALR in applied science. He graduated with a perfect 4.0 – a grade point average he maintained throughout his 15-year higher education experience.
His life has come full circle. An ecologist and physiologist, Dr. Finley will begin teaching anatomy and physiology this fall at Henderson State University. In his job interview, he had a great selling point: “I am a local boy. I know these people. I can show them, by using myself as an example, that we can be successful and competitive with anybody, anywhere.”
Finley is confident he took the right turn. “I’m not a small-minded person anymore,” he said. “Thanks to UALR and the opportunities I’ve had, my eyes have been opened. I love Arkansas and want to stay here. I’ve learned the world is small enough that you don’t have to work at a top-tier university to do world-class research.”