Thomas A. Kursar
1949 - 2018
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1949 ~ 2018
Thomas A. Kursar passed away peacefully at home on November 18, 2018 from pancreatic cancer. He was 69 years old. Tom was born in New Brunswick, New Jersey on September 18, 1949. He earned a B.A. in Biochemistry from Rutgers in 1971. He was awarded a M.A. in Biophysics in 1976 and a Ph.D. in Biophysics and Theoretical Biology in 1982, both from the University of Chicago. While there, he met Phyllis D. Coley (Lissy) who would become his partner in love, life and science. Ever since, they have been known as the unit "Tom & Lissy" to all their friends, colleagues and collaborators. In 1982, Tom and Lissy joined the Department of Biology at the University of Utah where they established a joint lab that became renowned for its foundational contributions to our understanding of rainforest ecology. Tom's research on water use by tropical plants fundamentally changed the way we think about how plants respond to the stress of too little water, or too much. Working together, they made important contributions to solving why the tropical rainforests are so diverse. They found that differences in the chemicals that tropical plants use to defend themselves against insect herbivores allow closely related tree species to co-exist in the same forest. Tom's commitment to conservation led him to use this knowledge of plant chemicals to design a bioprospecting program in Panama. The program is run by Panamanians and links the search for novel pharmaceuticals with job creation, research development, education and preservation of forests. It has been internationally acclaimed as a model for maximizing benefits to the host country. Ironically, some of the chemical compounds they have discovered may lead to new treatments for cancer.
Tom's legacy far surpasses his research contributions to science; he was a generous man. He was moderate in his behavior and appetites, but passionate in his loves and beliefs. He loved Lissy, of course, and he also loved wild places and the great outdoors, many of which he and Lissy visited together for tropical biological research and spiritual renewal. He loved gardening and his vegetable harvest was always robust. Even as a child, his mother marveled that he would stand in the garden just to watch plants grow. His homemade pumpkin pies were second to none. He loved literature, and read in Spanish and French, as well as English. He passionately believed in equality, justice and education and was a strong advocate of women and minorities. During his career, he trained many women scientists and dozens of Latin American students both at his lab in Utah and in the field in Panama, Brazil, Peru, French Guiana and Ecuador.
Tom's bravery in the face of his disease may be his last great contribution to science. On learning of his diagnosis, on Feb 14, 2017, he had a Whipple operation, seven kinds of chemotherapy, and then volunteered to be the first human to undergo three different experimental treatments at the Huntsman Cancer Institute. His extraordinary oncologist said that Tom's generosity has greatly advanced the treatment of pancreatic cancer.
Tom is survived by his partner and life-love, Lissy Coley, his sister-in-law Kitty Coley, his sister Patricia Murakami, and friends across the globe, too numerous to count. For those who want to celebrate Tom's life, his family invites you to contribute to the Coley-Kursar Endowment in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Utah ( This endowment supports field work for graduate students from the University of Utah engaged in ecological research. Tom and Lissy also established an endowment to support internships for Latin American students in hopes of facilitating their path to graduate school ( and note in the comments section the gift is for Tom) Alternatively, please contribute to an environmental or social justice charity of your choice. We welcome your memories and condolences at

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Published in The Salt Lake Tribune on Nov. 20, 2018.
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3 entries
November 21, 2018
Toasting with Friends and Colleagues at the School of Biological Sciences Retreat in August 2018
David Pace
November 20, 2018
Oh Lissy,
I am so very sorry. You and Tom were two of my very favorite people when I worked in Biology and I loved working for and with both of you. I still have the carved lizard and the basket you guys brought me from Papau on display in my entryway and I think of you both all the time. My heart is broken at hearing of your loss. RIP Tom. You will be missed.
November 20, 2018
My sincere condolences to the family. May the God of all comfort grant you peace and strength during this difficult time.

Psalms 94:19
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