Thornton is director of the Engineering Research Center & Hydraulics Laboratory at Colorado State University. His research focuses on hydraulics, river mechanics and erosion and sedimentation, with emphasis on dam structure and resilience.
Work conducted at the Hydraulics Laboratory has been instrumental in defining and developing standards for performance testing of engineered erosion control solutions. Partnerships formed with other research institutions have resulted in interdisciplinary collaborations that have defined frameworks describing the complex problem of soil erosion and stability.
In 2006, Thornton was recognized by the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering with the Research Faculty Award for Excellence, and he was recognized again in 2007 with the Department Research Award.
Thornton has spent his academic career studying civil engineering and hydraulics at CSU: He graduated with his B.S. in 1993, his M.S. in 1995 and his Ph.D. in 1999.