USBE Online continues our Women Making History series Tuesday with the 2003 Black Engineer of the Year, Lydia W. Thomas, Ph.D.

Lydia Thomas grew up in Virginia, where she attended segregated schools. Her father was principal of the only black high school in Portsmouth, Virginia, and her mother was the school’s guidance counselor.

“No one ever told me math was hard or that science was for boys,” Dr. Thomas recalled.

After graduating from high school, she first attended Howard University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in zoology in 1965. She then went on to earn a master’s degree in microbiology from American University in 1971. Two years later, she returned to Howard for a Ph.D. in cytology. Dr. Thomas joined the Mitre Corporation in Virginia in 1973.

“When she joined Mitre, she was unique because of who she was—a biologist among mostly electrical engineers; and a woman of color, among mostly white males,” said a former chairman of the board of Mitretek Systems. “It wasn’t long before she was unique because of what she did—pioneering fields such as  environmental protection, product safety, toxicology, and risk-based decision-making in government programs.”

When Mitretek (now known as Noblis) was spun off from Mitre in 1996, Dr. Thomas was tapped to serve as the new company’s first president and CEO. As chief executive, she led research projects that ran from developing gaming technologies for first responders to creating a sick city, with scenarios featuring a naturally occurring, or terrorist-instigated biological event.

“Young people coming to the work environment need to know a few things,” Dr. Thomas told Black Engineer magazine in 2003 when she became the second woman to win the prestigious Black Engineer of the Year Award. “The first is to do your job, the second is to keep on top of what’s going on, and the third is to keep on learning.”

Over BEYA STEM Conference‘s three-decade span, Dr. Thomas has been a regular attendee. In one interview with BEYA Chairman and Publisher of Black Engineer magazine Tyrone Taborn,  she recalls slipping and breaking her arm during a BEYA Gala.

Fortunately, there “was a doctor in Bob Stevens’s security detail and they got me all done up to walk across the stage,” she said. Robert Stevens, now retired, served as Lockheed Martin’s CEO from 2004-2012.

Reflecting on her long career, Dr. Thomas said if she could do it all over again she wouldn’t try to be perfect.

“Prioritizing means sometimes not being able to put as much focus on one aspect of your life and you have to able to forgive yourself,” she said.

A young professional can’t be a mom who goes to work and spends all day feeling guilty, she added. Listen to the  “Leadership for the Future with Dr. Lydia Thomas” interview here.

Now retired, Dr. Thomas volunteers her time on boards and committees. According to the United States Energy Association, she is a member of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (Associate Fellow), the American Society of Toxicology,  the National Defense Industrial Association, the Teratology Society, and the International Women’s Forum.

All through this week, we will highlight women who have won the prestigious Black Engineer of the Year Award as we countdown to  International Women’s Day on Friday, March 8.

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