Today, the United Nations observance of International Women’s Day takes place at the UN Secretariat in New York. The theme for International Women’s Day 2020 is: I am Generation Equality: Realizing women’s rights. To mark Women’s Day on March 8, we showcase two female engineers at the 2020 Black Engineer of the Year Awards whose lives reflect this theme.
Dr. Lydia Thomas, seen on the cover of USBE magazine, is the 2003 Black Engineer of the Year. She returned to BEYA 2020 to present an award that carries her name. The unique feature of BEYA’s Legacy program is that awards are named after one of the 35 men and women who have won the top award at BEYA and exemplify aspiration in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers.
Every year at BEYA’s Engineering Deans Power Breakfast, a new generation is recognized with the presentation of Legacy Awards, each of which is named for a former award winner of prominence in STEM.
The Dr. Lydia W. Thomas Legacy Award is named after the 2003 Black Engineer of the Year. Her leadership in the people sciences and environmental issues led to her rapid rise in management, resulting in being named president and CEO of the spin-off company Mitretek Systems, specializing in new and emerging technologies.
Presenting the award to an early-career engineer, Dr. Thomas spoke of Nnennaya Udochu’s contributions, passion, and service at Intel Corporation.
“Nnennaya Udochu is an Analog Engineer focused on the power delivery and integrity of system design platforms addressing low power solutions to improve battery life,” Dr. Thomas said. “Her contributions have help(ed) drive high-quality product launches, innovation for new technologies and growth for the business to ensure customer satisfaction. Nnennaya is a passionate engineer and a role model within her community empowering the youths. She represents the Intel cultural values of being fearless and customer-obsessed by leading design platforms for her team. I am proud to present Nnennaya Udochu.”
Udochu came to the United States from Nigeria, one of the largest countries in West Africa.
“I grew up with loving parents who instilled discipline and the art of resilience,” Udochu said. “Their constant support inspired me to pursue a career in STEM as an engineer.”
Udochu also spoke about the many challenges along the way.
“I learned that rising above them creates room for growth, and consistent hard work always beats talent,” she said. ” As a black female engineer, I want to inspire young ladies and men pursuing STEM careers within our community. BEYA is building a remarkable legacy by encouraging young black engineers to reach great heights. I thank my siblings and parents for positive affirmations that dared me to keep the bar raised high and my colleagues.”
Udochu earned a bachelor’s degree at Wichita State University followed by a master’s degree at the University of Texas, Arlington. After serving as an engineering intern with a laser company in 2010, she worked at Clarkson University as a Research Sustainability & Environmental Engineering Assistant with Asset To Serve Humanity. Back at Wichita State, Udochu served as an energy research intern in the Reliability Engineering Automation Laboratory. She spent the next year as a research energy and systems assistant at Texas A&M University.
Other positions she has held include a Cisco systems engineer and a supplemental instruction leader at UT Arlington University. Currently, Udochu serves on the Steering Committee for Engineers without Borders and is the founder of the local United Nations Association Young Professionals. She hopes to create awareness among young adults to address world pressing issues governed by the United Nations.
As CEO of Noblis, Inc. from 1996 to 2007, Dr. Thomas led a corporation with a charter to perform advanced research on engineering science and technology. Prior to Noblis, she held a number of leadership positions, including senior vice president, vice president, and technical director at The MITRE Corporation, which provides systems engineering, research and development, and information technology support to government agencies.
Thomas grew up in Virginia, where she attended segregated schools. Her father was the 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 create 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.
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.
Happy International Women’s Day, March 8.