Lydia W . Thomas , Ph.D

Engineer and Winner of

The 2003 Black Engineer of the Year Award

2003 Black Engineer of the Year Awards
By Bruce E. Phillips
Jan 15, 2003, 15:50

Why is it that some folks are defined by limits while others soar beyond them? Achieving a high level of professional and personal success requires personal characteristics that are not easily defined. We know that success is the result of preparation, planning, and performance. We know that success is a byproduct of education and hard work. But what are the other factors, the ephemeral attributes, of those honored as this year's Black Engineers of the Year? One way to demonstrate these hard-to-define characteristics is to tell a little bit of their own stories.

2003 Black Engineer of the Year

Lydia W. Thomas, Ph.D.
President and CEO
Mitretek Systems

"Young people coming to the work environment need to know a few simple things. 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."


To begin to understand the remarkable achievements of Dr. Lydia Thomas, the 2003 Black Engineer of the Year, first realize she is the daughter of the principal of the only all-Black high school in Portsmouth, Va., and that her mother was the school's head guidance counselor. She has said of that experience: "I grew up in Virginia, in segregated schools, but I had tremendous encouragement for my interest in science -- from my teachers and from my parents, who had a great love of learning. They taught me that a book was better than a candy bar." She also was encouraged to achieve, to soar above any limits others might wish to impose.
"As a young Black girl in high school, no one ever told me that math was hard or that science was for boys," Dr. Thomas says.
She continued her education at Howard University, receiving a B.Sc. in zoology in 1965, and went on to earn an M.Sc. in microbiology from American University in 1971. She returned to Howard in 1973, as a divorced mother of two, to earn a Ph.D. in cell biology, just in time to join the emerging technology revolution.
Dr. Thomas joined MITRE in the 1970s and rose through the ranks through a combination of skill and willingness to soar. She spent the vast majority of her career at The MITRE Corporation and Mitretek Systems, where she shaped programs that were the beacon for the nation in energy, environment, public safety, health, and national security. Martin R. Hoffman, chairman of the board of Mitretek Systems, says of her: "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). 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."
A career-defining event occurred for Lydia Thomas in 1996, when Mitretek Systems was spun off from MITRE to concentrate its non-defense technology business into one nonprofit entity and she was tapped to serve as the new company's president and CEO.
Her professional and personal achievements have garnered many honors -- called her one of America's "Phenomenal Women" -- as well as many responsibilities. She volunteers her time to serve on many boards and committees and recently was named by President Bush to serve as a member of the President's Homeland Security Advisory Council.