Dr. Lydia Thomas: Leader, Role Model, and Champion for Women in STEM

How a love of science, learning, and a desire to make a difference shaped the career of Noblis’ former President & CEO

Noblis has championed “doing what’s right” since its founding in 1996. Dr. Lydia Thomas, who served as the company’s President & CEO from 1996 until her retirement in 2007, was instrumental in establishing many of the company’s core values as a mission-based organization. A leading scientist and engineer, her career journey is an inspiration to both aspiring and seasoned women in STEM. We connected with Dr. Thomas to hear more about her story as a leader in her field and her integral role in Noblis’ history.

Dr. Lydia Thomas’ curiosity in STEM began as a young girl. “My father was a chemistry major and I grew up around science,” she said. “But as a kid, you don’t immediately understand that things you can observe in the world are actually the result of chemistry, biology, or other fields of science.”

She mused that on one occasion, her curiosity and knack for homemade experiments almost resulted in a housefire. “I learned over time that science was a way to answer all the questions I had in my mind,” Dr. Thomas said. This love of science persisted through adulthood, ultimately leading to an undergraduate degree in zoology, a master’s in microbiology, and a doctorate in cytology.

“At the time of my doctorate, we were just learning about and improving our understanding of the mitochondria,” she said. “And now look how things have changed. Science is fascinating, and ever evolving. When you start thinking and learning about living things, what could possibly be more fascinating or interesting?”

Following her education, Dr. Thomas built her professional career in federal contracting, inspired by her desire to continually learn new ways to apply STEM to everyday problems. Throughout her career, she held a series of technical and management positions, spanning the areas of energy, environment, health, and communications systems.

“I didn’t have previous experience in engineering, and constantly learning was and is important to me,” she recalled. In 1996, she became the President & CEO of Noblis, where she was responsible for the general management and direction of the company’s overall technical, financial, and administrative activities. During her tenure, Noblis emerged as a leader in protecting national security, countering chemical and biological warfare, ensuring environmental sustainability, improving healthcare, advancing biometrics, and ensuring safety and efficiency of our nation’s transportation systems and energy resources.

“Doing the right thing and contributing to the success of the government is what Noblis was about,” she said. And while reaching the role of President & CEO was undoubtedly a major achievement, Dr. Thomas stressed that it is not her focus when she reflects on her successful STEM career.

“I’m happy that I had the opportunity to be CEO, but even if I had not, being a part of [Noblis] was very fulfilling. Our focus was always on providing real impacts to the federal government, and I never felt like I had to compromise what was right to do business,” she said. “How could you not like that?”

Dr. Thomas noted that while Noblis has grown and changed since her tenure as President and CEO, the organization’s key values have stood the test of time.

“Noblis is driven by doing what’s right. That’s what we thought about in 1996, and that is still the company’s mantra today. Of course, the company has adapted to meet the changing federal environment, but it has stayed true to its values.”

Now, Dr. Thomas serves as a member of the Noblis Board of Trustees, among many other Board appointments. She served on the Secretary’s Homeland Security Advisory Council, a position she held from her appointment by President Bush in 2002 to September 2012, as well as the Defense Department’s Scientific Advisory Board. She was also co-chair of the Government University Industry Research Roundtable (GUIRR) of the National Academies.

Dr. Thomas is an emeritus member of the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (Associate Fellow), American Society of Toxicology, National Defense Industrial Association, and the International Women’s Forum. In 2003, she was named “Black Engineer of the Year” at the 17th Annual Black Engineer of the Year Awards Conference and Celebration.

When asked what others can take away as an example from her leadership, Dr. Thomas said, “there is always the opportunity for recognition when you work hard, and you establish yourself as someone who pitches in. Sometimes that comes through a promotion, but for me, it was always more important to focus on what my clients had to say, and whether I made a difference.”

Dr. Thomas’s achievements are especially impactful as the number of women in STEM continues to lag.

“To [young girls] I’d say— don’t listen to anyone who tells you math and science are hard. They are no more difficult than anything else you can challenge yourself with,” she said. “When you find something that is your calling, there should be no person or company that can stop you. The only thing that matters is your brain and what you want to do with it.”