Q&A with Gloria Thomas
Young, energetic and highly intelligent, Dr. Gloria Thomas balances teaching, research and mentoring with owning her own photography business. She is a member of the ASBMB Minority Affairs Committee and PI of the NSF Chemistry Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) Leadership Group. Thomas is dedicated to broadening participation of underrepresented ethnic groups in STEM.
Tell us about your current position.
I’m an assistant professor in the chemistry department at Xavier University of Louisiana. My research interests involve microfluidic approaches to bioanalysis. I’m also engaged in broadening the participation of underrepresented ethnic groups in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
What are the key experiences and decisions you have made that have helped you reach your current position?
I can identify four key experiences that set my current path as an academic chemist. First, when I was an undergraduate at Southern University and A&M College, my freshman chemistry honors professor, Mildred Smalley, convinced me to change my major from premed/biology to premed/chemistry. She was key in helping me apply for and receive several scholarships. She also had a profound, positive impact on my perspective about women of color in chemistry.
Later, my organic chemistry instructor, Robert Gooden, signed me up for an interview with The Upjohn Company and helped me prepare, despite the fact that they did not take rising juniors for their Historically Black Colleges and Universities Summer Internship Program. I was accepted into their Program for two summers and got my first taste of analytical chemistry and research and development in biotechnology.
The next push came during my last year of college in a conversation with my scholarship director, Diola Bagayoko. He explained the difference between medical school versus graduate school as this: "Do you want to be studying the work of other people for the rest of your life. Or, in four or five years, do you want people studying your work? That is the difference."
Finally, after obtaining my Bachelor of Science degree and before entering graduate school, I worked at the Albemarle Corporation in an R&D unit developing a synthetic product, a tablet for large-scale water treatment. I quickly learned that my worth as a chemist was primarily determined by meeting the color specifications of the tablet as proposed by the marketing teams and meeting the needs of the chemical engineers’ existing plant designs. While I enjoyed working with the business teams and engineers, I wanted to experience more freedom in my science.
How did you first become interested in science?
My father had an administrative career in the army, but had hobbies in tinkering in general, and in carpentry. He always encouraged my exploration to figure out how things worked and (seemed to) never tire of my questions.
Were there times when you failed at something you felt was critical to your path? If so, how did you regroup and get back on track?
There are many times that I fail –– and I mean this in the present tense –– at things that are critical to my path. I regroup by putting legs and feet to my disappointment. That is, I try to find active ways to identify and address the core issue or flaw and get moving again. I also depend on the support of friends and mentors who affirm my strengths and provide resources for improving the weaknesses.
What advice would you give to young persons from underrepresented backgrounds who want to pursue a career in science similar to yours?
There are all sorts of bits of advice I could offer, but I’ll skip them and instead will strongly encourage budding scientists to get mentors and to be a good mentee. Mentors should be people who have navigated the multitudes of paths you’re embarking upon, or paths similar to them. These mentors also should have some vested interest in your success. They may be able to point out successful strategies for you to adopt, or pitfalls in the road that they succumbed to. Your mentors should also be able to identify your strengths, as well as point out weaknesses. That won’t always be easy to hear, which prompts my advice to be a good mentee. You have the responsibility of seeking these mentors and to also heavily consider their suggestions.
What are your hobbies?
I love photography and own my own photography business. I also enjoy fishing in southeast Louisiana with my family, and I am active in my sorority, Delta Sigma Theta, Inc.
What was the last book you read?
“Worth Dying For” written by Lee Child and narrated by Dick Hill. Lee Child is one of my favorite authors and Dick Hill is my favorite narrator. This book is the last in a series about an ex-army MP.
Do you have any heroes, heroines or role models? If so, describe how they have influenced you?
I have several professional role models, in addition to the mentors who have influenced my decisions. Saundra McGuire (Vice Chancellor at Louisiana State University) is one of the most gracious individuals I know. I strive to be as generous in spirit and impactful in the lives of others as she is. Other role models include Isiah Warner, Linette Watkins (Texas State University) and Mary Boyd (University of San Diego). I also have many very supportive peers who are such competitors in everything they do that they motivate me to constantly improve. This includes Malika Jeffries-El (Iowa State University), John Harkless (Howard University), Lakiesha Williams (Mississippi State University), Rolanda Johnson (Procter and Gamble Beauty) and Zakiya Wilson (Louisiana State University), among many, many others.
Outside of STEM, my heroes and heroines include First Lady Michelle Obama, Indiana Jones, Lara Croft (the “Tomb Raider” series), Ripley (the “Alien” series), Cynthia Butler McIntyre (Delta Sigma Theta National President), Mae Jemison (Astronaut, M.D., and STEM advocate), Beyoncé and my cousin Chante Pierce Roberts.
What is it that keeps you working hard and studying science every day?