TAMPA – USF President Rhea Law has named College of Engineering Professor Sylvia Wilson Thomas, a pioneering researcher whose national leadership and advocacy is opening the field of engineering to historically underrepresented students, as interim vice president for USF Research & Innovation.
In her new duties, Dr. Thomas will lead the division of the university responsible for managing research proposals, grants and contracts, as well as USF’s thriving innovation enterprise, which consists of the Technology Transfer Office, the USF Research Park and the Tampa Bay Technology Incubator. Already a member of the USF Research Foundation Board, Dr. Thomas will now serve as the foundation’s president and CEO.
As a longtime leader in the effort to bring more diversity to engineering, Dr. Thomas has melded her advocacy for students and an ambitious range of projects that has her lab at the forefront of exploring new ways to solve global technological challenges. More recently, Dr. Thomas’ lab has led several high-profile projects applying advanced circuitry and materials to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Her creative, current affairs-driven projects have been supported by a wide-range of funders, from the USF seed grant programs to the National Science Foundation. Dr. Thomas’ achievements were recognized in 2020 with the BEYA Education STEM Educational Leadership Award at the annual Black Engineer of the Year Awards presented by US Black Engineer and Information Technology Magazine.
Dr. Thomas teaches, conducts research, advises, and mentors students in the areas of electrical engineering in her Advanced Materials Bio and Integration Research laboratory. Her work focuses on developing low-cost, low power, miniaturized electronic circuitry, biosensors and advanced materials with greater longevity and durability. Over her more than 20-year career in academia and industry, she has produced 12 patents and patent disclosures.
Originally from the small Mississippi town of Itta Bena, Dr. Thomas was inspired to a career in engineering by her mother Verna B. Wilson, an educator, and her father Dr. Eddie Wilson, a computer science professor at Mississippi Valley State University. After completing a bachelor's and master's degrees in Electrical Engineering at Vanderbilt University, Dr. Thomas followed in her father’s footsteps and earned a PhD at Howard University.
“Leadership, at any level, is not about what you can take; it's about what you can give," she said. "And I thank God for what I am able to give.”
All the Colors is a career diversity video series for youth by youth produced by Pasco County Agents for Change and the Foundation for Community Driven Innovation (FCDI) and AMRoC.
One of her most notable roles in working to achieve diversity in STEM is her role on the inaugural Board of Directors for Black Girls Code. Dr. Thomas has been co-director of three NSF Research Experience for Undergraduate Program sites, NSF Research Experience for Teachers programs, and a current NSF Florida Alliance for Graduate Education in the Professoriate (FL-AGEP) Transformation Alliance. Her outreach includes international efforts in Italy, Singapore, Portugal, South Korea, Mexico, and South Africa.
Dr. Thomas is also the USF GEM Consortium Representative and an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Minority PhD Mentor. The GEM Consortium is a network of Fortune 500 corporations, national laboratories, and top research institutions (including USF) that identifies and recruits more than 1,000 college students and working professionals from under-represented groups for advanced degree in engineering and science programs at the nation's elite universities.
In one of her most recent projects, Dr. Thomas is collaborating with the National Research Council of Italy – Institute for Polymers, Composites and Biomaterials and the Italian Institute of Technology Center for Nano Science and Technology to train students to enhance bio and electronic devices and materials important for healthcare diagnostics, cancer therapies, tissue engineering, drug delivery platforms, wearable and flexible sensors, edible electronics, energy efficiency, vision restoration, and real-time biological monitoring.
In addition to leading a series of projects applying engineering to COVID-19 and systemic racism, Dr. Thomas leads an NSF funded project to collect, synthesize and visualize comprehensive coronavirus data from around the world in partnership with Graph Aware Limited.
Dr. Thomas is the author of more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles, proceedings and presentations, six book chapters and more than $4.8 million in research funding.
She is a fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering, which is among the highest professional distinctions accorded to a medical and biological engineer, as well as a senior member of the National Academy of Inventors and of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). During her doctoral program, she was named an NSF Materials Research Center of Excellence Fellow and an NSF East Asia and Pacific Summer Institutes Research Fellow in Korea. Dr. Thomas is involved in various organizations, having served as the first female chair and Florida Senate appointee to the Florida Education Fund Board of Directors and the Engineering Workforce Commission of the American Association of Engineering Societies.
Additionally, she serves as the President of the IEEE’s Engineering in Medicine and Biology Florida West Coast Section; advisor for the Society of Women Engineers and National Society of Black Engineers. In 2004, she represented IEEE in briefing the United Nations on "Girls and Technology: New Educational Opportunities." Their testimony was intended to elevate global awareness of the need for more women in the engineering and technology fields.
Dr. Thomas has more than 12 years of industry experience, assisting in the success of such companies and organizations as Agere Systems formerly Lucent Bell Labs, Kimberly Clark Corp., IBM, and Procter & Gamble.
Read President Law’s appointment message to the USF community here.