“I am the youngest of five children, and my parents instilled in me at a young age that I could do whatever I wanted to do, so I always went with that,” said Tangie Thomas, vice president of Clinical Operations at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. “I never thought anything different.”
Obstacles for Thomas began as early as her college years.
“I think the biggest obstacle for me was walking into a room as an African-American woman. People already have preconceived notions about who you are and what you can accomplish. In some ways, you’re always trying to dispel people’s assumptions. I went to the school of engineering, and at the time I went to Vanderbilt University in 1986, there were not a lot of black or female students in the program. A lot of us had to figure out how we fit in. In that kind of environment, you learn to be resilient and tough but also dedicated to what you decide to do with your career.”
Thomas said she is motivated to persist in her line of work because of the outcomes and progress that have occurred.
“Look at the rate of cures for childhood cancer—where they are today as opposed to where they were 30 or 40 years ago,” she said. “I am motivated by seeing great outcomes, seeing the work that happens in places like St. Jude, and knowing that our research contributes to those outcomes.”
Her advice to young girls interested in her career path is to understand that a career doesn’t have to follow a traditional trajectory and to ask questions.
“We all grow up thinking that we must follow this straight path,” Thomas said. “In the beginning, you don’t see all the curves and turns or the mistakes that you will make. You must be okay with things not working out as you wanted or intended and asking questions. I am always inquisitive and am trying to figure out the ‘why.’ In my career, whenever things didn’t go as planned, I took a step back and asked, ‘Why did that happen?’ and ‘What do I need to do from here?’ That is what has helped me the most—having this curious mind and always trying to figure what I can learn and how to keep learning.”
When defining success, Thomas continues to ask key questions. “I always go back to what I can accomplish,” she said. “What kind of impact can I have on people? Whether it’s family, co-workers or my community, what kind of impact did I have? What kind of impression did I leave? If I’ve left a positive influence and it has been well received, then that is my definition of success.”
Thomas said she looks up to those around her. “My heroes at St. Jude are the doctors and nurses who take care of the kids,” she said. “I respect and admire those people because they are extremely dedicated and committed and passionate about what they do.
“When I think about heroes in general, I look for folks who are dedicated, resilient, passionate and committed to a cause,” she continues. “I come from a family that has a lot of women. I have three sisters, and I have always been surrounded by women who were committed to work and family. Going to college and grad school, I had a huge network of women. I always turn to them for inspiration and motivation. Heroes can be seen in your everyday life. For me it’s my mom, my sisters and my friends.”