2020 Black Engineer Of The Year: JSU alum is an explosive weapons analyst protecting U.S. soldiers

(JACKSON, Miss.) — A Jackson State University alum who works as an explosive weapons analyst to save soldiers’ lives earned the 2020 Black Engineer of the Year (BEYA) Award recently in Washington, D.C., for Modern Day Technology Leaders.

Upon learning he was a recipient of the honor, Cameron Thomas, a native of Clinton, Mississippi, said, “God is good. I’m so humbled and appreciative.”

The 2007 JSU alum earned his bachelor’s degree from the College of Science, Engineering and Technology (CSET). He is a research civil engineer who has worked an an explosive weapons analyst since 2010 for the Impact and Explosion Effects branch of the Geotechnical and Structures Laboratory.

In all, he’s been with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) in Vicksburg, Mississippi, for nearly 13 years.

His role involves recreating past events and gathering data that could be used to better protect U.S. Army personnel against combat threats around the globe.

“Everything we do is to save a life and cut down on damage that soldiers face every day,” said Thomas, who originally wanted to pursue architecture. “I wanted to build things, not destroy them.”

However, he continued, “The opportunity became available at the time, and I took it head-on.” While doing explosive tests, cratering and IED (improvised explosive device) training, he acknowledged that he had some misgivings about working as an explosive weapons analyst.

That mindset changed after he began speaking to enlisted military personnel, and they explained how his work had been so valuable to them. “I became more at ease after talking to guys who were using these tools and technology that we were coming up with,” Thomas said.

Because of his successes, he encourages other minorities to pursue interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

“I teach my son that we don’t see too many minorities in this type of field. So, my advice is to seek out these opportunities because they are there. They are broad. There are many firms looking to hire minorities.” He said his field, in particular, is one that must be promoted more to minorities by other professionals such as himself. He suggests the development of support groups to encourage and maintain interest in the profession.

Thomas recalls the challenges of being the “guinea pig” of JSU’s engineering program because “it was not accredited at the time.” He said there were many “tough nights and long nights and a lot of high expectations for us all because we wanted to be able to sell the program to the accreditation board. We were held to a higher standard. The hard work they put us through is benefiting me today.”

He said one of his favorite projects to be involved with is called FERRET — the Forensic Encyclopedia Results Retrieval and Evaluation Tool. It provides the Department of Defense and other organizations with a tool that can identify munitions used in attacks against installations, vehicles and personnel.

“Because of the work my colleagues and I do, this program has grown substantially in the last few years,” he said. The ERDC, the lab and sponsors for this program are very supportive of the role I play in completing the tasks they set forth.”

Thomas, who earned his master’s degree in civil engineering from Mississippi State University in 2018, said that beyond his current role he wants to have a positive impact on future generations. In 2017, he received the ERDC Program Development Achievement Award, and he is also the winner of the Commander’s Award for Civilian Service and the ERDC Award for Outstanding Team Effort.

“Coming from Clinton and a JSU program that was started fresh, I now represent that program. I want to be an example of coming out of Jackson State and showing there are opportunities to be recognized and join other elite engineers in the U.S.,” Thomas said.

Cameron Thomas
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