Feb 19, 2019 Cedars-Sinai Staff
Lisa S. Thomas, Research Associate, F. Widjaja Foundation Inflammatory Bowel and Immunobiology Research Institute. Laboratory investigator, former professional basketball player, globetrotter.
Hall of Famer
In June 2018, Lisa S. Thomas was one of 96 players from the now-defunct Women’s Professional Basketball League (WPBL) inducted as “Trailblazers of the Game” into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in Knoxville, Tenn. “I felt pure joy. We hadn’t seen each other in 38 years, and we were so happy that we were there together to be recognized as a part of women’s basketball history,” says the one-time Chicago Hustle center. “It was a phenomenal weekend.”
After the WPBL disbanded in 1981, Thomas returned to her scientific passion—biology. She has studied inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) at Cedars-Sinai for the last 19 years. The role of gut bacteria and the immune system in IBD was not well-understood when she began her work but, over the past two decades, scientists have learned a lot. “The bacteria in your gut are friendly most of the time, but sometimes they can become an enemy of sorts,” Thomas says. “That’s what causes inflammation.” This insight has led to new areas of study and treatment.
In the lab, as on the court, Thomas enjoys being part of a team, with each member performing a crucial individual role while working toward a common goal. “In our lab, we use blood and tissue samples donated by patients to study immune cells and discover what inflammatory markers they’re secreting,” she says. “Others in our group investigate the disease’s genetic components or study the microbiome. Together, we examine almost every aspect possible in an effort to find a cure for IBD.”
P(l)aying it Forward
These days, Thomas’ basketball activity is limited to cheering for two of L.A.’s professional teams, the Sparks and the Clippers, but she remains active as a tennis player and instructor. “So many people helped me along the way, and I always wanted to give back,” she says. “I encourage all my friends who have little girls to get them into sports to help build confidence.” That is also a lesson she teaches her two “fur kids,” Labrador retrievers Phoebe and Latte, who compete in agility and tracking.
Thomas loves traveling the world and, for a gut-disorder researcher, she has remarkably adventurous tastes—spicy Asian food is her top pick. Her gustatory travels have taken her to every continent except Africa. “My favorite spot so far is the Galápagos Islands,” she says. “I like to experience other cultures and their food, and discover what makes these places special.”
Thomas is grateful her career provides the freedom to explore her many passions, but she is always happy to return to the lab. “Every day our team endeavors to better understand how the immune system functions and responds in the face of Crohn’s syndrome and ulcerative colitis. It’s fascinating! That motivates me.”