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Interview of Sekazi Mtingwa by David Zierler on March 27, 2020,Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,College Park, MD USA,www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/XXXX
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In this interview, AIP Oral Historian David Zierler interviews high energy physicist Sekazi Mtingwa. Mtingwa describes his upbringing in Atlanta, life under segregation as a child, and his early interests as a budding scientist. He discusses his undergraduate education at MIT, where he developed his interest in theoretical physics and became involved in student protests in the late 1960s. Mtingwa describes his graduate work at Princeton, the cultural differences he experienced there versus at MIT, and his dissertation, which focused on collisions of elementary particles at high energies. He describes his postdoc at the University of Rochester, and some of the changes he felt personally that led to his decision to change his name. Mtingwa discusses his work at Fermilab, where he worked on creating the Antiproton Source, and his decision to move to Argonne Lab to work on plasma wakefield accelerators. Mtingwa describes his decision to build up the physics program at North Carolina A&T and his work at Morgan State. At the end of the interview, Mtingwa discusses his work in recent years, which has included trips to Africa to expand science education, supporting minorities in science, and his service for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
It is March 27, 2020. This is David Zierler, oral historian from the American Institute of Physics, and it is my great pleasure to be here over video conference with Dr. Sekazi Mtingwa. We’re both at our homes today because of the coronavirus crisis, but I’m very excited to have this opportunity with you, Sekazi, to talk about your life and your career. So, thank you very much for being with me today.
Thank you for inviting me.
Let’s start right at the beginning. Tell us about your birthplace in Atlanta, and your early childhood, and something about your family and where they’re from.
Okay. I grew up in Atlanta. My mother and father were both basically based — they were from that area. My mother came from College Park, which is just outside of Atlanta, and my father was from Powder Springs, [which] wasn’t far away from there. But I grew up in Atlanta. Of course, in those days, that was sort of the Jim Crow era, so we didn’t have much interaction with whites at that time.
What year were you born?
I was born in 1949. So, coming up there, the schools were segregated, and the integration didn’t hit until the middle of my high-school days. But of course, you know it takes a while for things to actually really kick in to full swing. So, I basically went to all-black schools the whole time. But I had fantastic teachers who promoted me. I owe so much to what they did. There was a mathematics teacher that I had, Miss Mary Burnside. In high school I had her, and she would give me things to study over the summer, because I went to her and said that I wanted to continue. I kind of felt a little bad in the sense that I disappointed her a bit in the sense that I would get ahead and then I’d come back and kind of [laughs] mess around and not be so serious in the fall. So, she was very angry at me, but I had to sort of turn that around.
I’m sure you made her proud at the end.
What were your parents’ occupations? What did they do for a living?
My mother was a nurse’s assistant. And in her last days, she tried to become a Licensed Practical Nurse, but she passed away from breast cancer before she could realize that dream. My father worked for Lockheed. Okay, it’s more complicated than that. My biological father — my mother and my father divorced when I was in the 2nd grade. My biological father worked at Lockheed, probably on the assembly line. I’m not really sure, because I didn’t really get to know him as well as I probably should have. And then my stepfather — my mother married again when I was in the 8th grade — was a plumber, so he and his brother, his family, had a plumbing business. So, that’s what he did.
Do you have siblings?
Oh, yes. I have two brothers. I have one brother who’s a year older named Graham, and he also spent his career working on the assembly line at Lockheed Aircraft. And I have another brother who basically was a free spirit, Larry, who changed his name to Les. So, we all have names that have changed all over the place. [laughs] He basically worked jobs on his own, different conventions, and things like that. He was more or less a freelance contractor.
So, you said that your entire schooling before college was at all-black schools, or were you integrated at any point?
Yes, all-black schools in Atlanta. Segregated. You know, as a young person growing up in a segregated system, you didn’t think about it so much. It was only when you got older and realized that even though you had great teachers, your facilities were not as good as those at white schools. For instance, I remember — I guess it was around my senior year, our school built a new gymnasium. And I was so impressed by it. But then, I had the opportunity to be on one of these Georgia state all-star bands. I played baritone in the band, and I went to that. The practice we had was in one of the white schools, and there was just no comparison between their new gym [laughs] and our new gym. I said: hey, wait a minute! What’s going on here? [laughs] But only when I left school, or my last days in school, that I realized what segregation was all about.
Was your non-school life also pretty segregated as well?
Oh, yeah. Definitely. Absolutely. We grew up in our — the communities were completely segregated in those days. The integration of neighborhoods and all of that really didn’t blossom until I had gone away to college.
So at what point did you develop an interest in the math and sciences? In elementary school, or later on?
It was much earlier. I like to tell this story that when I was in elementary school — let me say, my birth name was Michael Von Sawyer. So, when I was a little boy in elementary school, the children, my friends, used to joke with me and call me “the mad scientist.” You know, they would call me “Von Sawyer,” [laughs] like the ones they saw in the books that we read. I guess that kind of stuck with me. Hey, maybe this is something that I should do. But when I hit high school, I was already sort of pointed toward science, thanks to my friends. [laughs] And when I was in high school, I worked on a biology science project, actually. It was a closed system. The idea was to investigate a closed system of an astronaut and green algae, because it seemed that the algae could provide oxygen and the foods, and humans could supply the carbon dioxide for the plants, and the waste from the humans could be used to feed the algae. So, what I played around with was a closed system of mice and algae. And I actually succeeded in going to the Georgia State Science Fair in the 10th grade with that project, and won first place. So, I was actually the first African-American to win first place in the Georgia State Science Fair. My 10th grade was the first year that they integrated it. So, that was a huge accomplishment that I was really proud of.
That makes me think: maybe if they integrated earlier, you wouldn’t have been the first African-American to —
[laughs] That could be! Yeah.
Did you ever feel that, as an African-American attending segregated schools, that there were certain careers that were not available to you, that you wouldn’t be able to make it in, or you never felt discouraged like that?
No, I never felt discouraged like that. In fact, as I said, I really didn’t think about segregation versus integration. It’s just not something that I thought about, and so it certainly didn’t put any restrictions on my career aspirations. It was around the middle of high school — I was doing this biology project, which I worked on throughout my high-school days — and I got interested in physics, because the Georgia State Science Fair awarded me a set of books — little paperback books — on all different fields of physics, and there were three on special relativity. And I read those, and I was completely fascinated by it. So, that’s how I got it in my mind that I wanted to go into physics. And my science teacher, who was my science project advisor — she taught me chemistry and physics, and she worked with me as my advisor on my science project. She really encouraged that. So, that’s how I got interested in physics.
What was her name?
Her name was Mrs. Dorothea Jackson. So, Mrs. Jackson was my science teacher and Miss Burnside was my math teacher. So, the two of them, I owe so much, especially Mrs. Jackson, because what she did for me and the other students, I just couldn’t see myself [laughs] doing, really. I mean, it was hard being a teacher, having to teach all day, and she would stay after school every day with us, until about 4 or 5:00, working with science projects and working with the Girl Scouts. I mean, it was just amazing what she did. Absolutely amazing.
Now, when it was time to apply to colleges, how did you even think that MIT was a place that you could apply to? You must have had a lot of encouragement and support to even think that, you know, that was something that was even in the realm of possibility for you. Right? Not coming from an elite school.
My parents were very supportive. My mother pushed hard, and Mrs. Jackson saw no barriers anywhere. And I told her I wanted to do physics. So, I looked around myself at the top physics schools and science schools. I had learned about this place called MIT, so I said, “That’s where I want to go.” And Mrs. Jackson said, “Go for it.” My mother said, “Go for it.” My stepfather tried to encourage me to go to Georgia Tech since that was right there.
He said I could remain near home, and I could do the same thing. But I had my eyes set on MIT. The only pushback I got was from one of our counselors, and it was a very positive pushback. She was just worried, because we had never sent anybody to MIT, and she was just worried whether or not I would be swamped, trying to go to such a school. She was encouraging, but she was just a little reluctant about that. But she gave me good recommendations, as far as I know. I got in, [laughs] so I assume they were good.
Did you apply anywhere else, or it was like, “MIT or bust”?
I think there were six schools. I applied to Harvard, did not get in. I applied to MIT. Where else did I apply to? Georgia Tech, of course. Morehouse College. There was a couple of other schools. I can’t remember where they were, but [they were] sort of liberal arts type colleges.
Right. But you just thought —
MIT was my number one by far.
So, you just thought MIT was the place, and you just went for it? Wow.
Yes. So, I said: forget about Harvard. [laughs] Who needs Harvard?
This would have been — you would have entered MIT what, in the fall of ’67?
’67. That’s right.
Okay. And when you got there, culturally — I mean, had you ever been to the north before?
Yes, that was funny, because my first time out of the state of Georgia is when I went to MIT, actually.
That was it?
First time out of the state of Georgia. So, I went there. I took a train ride. I only took one train ride in my life that far, and that was the one, and my last. [laughs] Well, not quite the last. I did take one in the Soviet Union many years later. But I don’t like trains. But anyway, yeah. So, it was a different culture completely.
Not only a different culture, but 1967, I mean, culturally there’s the anti-war movement. There’s the civil rights movement. Women’s rights.
Did you feel all of that on campus?
Oh, we did all of that. All of the above. It was a very hectic, turbulent period. Plus, I had to make my adjustment — I had to adjust my grammar and my English, because I realized that I should start paying attention to verb conjugations. So, I did this thing, which actually paid off later, because I studied other languages later. I would stand in front of the mirror and just talk to myself for about 20 minutes to a half hour every day. And that way, I was able to really improve the way I used grammar. I don’t want to say the way I spoke, because the way I spoke before was fine with me. [laughs] But I wanted to speak with more or less standard English. I’m not sure I do that even today, but at least I tried. So, that’s what I would do. And I found later, when I would study Russian and other languages, that helped me to be able to speak , to stand in front of the mirror and talk to myself.
Culturally, did you — I mean, were there other African-American students on the campus at that point, or were you really one of the few?
Yeah. MIT, for many years — even then to now — admits about 1,000 to 1,100 or so students per year. In those days, we had about five in my class. Every year, there would be only about four or five. So, when I was a freshman, that’s when we started the Black Students’ Union at MIT. And we fought to increase those numbers. My sophomore year, we had about six students. Then the next year, going into my junior year, we had 53, and we started this program during the summer called Interphase — it still goes on, even today — where we would bring students in and give them an introduction to the courses and the kind of life that they would be introduced to. So, over the years, MIT’s numbers went from that to about 100 African-American students a year, about 100 Latino-American students per year. So, in those days — I mean, it was really touchy, because MIT has these long corridors. So, you pretty much see everybody at some point. If you have a corridor full of people coming and going, and then a black student starts coming towards you, you don’t know what to do. You don’t know if you should look at them and acknowledge them, [laughs] or you don’t, or whatever. So, that was really interesting for me, you know, what to do when you passed a black student. We were so few and far between.
Now socially, were the other black students sort of naturally in your friend group, or did you have a more diverse group of friends?
Not in those days, no. Not in those days, because we were so fragmented. But we did have a core group that may have been about four or five of us, who were undergraduate and graduate students, who formed the nucleus for the Black Students’ Union. So, we would meet often, and we would socialize among ourselves very often. But most of the black students were not in that core group.
Did you feel you were treated with respect by your fellow students and professors, for the most part?
Oh, yeah. Definitely. There was only one professor that I had problems with. I had this professor of Humanities who clearly had a problem, but other than that, no. I thought the professors were very encouraging. It was fine. The only problem you tend to have is when you go into graduate school. Then, it becomes much more political.
As an undergraduate student, you’re basically studying and working problem sets and taking tests. And if you do well on that, you’re fine. But when you hit graduate school, then it gets to be more difficult.
How well prepared did you feel you were from high school, in terms of math and science? Did you feel like you could keep up when you got to MIT?
Yeah, I did. I made all B’s my first semester, but after that, I pretty much made A’s in everything. So, there was some adjustment, but I never felt that I was inadequately prepared. Now, one of the things I did in high school was to study calculus on my own, so I didn’t have that as a barrier to me. I took all the physics. You know, I took — we didn’t have honors or advanced placement. We didn’t have any of that kind of thing. But I just learned well the physics that I did take. I think we may have covered maybe half the book in the regular classroom, and I studied the rest of it on my own. And another thing I did in high school, I read Scientific American. Before I’d do my homework every night, I’d read an article in Scientific American. So, I was well-prepared, I think, but much of it, of course, was because I took it upon myself to fill in the gaps from school.
Now, I see you were a double major in math and physics. What was the idea there?
Right. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do math or physics, actually.
So, do both.
Yeah. Right. So, I did both, but when the revolution hit in my sophomore year, [laughs] you know, when people are worried about humanistic types of things, I thought about the math, and I’m dealing with all of these abstract vector spaces. And I was saying: now, wait a minute. Physics, on the one hand, had sort of hands-on type of applications. But that may not really be true. I mean, math you have applications, too, but that’s the way I looked at it. Because I was not in the applied math. I was doing more pure mathematics. So, I felt that physics is really [the] one that I should probably prefer, and that’s sort of the one I started out in high school preferring anyway, so it was kind of natural.
But even with physics though, you do have the choice between the applied track and the theoretical track.
I did theoretical, yeah. So, in a way, I still leaned on the mathematics. I was theoretical.
It was only much later in my career that I got into the sort of hands-on building things, because I was not an experimental physicist at all.
Now, you mentioned “the revolution” for 1968. So, tell me a little bit about your involvement in campus protests and politics beyond Cambridge. What was your worldview at that point?
Yeah, we had all kind of — I mean, during those days, people were taking over buildings, and we had mass rallies. So, you had the Vietnam War movement going on, on the one hand, and then you had the fight for civil rights, as you said, going on, on the other hand. Most of my attention and those of other African-American students at that time were more toward the Civil Rights part. But we still supported the Vietnam protest as well. In fact, I remember one experience we had when the faculty club at MIT, they were having some big, prestigious speaker, had a big event going on, and the black students went in and took over the faculty club. [laughs]
I almost got kicked out of school! [laughs] But they just put us all on probation, and you know, we had to watch ourselves after that. But that was some of the kinds of things that were going on, you know, trying to enforce the kinds of issues that you were interested in. So yeah, I mean, every weekend there were protests. And not only on our campus. I mean, we would go to other campuses. So, everybody would come to your campus. It was almost like a party, although we had a serious social purpose to it. It was really — I remember one of the worst times though, I wasn’t involved. They had the big riot in Harvard Square. That was terrible. Really terrible. I mean, they just broke out the windows in stores, and it was terrible.
What was it that you felt that you were protesting for? What were the injustices that you were seeking to fix, in terms of your involvement?
Yeah. Ours was more in students and faculty. Okay? So, MIT, to a large extent, solved that problem of African-American, Latino-American students on campus, because they did get the numbers up. But the faculty, even to this day, is really bad. For instance, in the physics department, they have this professor, James Young, who was a mentor to so many of us, like Shirley Jackson and Jim Gates. They were both his doctoral students — Ph.D. students. I left and went to Princeton, but he, of course, was a tremendous influence on us, and he became a tenured full professor around 1969. And he’s the last. I mean, we have not had a tenured black professor in the MIT physics department…
…since that time.
And it’s sad. So, MIT has done well in terms of students, but in terms of faculty diversity, it really — some departments are better. Like, chemical engineering is much better. Aero and Astro has done much better. But physics is just terrible. I don’t know why they can’t seem to solve that problem.
Now, in terms of the protests, did you feel that the students were on one side, and the faculty was on the other, or were faculty mostly sympathetic?
I think faculty were sympathetic. Even the administration was sympathetic. It was just a matter of trying to move the system. We had a person named Paul Gray, who when I arrived was a dean. He eventually became president and chancellor of the university. I think in background, he’s probably a EE guy, an electrical engineering guy. But he was very sympathetic. And we had Jerome Wiesner, who was the president during that time, who also was sympathetic. But you know, generally, universities are rather strange animals. Just because the president says, “This shall be done,” it’s not done, because faculty have tenure. So, in a way, we were pushing from below, and the top administrators were trying to do what they could to push from above. And so, that’s what we were dealing with. The people we were interacting with, namely the administrators, were sympathetic, I think.
Now, you mentioned earlier that growing up you didn’t really think a lot about segregation, because you didn’t have much to compare it to.
But I wonder, as your world view expanded at MIT, if you thought back on your childhood and you might have seen injustices sort of retroactively that you had never considered before. Or, did you not think along those terms?
No, no, I did. I mean, it was clear. You know, as I said, even in high school, just comparing the gymnasiums that we had —
So, I saw that. Going away to college, it’s clear. Maybe about a third of my class placed out of the first semester calculus, for instance. I had no opportunity to do that, because I did not have an advanced placement. I studied calculus on my own, but I never thought to take the advanced placement test. And in physics, so many of the students placed out of physics. Why? Because they had advanced placement. They had these various honors things, tracks that they could take. So, yeah. I learned very quickly when I arrived that we did not have what other people had.
And yet, you don’t feel like you were unprepared to start, regardless. You felt like you were prepared.
I never felt I was unprepared. And then I had a lot of confidence, too. I just had to start — well, actually, as I say, two-thirds of the people were starting where I did, so it wasn’t something that I felt I was left behind. But it was clear to me that there was a difference in terms of people’s exposures before they came.
Were you ever concerned that you might get drafted in to the war, or as a college student, you felt sheltered from that?
I felt a little bit sheltered from that as a college student. And one nice thing — well, I shouldn’t say “nice,” — but one thing to my advantage, and they switched over when I was a student, to the lottery system, and my lottery number was very high. So, I was not drafted— before that, I had a student deferment. But when they took away all deferments and went to the lottery, I still had a very high lottery number. So, I never had to serve in the Vietnam War.
In terms of your physics education, what field of physics did you settle into at MIT? What were you most interested in, in your sophomore, junior, and senior year?
Mostly high-energy particle physics. That’s the area that James Young, the professor that I told you about, Jim Young — he was a particle physicist at that time. He started his career in plasmas, but by then, he had done particle physics. And so, he was a big inspiration. So, it was particle physics. I went to Princeton with the idea to get my degree in theoretical particle physics.
Now, was Professor Young your main mentor at MIT? Was he the professor you were closest with?
Yes, he was the one I was closest with, but my thesis as a senior was with Victor Weisskopf. He was a very famous nuclear, high energy physicist— he used to be director general of CERN, and all of that.
I had the advantage of being able to work with him for an academic year. So, that was very nice. That was great, to be able to interact with him.
Did you do any lab work as an undergraduate?
No. The only thing I had — every physics student had to take this experimental physics lab, but it was — there was nothing much to that. [laughs] Just introductory kinds of things. But no, I never did any really serious lab work.
Was the thesis — was there an expectation that the thesis had original research to it, or it was more a synthesis of the literature?
Oh, yeah. But the thesis was theoretical. Yeah, it was a theoretical work that I did with Victor Weisskopf. It was a cute problem, trying to show from basic undergraduate — and a little bit of graduate — solid-state physics to determine why metals stick together. In fact, I think the title of my thesis was, “Why do metals stick together?” And so, it was a nice, cute little extended problem and effort. [laughs]
Did you come up with a good answer? Do we know why metals stick together?
Right. Right. But I don’t remember what the answer was. [laughs] I’d have to go back and look at my thesis. It was based upon energy considerations, but I don’t remember the details now.
Okay. So, it’s 1971. You’re graduating from MIT. What’s the plan? Is graduate school immediate? Do you take some time off? What are you thinking at this point?
No, I wanted to get to graduate school immediately, so I went immediately into Princeton as a graduate student.
Did you go right to Princeton that summer, or did you take some time off?
No. I stayed at MIT that summer and taught in that Project Interphase that I mentioned, for freshmen. So, I stayed my senior year for the summer, taught there, and from there in the fall went to Princeton.
Now, was Princeton — that was the place you really wanted to go, or did you apply to a lot of places?
I applied to a number of places. I got into all of them but one. I even got into Harvard this time. [laughs] So, I had a chance to turn Harvard down this time! I did not get into Caltech, but I haven’t had the chance to turn Caltech down since. [laughs] Princeton was my number one choice.
Part of it was — I don’t know. I think it had to do — okay, first of all, there are about six schools that are all pretty comparable. Every time they do these national rankings, you have this group of Princeton, and Caltech, and MIT. So, they’re all pretty comparable. But Princeton had this strong theoretical tradition that was left by Albert Einstein, who had been there at the Institute for Advanced Study. So, I was fascinated by that. That’s why I decided to go to Princeton.
Now, we talked culturally about the difference between Atlanta going to MIT. I assume there was also a cultural change going from Cambridge to Princeton. Right?
Whoa, boy. Absolutely. I mean, MIT was like an urban school. It’s right there, right in Boston. Princeton was just — oh, it was so elite and laid-back. I didn’t like the — upon arriving, I didn’t really like the atmosphere. One thing I discovered: I was surprised. I never had thought about it, but Princeton is a small graduate school. It’s very small. They don’t have a medical school. They don’t have a law school. I was just surprised [laughs] when I arrived. The number of graduate students is only about 1,400. In my particular class at Princeton, the entering physics class, we must have had only about 12 students. The normal numbers would have been about 30 graduate students, but due to national funding cuts, the number of students dwindled all the way down to about 12. So, my class and the class after me were only about — it was a very small class. Princeton was a very elite type of place. Now, we went into a lot of racial — how do you want to call them — microaggressions, people call them now. For instance, you’d go to some of the restaurants in Princeton. They tend to want to sit you in the back of the restaurant, near the kitchen. And I remember one time, a friend of mine, Benny Ward — he’s a physics professor now at Baylor — he was a year ahead of me. He was in the same field. He was a very good friend. But we went to dinner at this place, and this couple sat down, and the wife — I shouldn’t say “wife” — but the woman with the man didn’t realize that we were there. She looked around and saw us. [laughs] She immediately had them come and move her! So we had a lot of little things. Princeton was a very elite kind of — and still is a very elite kind of a town. So, the racial microaggressions were really pretty bad at Princeton in those days.
Now, you’re talking about on campus as well — you felt this on campus and in the departments?
No, not so much on campus, but when you went outside the campus — to the various establishments outside the campus.
Now, of those 12 students, any other African-Americans?
No. In fact, this is kind of sad. The person before me, Benny Ward — a year before me — he also went to MIT. He stayed in my dorm at MIT. He was the first African-American graduate student in the physics department.
So, you were the second?
And I was the second, and unfortunately, the last, as far as I know. [laughs]
To this day?
I’m the last. To this day, I have never known any other — now, they have departments of astronomy. That’s not in the physics department.
They have department of astronomy, plasma physics. Those are different. So, I don’t know what happens over there. But in terms of the straight physics department, I don’t know of any black student since I graduated.
Wow. This is a Google search. We have to confirm this.
If you find anything, let me know, because I have not heard of any. And you know, we have the NSBP meetings — the National Society of Black Physicists meetings — every year, and I have yet to even meet a graduate student in the physics department at Princeton.
So, that’s something they need to work on, actually.
Yeah. So at Princeton, what field did you settle into? What professors did you become close with?
My advisor was Curtis Callan, who at that time had just arrived. He was in his late 20s, maybe 28, and he came — he was a physics Ph.D. I think he had been a Harvard Fellow, from the Society of Fellows there, and he came back. Everybody was impressed with him. He was a full professor. He arrived back as a full professor. So, I worked with him. He was a very nice guy. I didn’t feel particularly close to him, but at least he treated me well. There were some other physics professors who made microaggressive remarks and so forth, but Callan never did such things.
What was his field of research? What was he working on?
High-energy physics. He’s a high-energy particle physicist. So, I worked with him. David Gross was one of the professors at the time. I did not work with him. At that time, Frank Wilczek was there as a graduate student. I knew Frank quite well. David Gross taught me my first course in particle theory. I was highly impressed by David Gross. He was always very nice. I have high regard for Callan and for Gross, although I can say I was not close to them though, you know, like some of the other graduate students. And that’s something that I think we have to develop ways of making — breaking down those barriers. I cannot say that they did anything negative, but it never clicked quite like I could see other graduate students clicked with the professors. And I didn’t know how to make that happen. But again, they treated me very nicely, so to this day, I have great respect for Callan and for Gross. They treated me very nicely.
Did you do any teaching as a graduate student at Princeton?
No, I didn’t, and the reason is that I had this Ford Foundation fellowship that completely paid for my school expenses.
What was the circumstances of getting this fellowship?
It’s one you apply for. In fact, Ford was trying to increase the — there was the Ford Foundation, trying to increase the diversity in academia. In fact, that went away for a little while, then they restarted it, re-established another Ford Fellowship program. And actually, in 1980, I was a Ford Foundation postdoctoral fellow, like a graduate one. And that was the first year, actually, for that new Ford Fellowship Program. That shows how old I am. I’m always in the first group of things. [laughs] It’s not a positive thing at all! So, in 1980 they started that, and the nice thing is that they’ve been doing it ever since, and they’ve expanded it. That was postdoc. And then they expanded it to students in graduate school again, and so forth. And so, we meet every year now. You know, past fellows, we meet. There are several thousand of us now, so hundreds of us meet every year for an annual conference. And we also have divided the country up among the senior fellows to be liaisons. So, I’m the liaison here in the Raleigh-Durham area, the Research Triangle area. So, I meet regularly with Ford fellows who happen to be studying in the area. We meet for lunches. Usually, I try to get together with them for lunch. Every now and then, I will invite them over to my house. We have a nice little community of Ford fellows.
Now, how much lab work were you doing at Princeton?
Essentially none. At that time, Princeton required every physics student to do at least some introductory lab work. So, just like my undergraduate one at MIT, I had some introductory type thing that amounted to absolutely nothing. [laughs] Just to complete the requirement.
So, it’s all coursework, and then research leading to the dissertation?
Right. But at Princeton, courses were not required. So, I only audited courses. I mentioned that David Gross taught this course that I took, but I audited the course. And I audited another one Professor Sam Treiman taught on statistical mechanics. But I never really took a course for credit. At Princeton, the only requirement is that you pass a language exam in two foreign languages and do your thesis. Those were the only requirements.
What languages did you settle on?
French I had taken in high school, although I must say I didn’t learn it that well. But I learned it enough to pass the exam at Princeton. And Russian is one that I was very — I took Russian very seriously, actually. I studied Russian every year when I was at MIT. Not in my freshman year, but sophomore through senior, I took Russian classes.
What attracted you to Russian classes?
When I was in high school, participating in these science fairs, I remember one science fair at Georgia Tech, and a professor told us that — he grabbed all the participants and said: if you want to go into the sciences, you must learn at least one language. Russian, German, or French. And he said, unfortunately, in that order of difficulty.
What the most difficult — [laughs] is Russian. So when I get to college, I’m going to study Russian. That’s what got me interested in Russian, so I studied it every year when I was there, and fell in love with the language. It’s such a beautiful language. Especially — Alexander Pushkin is somebody I took a great liking to. He made Russian THE language for doing poetry. Although previous to his time, Russians themselves looked down on Russian and spoke and wrote in French. So, that’s my introduction to Russian. That’s how I got started.
And what was your process for landing on a dissertation topic?
Just going to the seminars every week and listening to what people were talking about. At that time, group theory was very important in theoretical physics. So, I settled upon a topic: asymptotic chiral invariance — settled upon things that — trying to use groups to pull out properties of the protons and neutrons and so forth.
I’ll test your memory. Do you remember the title of your dissertation?
Ah, boy. I think it was “Asymptotic chiral invariance and its consequences.” [laughs] Don’t ask me what that’s all about. I don’t remember! I don’t remember the details, but it dealt with constraints on collisions of elementary particles at extremely high energies. It’s been so long. I can’t remember last year, so don’t ask me about 40 years ago. [laughs]
Well, maybe you’ll remember more thematically what you thought your contributions to the field were, or what your motivations were for doing this particular topic.
You know, I left that topic almost immediately when I finished, so I didn’t really pursue that so much. In fact, my career took a lot of turns. As I said before, I didn’t do a lot with experimental work, but lo and behold, I eventually hit Fermilab, five years out of graduate school. Leon Lederman, who was director there — and he eventually won the Nobel Prize — he was very nice. I would chat with him. I even have a picture of the two of us in a popular science book: Space, Time, Infinity: The Smithsonian Views the Universe. So, we had a lot of interactions. And he was able to get me involved in building antiproton accelerators. That was my introduction into experimental work. I went 100 percent into building parts of the antiproton system that was used to create these antiproton beams, send them out into the main accelerator, called the Tevatron, to scatter into each other. And that’s how scientists were able to discover the top quark. I learned from my career to not be so hard, in terms of just — rigid, in terms of what you’re doing. I tell young people that, because you don’t know what your career might — where you might end up. I spent a major portion of my career actually doing experimental physics, starting from zero. [laughs]
Right. So, you defend your dissertation in 1976. What are you thinking at this point? What are your options? What do you want to do next?
At that point, I wanted to get a postdoc. But I did not get a postdoc. When I left Princeton, I had no job, actually. I went on to Atlanta, and lo and behold, I got a call from the University of Rochester. There was a professor there named Adrian Melissinos who connected me with Susumu Okubo, a very famous theoretical physicist, and one that we all knew about, because he was also one of the leaders in applying group theory to problems in particle physics. He hired me, actually.
Now, his name reminds me — I don’t know if it’s connected — but we haven’t talked about your decision, when you changed your name. When did this happen?
Oh, I changed my name in my second year of graduate school, in 1973.
And what was your — did you just wake up one day and say, “I want to change my name”? Was this a slow process?
No, it was a long — and see, I’m in that generation of where — the black students, many of them, and black people in general, were changing their names to African names. So many of us changed our names to African names. I thought a lot about it as an undergraduate, and then by the time I got to my first year at Princeton, I said: I want to do this. But then, I was also very impressed with President Julius Nyerere in Tanzania. So, I wanted to go and make contributions to that.
How did you know about this president in Tanzania? What was your connection?
Oh, he was very well known. It’s just that he was known. He was a big hero among African people around the world, for what he was trying to do. First, he did a lot of great things in Tanzania. For instance, he ensured that instruction in elementary school was in Swahili. So, that broke a lot of ethnic barriers in the country, so that people — you know, everybody would know Swahili. That helps, I think, to relieve a lot of the ethnic tensions that, for instance, Kenya next door has suffered from. I think that was a great unifying thing that Nyerere did. And then in high school, he demanded that students learn English, which made the connection to the international. So, he was doing so — that’s just some of the things that I admired about what he was doing. And fortunately for me, I had a graduate student at Princeton, named Shedu Chamungwana, who’s unfortunately passed away — but he made a list of names, and I chose my name based upon what they sounded like and what they meant. So, I did know that I wanted to go to Tanzania and teach in the university and try to make a contribution, so that’s why I wanted to change my name. What I wanted to do in Tanzania is why I chose Tanzanian names.
Did you travel to Tanzania? Did you visit?
No. It was only many, many years later. This brings us all the way to 2009 or so. It was a few years back. I was invited to Tanzania by a man named Sospeter Muhongo, who eventually became their Minister of Energy and Minerals, to come and help to start a university of science and technology in what’s called the Musoma region of Tanzania. So, I went there and spent about three weeks, and I traveled around to meet various governmental officials and university people, and movers and shakers. The Mennonite church sponsored this. So, I was able to help them to design a decentralized campus. Each region had different needs. One region did a lot of mining, and there was a lot of bad things — I can’t remember the substances coming out of the digging — so, they needed to solve that. Another region, for instance — the Serengeti region — you know, they have the wildlife there. So, my idea was to try to impress upon them to have a decentralized university. They eventually established the Julius Nyerere University of Agriculture and Technology, so I’m very proud of making that — so, I did eventually, after decades, have a chance to make a contribution in Tanzania.
Back to your second year at Princeton. When you decided to change your name, did you feel, in a sense — were you walking away from your past? Was it a real break with your previous identity, or were you taking —
Were you looking to take on an additional identity?
No, it’s not so much an additional identity, so much. I mean, nothing changed. There was a little pushback by my stepfather. My mother just ignored it. [laughs] So, I was “Mike” to her till the day she died. My cousins and brothers and all switched over to “Sekazi.” There was never — there was none of that, actually. I wasn’t looking for any new identity. I just wanted to, first of all, have an African name, and also to have one that would connect me with the region in Africa that I just liked. So, that’s why I did it.
Did you feel pride in Africa? Was that part of it as well?
Definitely. Absolutely. In fact, that’s why I worked in Africa for maybe about three decades now. I constantly travel to Africa to try to make contributions. I was just in Cape Town and Johannesburg, and Pretoria, just in February. That was about the time the Coronavirus outbreak took over things. Because I was supposed to go this month to Nairobi to a meeting, and then go back to Cape Town, and both of those meetings, of course, had to be postponed. So, I’m very heavily engaged now in Africa. That’s something that I’m very proud of, and I will continue to do that.
Alright. So, we’re back in 1976. You’re back in Atlanta without a job, and then the University of Rochester calls.
Now, how did they know about you? Usually, graduate students are — they’re putting their names out there. How did they learn about you?
I had applied there, actually. But you know, as a graduate student, you apply to 50 places.
You know? So, I don’t know what — but there was a professor there. I’m so sorry I can’t call his name right up. But there was a Greek professor there who was the one that promoted my application. He was a high-energy experimentalist. I’ll send you his name, but I guess that doesn’t do us much good [laughs] for the oral part [Adrian Melissinos].
I can’t recall his name. It just escapes me right now. So, he’s the one who, I think, found the application and promoted me to Okubo. That’s what I was saying about graduates. Undergraduates, you’re fine as long as you do your homework and do well on exams, but graduate students, it’s a very political — and I try to impress upon students: identify faculty who you have a good feeling with, and make sure that you can develop that relationship. As I say before, I did not have that type of relationship with my thesis advisor or the other professors in the physics department. So, I learned the hard way. Anyway, that’s how I got connected. He just called me out of the clear blue sky.
So, you knew you wanted to join an academic department. Going into industry or government work — you were not interested in that?
Only government if it could be a national laboratory, doing research.
I would jump at the opportunity of any national lab or university.
Right. So, the job at Rochester: was this a tenure-track job?
No, it was a two-year research associate. And after being there for a semester, they made me a part-time assistant professor, but it was not a tenure-track. But I started teaching, so that was a nice thing. They gave me an opportunity to start teaching classes.
Right. You had never really taught before, so it was good experience.
I had never taught, no. Right, it was a new experience. I did teach in those summer programs at MIT, but that’s not quite the same as being the professor in charge of a class. So, this was a great opportunity for me to do that.
And you’re a bachelor at this time? You’re a single guy?
Okay, that’s very interesting. So, Rochester is where I met my wife, Estella. Yeah, Estella Johnson. Rochester tends to put couples together, I think. [laughs] I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Rochester, but it starts snowing in October.
Oh, I know. I’m from Utica, so I know all about upstate New York.
[laughs] Oh, yeah. You know! Yeah, it promotes romance.
There you go.
So, I met my wife…
Where did you meet?
…in September, and we were married by July. [laughs]
Where did you meet?
Okay, there was a professor there, a history professor there, named Jesse Moore who wanted us to meet. So, he introduced me to her.
She was a student?
No, no. She was an academic advisor in the dean’s office. She had been there for a year or two before I arrived. She finished Connecticut College and went there directly. So, he asked me, “Did you call her? He would ask me periodically. I kept giving excuses. So, he said, “Give me your number!” [laughs] So, I gave him my number. She called me, so I saw her. I said, she is so cute. You know? [laughs] Okay, my first impression of her: she is such a cute one. Her first impression of me is that I was a project who needed working on. [laughs] Given what I was wearing. She looked at me as a project. So, it’s so interesting. But she called me, and then I asked her, “Would you like to go out to a movie?” She said, “Well, I’m busy this week.” I said, “What about the next week?” “I won’t be able to make it then.” So I said, “Oh, here we go.” [laughs] “Let the games begin!” But we went out to the movie. And in fact, our first movie was Car Wash. It’s a great movie.
I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but there’s great music and all, so that was the movie that started our romance.
And you were married pretty quick after that.
After that, yeah, within a year.
Yes, we got married in Rochester, but it was a small — you know, I don’t believe in spending a lot of money on weddings, and neither does Estella. So, we just had a private little ceremony there, and then we had a little dinner. We invited some of our cousins who lived in the New York area, near New York City, and the Philadelphia area, who came up. But it was very small. And then my mother and stepfather gave us a reception when we got back to Atlanta.
Oh, the marriage ceremony reminds me of another question I wanted to ask you: when you changed your name, did you also change like, your spiritual worldview or your religion?
I didn’t change my religion at all, but we did have an African-style ceremony. So, that ceremony — you know, we dressed in African clothing, and the words that we spoke were from Africa. So, we had a small African ceremony, but I didn’t really change much about myself, though.
You grew up going to church? Was your family involved in the church?
Oh, yeah. Definitely. In fact, I grew up — as I said, my mother and my father divorced in the 2nd grade, and we went to move in with my grandmother. And you won’t find a greater church lady than my grandmother. [laughs] She sang church hymns all day and all night. In fact, I credit her — when I was a little boy around that age, I thought I was Jesus Christ, because you know, I went to Sunday School, and I found — and I heard Jesus did all these good things, and I thought I was good. You know, I didn’t do anything bad. You know? I mean, I got a spanking here and there, but as I say, they were not justified, because I was good! [laughs] But then I went to church one day, and I heard that Jesus gave his life for other people, and I was sitting in my classroom at school, and I’m looking at all these knuckleheads around me, and I said, “I’m not giving my life for these jerks!” [laughs] I knew then: I was not Jesus. So I needed to get another career. [laughs]
[laughs] Yeah, physicists don’t have to give their life, for sure.
So, I had a very religious family. I go to church even today. I’m religious even today.
And so then your first proper postdoc was in College Park. It was at University of Maryland, in 1978.
I would say University of Rochester was really — I mean, we called it a research associate, but it was like a postdoc. But then they added the assistant professor to that. But then, I was a postdoc at Maryland’s Center for Theoretical Physics. So there, I had a chance to interact with the people there. Joe Sucher was one of the people there, and Wally Greenberg was there.
Now, were you mostly teaching, or were you doing more research and writing articles, and things like that?
That was strictly research.
So, what were you working on in those days in College Park?
Still looking — actually, there was a Turkish postdoc there, and we were still studying group theory — you know, QCD, chromodynamics. And there was a guy there named Jogesh Pati, and he and Nobel Laureate [Abdus] Salam had this Pati-Salam model, where they were investigating the possibility of massive gluons. And so, I was working with this with the Turkish physicist named Murat Özer. I haven’t seen him in decades. I have to try to catch up with him. But we were studying some of the things in the Pati-Salam model. That model, over the years, kind of didn’t pan out. But at least you have to exhaust all possibilities before you give up on things.
So, that was the kind of thing I did there. And from there, I went to Fermilab.
Now, what about the — you had another postdoc at the Ford Foundation. It looks like it was just a year, from 1980 to 1981.
Yeah, that was at Fermilab. That’s what took me to Fermilab.
Oh, I see.
Yeah, I worked at Fermilab on that postdoc.
Gotcha. So, the Ford Foundation and Fermilab had an agreement.
No, they didn’t have an — well, they have to agree to accept you, but the Ford Foundation gives you the postdoc, and you can take it to anywhere they will accept you.
Now, was this the same kind of support, like diversity support, that they supported you for when you were at Princeton?
Yes, exactly the same. It was just at a different level. Exactly the same. So, as I said, they started this program up again in 1980. In the other days, it was a doctoral program for students. Then, they started in 1980 for postdocs. That’s what I got.
Got it. So, you were also at the University of Illinois in Chicago in ’81 as well, so this was like a —
So, that’s another thing. When I was at Fermilab, I taught for a year at University of Illinois, Chicago. It was called “Chicago Circle,” in those days.
But that was something that — Leon Lederman was able to help me to get that position, so that gave me an opportunity to teach again.
So, you were splitting your time between Chicago and the lab?
That’s correct. Yes.
What kind of work were you doing at Fermilab?
Again, when I arrived, I spent a year doing theoretical particle physics. Through my interactions with Leon Lederman, I started getting into other things. Because see, at that time, again, I’m always struggling to find jobs. Again, I have to have the…
…flexibility, to do different things to stay alive. So, I did not have a job after my first year at Fermilab. But Leon Lederman saw potential in me, and he arranged for me to teach over at the University of Illinois, Chicago Circle, and do work there with the building of the Antiproton Source. And another thing he connected me with, which was really good, which was probably the most — easily the most important — is I worked very closely — he made a lot of connections with me. He connected me with James Bjorken, who was a very famous theorist. He’s the one who gave us quarks. He was the one — he and Feynman were the ones who gave us this, and a few other people. But Bj — we called him Bj — was the one who definitively showed us how to see these things at SLAC, where he had worked previously. So, Bj and I started working on this problem called intrabeam scattering, because when these particles are traveling around accelerators, you want the beam to be as intense as possible. You’re pushing particles together, and you could only do that so much, because they have the same charge, and they want to repel each other. So, beams tend to grow in size, so Bj and I working together, and independently,, there was a guy in Germany named Anton Piwinski, and we independently worked out the theory of this, of how these beams interact with each other and scatter off of each other as they’re traveling together. It’s like if you have a lot of runners close together. If you try to push them too close, everybody’s falling all over each other. That’s the kind of thing that you have to fight against. So, we did this work, and it’s amazing. That work has become very famous work. [laughs]
It defines the limitation on just a broad range of accelerators, from the kind that we had at Fermilab, to the one at CERN that discovered the Higgs particle. You have the whole generation now of these things called light sources, which are electron accelerators that generate intense bursts of X-ray beams. So, this work is current, and it stays current, because if you need an intense accelerator, you have to understand intrabeam scattering.
What were the big questions that were at the foundation of this research? What were you looking — you and your partners, what were you looking to answer with this research?
The intrabeam scattering, or with the Antiproton Source?
Well, you see, I was working in this group at Fermilab that was building this Antiproton Source. So, we needed to put lots of antiprotons into the beam, because when you first create these antiproton beams, there are not that many, so you have to just keep pushing more. And we had this thing called the accumulator that we would keep pushing, keep injecting, antiprotons. And when you do that, the beam starts wanting to spread on you, and we need to control that and understand that. So, that’s why Bj and I were working on this problem, to understand that phenomenon for that system. We had no thought at the time that it would be the defining mechanism for so many other accelerators. So, we were just lucky in that sense. And as I said before, there was a guy over in Europe, Anton Piwinski, who was working on similar things. So, that’s why we ended up getting this APS prize, called the Wilson Prize, for that work. We got it decades later. [laughs] It’s so important.
I wonder if you can explain the science. What exactly is an antiproton beam? You’d think that a beam is light, proton is light, so it would be a proton beam. What’s an antiproton beam?
Just lots of antiprotons.
What’s an antiproton?
Okay, so every particle you can think of as having an antiparticle so that its sort of internal properties are just the opposite. Like, charge on a proton is positive. Antiproton will have the same mass, same spin, all these things are same, except that it has negative charge.
It has the charge as an electron: it has a -1 charge. So, like a pion, a positive pion, its antiparticle would be the negatively charged pion. So, the property — the masses are all the same, but they just have opposite certain types of characteristics.
I wonder if you can talk about the equipment at Fermilab. I mean, are you working with the best instruments in the world? What was the atmosphere like in terms of the instruments and the equipment that you were working with?
It was all state-of-the-art. In fact, one of the nice things about particle physics is that we create a lot of the things that we — we’re at such the forefront. I mean, I wasn’t involved in the computer side of things, but they’ve established a whole computer setup there, because they have to handle large datasets. So, they’re at the forefront of computational — of computer science out there. The kinds of electrodes that we were working on to sense the beam of the particle, that was all state-of-the-art. Much of the things that we had to do, we had to more or less create from scratch.
Right. There’s no off-the-shelf. You’re not just picking something off the shelf and working with it.
Part of it’s off-the-shelf, but a lot of it is not. So, we have to do off-the-shelf, plus we have to innovate. For instance, the World Wide Web, you may be aware, came from particle physics.
It came out of CERN, you know, being able to handle large data sets and have access to them when you go back to your school, because the people come, do experiments, they go back to their home, they need to have access to that. So, the World Wide Web helped that to happen. So, particle physics keeps doing that kind of thing. I mean, the magnets we develop — we have to develop these magnets from scratch, because they’re the kinds of magnetic fields we need, and these large magnets don’t just come off the shelf. All of these things — I mean, it’s just amazing.
Now, were you good as a sort of amateur engineer in terms of putting these instruments together, or did you rely on others to do this?
No, no, no. I had to learn from scratch and do it myself. Yeah, I had a guy who I worked with, which was really great. There was a guy named John Marinner at Fermilab, and the two of us worked together — with the engineers, of course — there were others, like Ralph Pasquinelli and his group of engineers. But John and I were responsible for building the actual electrode equipment that, you know, the beam goes through the electrode. You can sense sort of the momentum spread of the beam, the size of the beam, and all of that. So, John Marinner and I worked on optimizing those systems. The prototypes came out of Berkeley, but we had to optimize those systems. So, I had to learn stuff from scratch. And I was saying that John was a tremendous mentor for me. He taught me a lot, and I just learned quickly. But I could tell then that I was not a true experimentalist, because experimentalists have an idea how things work. I had no idea that if I built this thing, it’s going to work. [laughs] And I could tell John was always so sure, and I spent all my time praying. You know? [laughs] So, I knew then, I’m not really — I mean, I can play experimentalist, and I can do this, but I don’t have it in my gut that the thing is going to work when it turns on. [laughs]
Well, even experimentalists, they’re not sure sometimes. Or, maybe they’re proven wrong.
But they have — they’re pretty — even if they’re not, they would have to be at least 90 percent. So, they know they can make some tweaks. But for me, I put something together, and I’m not sure you can do anything to make it work. [laughs]
Right. Right. Now, at some point at Fermilab, you convert over to a full-time position.
Oh, yes. That happened in my — let’s see. That actually was a full-time position. The first year was a postdoc. But then the second year, I was half and half, there and Illinois. And after that, the following year, I was full-time, and from then, I was full-time Fermilab.
Now, full-time at Fermilab means you’re a government employee? What’s the arrangement? How does that work?
Like a government employee, but these national labs are set up so that we don’t have to go into the government federal system. So, what they do for each of these labs, they set up these boards that oversee the labs. You can think of them as sort of a foundation, in a sense — or not a foundation, but it’s a contractor to the government so that we — the problem is that these — the scientists who come into national labs come in and out of universities. Right?
And so, universities have these nice retirement systems that you can transport from one place to the other, like TIAA-CREF. But the federal employees have their own system. So, to facilitate university faculty moving back and forth to labs, they allow us to maintain those university type retirement systems. So, that’s why we’re set up as contractors to the federal government.
Right. So, you’re a research scientist at Fermilab, but you’re not a Department of Energy employee.
No, not DOE employee.
Right. Now, in the middle of this, you start teaching at Atlanta University.
Well, no. I would go to Atlanta University during the summers to do research. So, I was like a visiting professor there. There’s a professor, Alfred Msezane, there, who has a very nice theoretical group there. And I would go down during the summers and do research and interact with his team. So, that was what that was. And you know, for years I did that at various places. Atlanta University, I did that at Hampton University, and at a number of national laboratories, I would spend my summers doing research.
Right. And then at the end, it looks like — were you splitting your time that last year between 1988 and 1989 with Argonne National Laboratory, or was that sequential?
That was again — let’s see. 1988, 1989 — Oh, ’88, ’89, no, no, no. I was full time at Argonne then.
Oh, you were?
I left Fermilab in ’88, and I went to Argonne because they were experimenting — I got interested in this new type of accelerator called plasma wakefield accelerators.
What is that? Can you explain what that is?
So, now we use electric fields to accelerate beams. So, when the beam sees an electric field, it goes faster and accelerates, but you’re limited as to how fast you can accelerate it. But these new concepts allow you to get much higher accelerations over shorter — you can have an accelerator inside a building that would be more powerful than the big accelerators that occupy hundreds of meters of acceleration. So what you have is a chamber, and you fill it with some type of material, like a plasma, which is a sort of an ion gas of charged particles. And then you send a beam — the beams come in bunches — you send a bunch through that plasma, and it starts things to — dynamics to happen where you create a field behind that driving beam, and the field behind the driving beam is called the wakefield, because it’s in the wake of the main beam. So, you time it so that another beam comes in and interacts with that main beam, via that wakefield, and gets accelerated. Okay? So, the main beam could be at much lower energy, because all these things are going the same speed, essentially, because once you hit the speed of light or near the speed of light, you’re not going any faster. So, you can pump lots of energy into these beams using wakefields, that are riding on wakefields, so that it doesn’t really catch up with the main beam. And you can continue to do that, to drive, to make that trailing beam have higher and higher energies. And as I said before, the amount of energy you can put in that second beam — they call it the “witness beam” in some cases — the amount of energy you can put in it is much greater over a shorter distance than current accelerators. So, this is a futuristic concept, and it’s become more and more hot over the years. So, when I went to Argonne, I was able to participate in some of the early experiments proving this concept. So, over there years, it’s just — so now, it’s a hot area now, and many accelerator physicists are experimenting with this idea at Berkeley, SLAC, and Brookhaven and other places.
How far back did the theory go that was waiting for the technology to have the experiments to confirm the theory? How far back does this go?
It wasn’t that much — that was in the ’80s, I’m pretty sure. I got involved in it around 1986 or 1987. Even at Fermilab, I started doing theoretical work on this. So, the people who started it were only a few years before that. So, it was fresh in those days. But then it often takes a while for concepts to catch on. But over the last 10, 15 years, it’s been one of the hottest topics in accelerator physics.
You’ve been pretty good at sort of stumbling into these very hot topics.
[laughs] Yeah, that’s the thing. Like I say, it sounds good, but that just means I’m old. [laughs] It’s funny, because at MIT, they’ve had a lot of celebrations of that Project Interphase, a lot of celebrations of black — so I go to all these celebrations, and I keep getting awards! [laughs] But I didn’t do it! I happened to be walking down when they started the group.
You were there.
Like MIT, I think they didn’t have Phi Beta Kappa until my senior year, so I was in that first group at MIT. So, if they were having a Phi Beta Kappa celebration, I’ll be there to get my award! [laughs]
There you go.
And another one at MIT, when I was a senior, they started this thing called: Representatives from Recent Classes on the Corporation, which is our Board of Trustees at MIT. I was in the first group. [laughs] So, it’s interesting. It’s so funny.
Now, did Argonne feel like a very different place, or was it similar — just a different national laboratory?
It’s a different place, because it’s more interdisciplinary. They have chemistry. They have so many fields. Fermilab was sort of a single-focused facility. These other fields, they didn’t do a lot at Fermilab. That was a very difficult period in my career. But like I said, I had people like Lederman and Bjorken who played a tremendous role and to — being mentors for me. And that just shows you: that’s all it takes. Why treat people so mean? So, for me to be able to achieve all this thing, it’s because people were —
Generous. They were generous with you.
They were generous. And so, I owe so much to those people. When I hit Argonne, I had a gentleman there who left that group. I had some problems there, but nothing like Fermilab. But when I was at Argonne, at that time, I just got more and more interested in working with black students. And I was doing it during the summer, working with students, but I wanted to go — that’s why I decided — I was there only three years. People thought I lost my mind when I left there to go to a department that did not have a graduate program.
You know, how do you go from being a leading-edge researcher to going to a department that did not have a graduate program? But the dean that hired me, there, Dean Art Hicks, wanted to start a master’s degree program in physics, so that’s why I went there.
Now, was the specific draw of going to a historically black college — was that part of the idea?
Oh, yeah. Definitely. So, then I would be completely surrounded by black students, and I could make a contribution. And one nice thing that happened: North Carolina A&T, which is a school I went to, had just made the decision to start their Ph.D. program. They had no doctorate program on campus, so they selected electrical engineering and mechanical engineering as the areas to promote. And somehow, I got drafted to help lead that effort. So, the thing that was going to drive that was to build this big, interdisciplinary research center. The old library on campus — I led the design, meeting with the architects, meeting with the faculty, seeing what the various engineering faculty needed. We were able to get a physics lab, a laser facility, in the basement of it. And so, I was the lead faculty person on building that interdisciplinary research center, which was extremely crucial in starting the Ph.D. programs in EE and mechanical.
Where was the funding? This is obviously a major project. Where was the funding coming from for this?
Much of the funding came from the State of North Carolina, but I was able to get a $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation, a big infrastructure grant, which also was a major component of that. So, funding came — I think the state may have put in $4 million. It was a big, multimillion-dollar thing, but of course, the NSF grant was extremely critical in being able to realize this center.
Right. Were you involved in writing the grants also?
I worked with the dean then, named Harold Martin. He was the dean of electrical engineering when I — dean of engineering. I’m sorry. I need to repeat that. He became dean of engineering, but when we wrote the grant to NSF, he was the chair of the EE department — chair of electrical engineering department. He eventually became dean, and now he’s the Chancellor; he’s had a tremendous career. Now, he’s the Chancellor at the university. But before being Chancellor, he also was Vice-President for Academic Affairs for the whole University of North Carolina system. So, he was a tremendous mentor to me, to get me into what one has to do at the university, because I had no background. In fact, you know, being in these national labs, I never even had to write grants.
You know? I was in groups. I had no experience. So, I learned a lot from Harold Martin. He taught me much about the whole idea of writing grants. Anyway, we did it together, but he had other responsibilities, so I became the principal investigator for that grant.
I’m curious in writing the grant, how much you talked about the importance of supporting sciences at historically black colleges. I mean, that was part of the —
Oh, no, no. That was sort of the driver of that. Here we are, trying to build doctoral programs, and we have a school of engineering there. It doesn’t make sense for them to have this — it was a big school of engineering, but they didn’t have any Ph.D. program. So, that was a driver for that. And we didn’t have any master’s students, and no master’s program in physics. So, that was a driver for that.
Now, you came in to North Carolina A&T as a full professor. Is that right?
Yes, as a full professor. Right.
So you were able, after all those years of not getting tenure, you just skip the entire process.
Right. Skipped the entire process. Right. [laughs] But at that time, I had already had a long career, you know, at the national laboratory.
So, I was a senior physicist by all practical means. I mean, my appointment at Argonne, that was when I finally became a full-fledged physicist. At Fermilab, when I left, you know, they have all these categories and things. I was called an “applications physicist.” The top titles were, of course, “scientist,” or “senior scientist.” But when I went to Argonne, I came in with that equivalent designation. Because at this point, I had done some important work on the plasma wakefield acceleration business, because the theoretical work at that point — okay, let me just say: there was no experimental demonstration at that point. The theoretical work was in some jeopardy, because there’s a man named Simon van der Meer, who won the Nobel Prize. He was from CERN. He asked a question, and all of the theoretical ideas for this concept assumed infinitely long plasmas. So, that made the theoretical work easier. So, he said, “How do you know this will work in a finite length plasma?” It could be that by the time — you know, you have this plasma chamber. By the time the driver beam goes through and goes out, how do you know it’s been able to create that wakefield in its path? It may be out of your chamber before all of this stuff happens? So, somebody had to prove that, in fact, it does very quickly set up that driving wakefield. And so, I wrote that paper that proved, in fact, that it did. And it was soon after I did that work that, okay, Argonne proved that in real life, that that happens. But you don’t want to continue in doing an experiment of something as, you know…
…can’t be proved that it’s going — you’re going to put all this money into this. So, I had already a nice reputation from intrabeam scattering with Bjorken and this work with wakefield acceleration. When I went to A&T, I had a lot of research accomplishments, so I came in as a full professor.
Obviously, one of your motivations at A&T was that you wanted to be a mentor to African-American students.
So, I wonder if you could talk a little bit about your style as a mentor, the kinds of advice that you gave your students, the kinds of things that you learned that you wanted to pass on to them.
It’s the same kind of advice I’ve given all along — you have to enjoy yourself. You play hard, but you have to work hard. Right? You have to improve yourself. You should be — yourself in development should be your main focus at that age in life. And I tell — and I mentor young people all the time — faculty, administrators — even as a faculty person. Your goal as an assistant professor is to get your tenure. Right? Do that, because once you have that, then you have more latitude to do some of these other things. You don’t want to take any risk on that. Develop yourself. And then, after you get tenure, then try to take people one at a time — try to develop individual people. Mentor. Okay? And then, after you do that, then you try to change systems. And that’s sort of the way that I’ve done my life. I’ve concentrated on myself, then I’ve tried to mentor individuals, and then I’ve tried to change systems. So, that’s why I do all the work I do in Africa. That’s why I do all the work I do here in the U.S. And in the U.S., I’m president of an organization called InCREASE. It’s a long name: Interdisciplinary Consortium for Research and Educational Access in Science and Engineering. So, InCREASE is our acronym. We connect faculty and students at minority-serving institutions with the National Laboratories. So, we work with Latino-American, African-American, and Native-American institutions. And we’ve been able to connect so many of them and help them to become users at national laboratories.
And these are opportunities that these kids are probably not getting on their own, most likely.
Right. So, that’s why — and so, I’m very happy that just within the last year, I was awarded this Presidential Mentoring Award. I’m very happy about that, but that is out of my mentoring. In fact, when I was at MIT, I got a list before I left. I ended up teaching in this Concourse Program before I retired there, which is one of the independent learning communities. So, I have a group of about 15 students that I keep up with today. I will continue to mentor them and interact with them as long as I can.
Was the creation of the graduate program at A&T a successful endeavor?
Oh, yeah. Absolutely. The Ph.D.’s are booming. They’ve instituted other Ph.D.’s, so now even physics professors — there’s not a Ph.D. in physics, but they have an interdisciplinary Ph.D. that some of the physics faculty are able to take advantage of. So, that’s been extremely successful. I’m very happy about that. In fact, one of the people who received this PAESMEM, this presidential award with me, is one of the professors there, named Salil Desai.
I was very happy to see him and to hear how he and colleagues are using this interdisciplinary research center.
Oh, that’s nice.
Yeah, so it’s great. That makes me feel really good to see what comes out of these things. Once I hire them, I try to get out of people’s way. You know, if you can’t do that, then people don’t have time for you. [laughs] So, they kicked me out.
You make the opportunities, and then they go with it.
They go with it. Right, right.
Now, for two years, you had a pretty significant sabbatical at Morgan State. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Oh, yes. They got this grant from the Department of Energy, the Office of Nuclear Energy, and they established this professorship called the J. Ernest Wilkins, Jr. Distinguished Professor of Physics. And Wilkins is an African-American who got his Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Chicago when he was only about 18 years old, or something like that. And he would go on to become a nuclear engineer, eventually president of the American Nuclear Society. So, William Magwood at DOE, he was the director of that office — he was actually the deputy director at that time. Eventually, he became the director. But I got to know him very well from that. He would invite me to meetings there at DOE, and from that connection at Morgan State, having that position, connected me to him, and he appointed me to this nuclear energy research advisory committee to the Department of Energy, and to his office. And so, that opened up a whole new career for me, eventually leading me to get heavily involved in nuclear engineering to the extent that I received this Distinguished Service Award from the American Nuclear Society. Because what happened — the Department of Energy was getting ready to zero out all funding to nuclear science and engineering at universities. And so, I became alarmed about that, and so I was on this Panel on Public Affairs for the APS, the American Physical Society. And at the time, I said, “Wait a minute. This can’t work. Somebody needs to do a study to see where we are with workers, who have the expertise to handle all of our reactors and radioactive waste.” And so, I was encouraged by Ernie Moniz, who eventually became Secretary of Energy. He was on the panel. He became chair of that panel during that time, and he was very supportive and encouraging. So, I did this study, and I showed how you can track the bachelor’s degrees and Ph.D.’s in these nuclear fields, with DOE funding. And that encouraged DOE to reverse itself and to not only fund nuclear science and engineering, but at a much higher level than they previously did.
So, your primary concern — when DOE was thinking about pulling out from university funding, your primary concern was — was it civil safety? Was it the fact that there were going to be issues that required DOE oversight, that they wouldn’t be giving? What exactly were you alarmed over?
We need the workforce. The whole point was to have — we need to have people who have training in nuclear engineering, nuclear chemistry, so that they can not only handle the reactors — there were about 100, I think 103 at the time — but also, you have all these tens of thousands of metric tons of waste that are just temporarily stored all around the country at the nuclear plant facilities. Who’s going to handle all of that, if we don’t have people trained? So, it was a simple question I was asking and I tried to address.
How would you explain some of the key differences and similarities between A&T and Morgan State?
Oh, they were quite similar. The historically black colleges and universities, many of them, you’re dealing with budget issues. You’re dealing with student attrition, which is a big — because you’re trying to serve a large student population. Many of the students, you know, are not as well prepared for college, so they have many more hurdles that they have to overcome. So, I think the problems were — I found them to be extremely similar. I don’t think there were many differences at all.
And then after, from ’97 to ’99 — so, it was only a two-year appointment at Morgan State.
It was a two-year appointment. Right. Then I went back to A&T.
You went back to A&T, and then from 2002, 2003, you were at SLAC. Right? You went to California.
No. No, let me just see. So, I was at SLAC as the visiting scientist during the summertime.
Oh, I see. It was just a summertime visit.
It was summer, yeah. It was just a summer appointment.
What were you working on there?
But I was an A&T professor.
Right. What were you doing at SLAC?
One summer, I went and just did research, and then the second time, I went to direct this summer program. You know, DOE has these programs during the summer to bring under graduates.
They call it the undergraduate research — okay, let me get the names. When I was there, it had a long, complicated name. [laughs] I’d have to go back and remember what the name of it was [the Energy Research Undergraduate Laboratory Fellowship Program, now the Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internships Program. But it’s basically opportunities for students to come and to work on research projects with the scientists. So, I was director for that particular summer.
Right. And was this also the program that got you to Berkeley, and also to Brookhaven later on?
No, no. I did that one — now, the later ones — going to Berkeley was just strictly research.
Aha. And that was for the summers also. You just went there for the summers.
Yup, the summers. And at Berkeley, I had a good friend there, a good colleague named William Barletta, who was very active. He led the particle accelerator school for the U.S. for quite a number of years, and nowadays he’s at MIT. But you know, he invited me to come out and to do research in the accelerator physics group there. So, I did that for a number of summers, maybe about three or four summers.
Did you pick up on the same research from the previous summer, or you were doing unique projects every summer?
At that time, I was working on intrabeam scattering again, you know, after many years, because they were building these little synchrotron light sources that are these sources of X-ray beams. I know Berkeley was very interested in it, and they were doing the background research for it. So, I was trying to develop formulas that would be more easy to handle than the original formula. The original formula is very complicated, and it requires a lot of computer time to run, so I was trying to work on approximations that would be more readily available to use on your little small computers or whatever, so you can get results quickly. So, that’s what I did at Berkeley. I think both summers I worked there, at least two of the summers I worked on that.
Also at this time, you’re starting to get heavily involved back at MIT. You have a number of affiliations at MIT at this time, too.
What were you doing with MIT?
MIT, I was the faculty director of academic programs in the Office of Minority Education there. So, I was running a lot of tutorial groups for students, and this was for all students.
Now, this is after you retire from A&T, or this is also a sabbatical, when you’re visiting MIT?
At MIT, I went there recently in ’01. I took a leave from A&T. But then my wife came and got such a great job as Director of Economic Development for the City of Cambridge. I couldn’t ask her to step down from that, so I kept asking A&T to give me extensions, and finally the Vice Chancellor said, “No, we can’t keep holding your position.” She’s right. They can’t keep holding it. I had to resign. So, I basically retired, although I didn’t formally retire until about eight years later, but I essentially retired at that point from A&T.
So, for all intents and purposes, you had retired in 2004 or so?
Yeah, right. 2004.
Right. You officially retired in 2012, but you’re really not involved at A&T since 2004.
So what’s your position at — are you a faculty member at MIT, or these are academic, administration positions?
No, these were faculty positions, but not tenured positions in the physics department. They were sort of administrative. If you’re a postdoc or above, you’re typically considered faculty. They have what they call — I can’t remember the precise name, but yeah, it’s a faculty-level position, but it’s not a tenured professorship. So, I was able to be an administrator in the Office of Minority Education, but I taught half-time. I was half-time there, half-time in the Concourse program, which is one of these independent learning communities, because MIT, generally students would come in, with hundreds of students taking calculus together, hundreds taking physics together. So, some students wanted a more liberal-arts atmosphere. So, we have several of these independent learning communities. We have about 50 students in Concourse that would take their physics and calculus and all these things together. So, I was the lead physics instructor for that.
So, these were small classes that you were teaching, or these were big lectures?
It was about 50 students. I had about 50 students that I would lecture to, and then I had a group of tutors that would have — and we had faculty who would be — would give them what we call “recitation sections,” where they would break up into smaller groups. And then I had a group of tutors who would work with the students, in addition.
Were you keeping up with your research, or this was mostly teaching responsibilities at MIT?
I was doing research at the time, although I tended to do much less research. But I just got so stretched, between doing that and the work that I started doing in Africa. It was at that time that my travels to Africa really ramped up. I mean, it was so bad until at one point, I was in a meeting in Pretoria. I had to go home, go back to MIT, and come back within 10 days [laughs] to another meeting in the same area. So, that’s when I decided I had to even retire from MIT. So, I retired there before I was 65. I decided: this is too much. And I had gotten involved in the InCREASE program here, so I was so scattered, my research kind of took a dive at that time.
When you started going to Africa, were you going as an individual, or were you representing an institution? Did you have any affiliations?
I was going as an individual, actually. In a way — but there was this organization called EBASI, which stood for Edward Bouchet Abdus Salam Institute. Edward Bouchet, the first African-American to get a Ph.D. from Yale in the 1800s, and then Salam, who helped to sponsor some of our activities, was the Director there at the International Center for Theoretical Physics in Trieste. So, we had a meeting in ’88 where we decided we wanted to have African-Americans — Salam brought us there to Trieste to ICTP to have this meeting where we wanted to try to forge collaborations between Africans and African-Americans. And out of that, we would periodically meet, and in 2000, we met at ICTP and actually decided I wanted to push on trying to bring one of these light sources to Africa. And so, that’s what eventually took me to Africa in 2001. So, I was going as a representative from EBASI, but also was myself, because that was something I wanted to do and had wanted to do for some time.
I’m sure for many years you had preconceived notions about what Africa was.
When you got there, were they confirmed mostly? Were you mostly surprised by how different things were?
No, I sort of had an idea of what it would be like. I had seen enough documentaries and so forth. I knew it would be — the resources were very limited. So, it was exactly what I sort of thought it would be like. Now, I was going mostly to South Africa, and of course, South Africa is a highly developed country among the African countries. Now, that was surprising for me: the level of development in South Africa. So if there was any surprise, that was a little bit of a surprise to me, because they are so advanced, in many ways, that other countries depend upon them. We’re dependent upon South Africa for some of our isotopes that we bring in for medical applications, and some of the ones that the U.S. doesn’t produce so much, South Africa was able to help fill in the void there.
In terms of your overall goals with developing these relationships in Africa, did you see yourself as a physicist promoting physics issues, or was this more international — I mean, was it beyond physics, in terms of your motivations?
It was beyond physics, because my interest was to promote light sources, and people who use the X-ray beams and these advanced light sources, you know, they’re used in biology, chemistry, materials science. They even use them in paleontology, trying to understand some of the bone structures. Like, South Africa had these tremendous discoveries recently, and they had these skulls. They didn’t want to have to break into the skulls to try to understand the structure of the brain. And so, you could use these beams from these light sources to do that in a non-invasive way. So, they’re using the light sources in cultural heritage studies — studying, for instance, paintings. There was this big controversy whether or not some of the painters — who was the great painter? I’m having a void [laughs] — I can’t tell you his name right now. Who did “Mona Lisa”?
Da Vinci. Da Vinci.
No, it wasn’t Da Vinci. Okay, it wasn’t Da Vinci. Okay, I can’t tell the name. [laughs] I’m sorry. I can’t tell the name [Picasso]. But people are using — there were controversies as to whether or not he used house paint versus professional paint. That was a raging controversy. They were able to chip off a little of the painting in Chicago, at the museum in Chicago, and irradiate it at, I think, probably Argonne’s light source and to confirm that there’s house paint mixed in. [laughs] So, these light sources are used for many fields. It’s amazing. For many fields. So, when I go, I’m advocating for protein structures, to help fight diseases, like the coronavirus, Ebola, HIV, all these other diseases. So, I don’t go as a physicist anymore. I go as somebody trying to promote light sources.
But isn’t someone who promotes light sources fundamentally a physicist? Or, what else would you be?
Right. It’s accelerator physics. I do come with that background, but my involvement is not doing any accelerator physics. My thing is to identify scientists for training and to — in fact, I have this organization that I helped to found, called LAAAMP, which is Lightsources for Africa, the Americas, Asia and Middle East Project. So, we travel to all of these countries. Mostly, I travel to Africa, but I also travel to the other countries. You know, we travel to Mexico. We go to the Middle East, Southeast Asia. We go to the Caribbean countries. We identify scientists, and we send them. We have funding that we receive from the International Science Council. We send them to Lightsources for training for two months. That’s our goal. We try to promote training.
You’re still involved in this? You’re still traveling around?
Oh, too much, until this year. [laughs] Now, I’m grounded.
Maybe the coronavirus was a way to say: stay put for a little while.
[laughs] Right. Absolutely. So, I’m taking advantage of this to get some research done.
What were the circumstances that got you involved with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission?
When I was at Morgan State, the Chair was Fred Oliver. And after he retired, he became a judge with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, one of their Administrative Judges. And so, a position came available for another Administrative Judge, and he alerted me of that. He told me: this is something you might want to look into. At first, I thought it was — eh, that’s completely out of my area of expertise. I am not a lawyer. [laughs] But anyway, I started looking into it, and lo and behold, it sounded extremely exciting. So, I applied, and I was successful in getting it. That’s how I became an employee. So, I am a government employee now.
Oh, so that is a government position.
That’s government. Absolutely. It’s a part-time government position, so I work from home, and the case that I’ve been assigned to is quite a complicated case. It has to do with this Seabrook nuclear reactor, which is in Seabrook, New Hampshire, just over the border from Massachusetts. And unfortunately — and this is the first time this has happened at any of our reactors — the concrete is developing cracks due to this particular reaction called alkali-silica reaction. And these cracks are developing. So the company, NextEra, has to develop a protocol to monitor these cracks to make sure that they don’t go beyond operability conditions. So, this is the case that I’m involved in.
Obviously, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, there’s a tension between industry and regulation. Right? That industry wants less regulation, and there’s obviously a lot of support for more regulation.
So, I don’t know what the word is ideologically or politically, but where do you see yourself on that divide, in terms of balancing these two needs?
Well, I mean, the process is already established so that anytime a company wants to amend its license, like in the case of Seabrook, to incorporate this protocol, or they’re looking for a license for a new facility, they have to advertise that, or declare that, on the Federal Register — so anybody who reads that can file what we call contentions. If you want to complain about it, there’s a process. You file contentions. If you can prove that your contentions have merit and that you yourself would be injured by any problems with this license, then there’s a court proceeding. And this is when these judges come into play. So, it’s interesting because our judges are called the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board, and we are sort of an insulated group at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. We don’t interact much with anybody else there, because we have to be impartial. Because when these contentions go to trial, generally you have the Nuclear Regulatory Commission as one of the parties in the trial, as well as the company, and whoever has filed the original contentions. Oftentimes, such as in Seabrook, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff and NextEra are sort of on the same side, because the protocol that they’ve established has been approved by the staff; and the community there, who would be affected by it are filing the contentions. We can’t be close to the staff at the NRC. We have to have a certain amount of insulation from them. So, that’s what we do. When I go, I interact only with the judges on the Board.
Are you relying on your physics background, in terms of the decisions that you make, or is this more like common sense?
Right. What happens is that we have a three-judge panel that hears any of these cases. One of the judges is a lawyer who is the Chair of the panel, to make sure everything is done legally. And the two are technical judges, and we’re there to rely on our expertise, usually in nuclear engineering, but in my case physics, because nuclear engineering is built on physics. So, the kinds of things that they’re arguing about — for instance, the concrete is — we’re worried about loads, which are forces on the concrete, and its resistance to the load, the strain, and so forth. These are all physics concepts, so I feel completely at home applying my knowledge of physics to these nuclear engineering issues. So, yes, I do. That’s why they have it designed that way, so we rely on our technical knowledge.
Let’s talk a little bit about your current venture, Triangle Science, Education and Economic Development. How did you come to create this venture, and what is it all about?
When I left MIT — actually, it was before I left MIT — I wanted to continue to do the kinds of things that I did previously, and from talking with people — in fact, Phil Clay was the Chancellor at MIT for a number of years, and most of the time, I was there — he’s a good friend. He’s an African-American who was at MIT as a graduate student, way back in the old days, when we established the Black Students Union. So we go way, way back. He told me — it was a great thing he said. He said, “You want to establish a company, you have to decide if you want to make money and get rich, or do you want to do something?” You know, do whatever it is you want to do, without worrying about profit. And it’s the latter for me. You know? So, we established this company so my wife and I can continue doing the things we do. I mean, her thing is economic development, you know, helping people to develop companies, and this kind of thing. And we’re both interested in education. So, we’ve had educational grants — educational contracts to help, for instance, North Carolina A&T. We’re near A&T now. And the work that I do — Brookhaven, we have a big contract — well, not big — but we have a contract from Brookhaven working with the Diversity and Inclusion Office managed by Shirley Kendall that allows me to do the kinds of things I do with InCREASE. You know? This thing of connecting. We have sponsored a number of workshops, a number at Brookhaven. We must have had, over the last 10 years, maybe about five or six workshops at Brookhaven. We had workshops at SLAC, Berkeley, Argonne, Livermore Laboratory, where we bring in faculty and some graduate students to be exposed to the kinds of research opportunities that exist there. So, the company allows me to do that, to get contracts, like with Brookhaven, to do this kind of thing.
Are you working with young people a lot?
Oh, yeah. Definitely. Absolutely. But I work with young people, even over and above the contract with Brookhaven and InCREASE. For instance, the Ford Foundation, I work with the young scholars that are in the Research Triangle area, who happen to be Ford Fellows. You know? We have a different group who come in every year. So, I work with those. I work with the people that I knew from MIT, as they go through their careers. And I also mentor many students in Africa. I go there so often, and I try to help them to pursue graduate work and try to connect them as much as I can. And then there’s another group that I’m Chair of, something called the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics’ C-13 commission on Physics for Development, and chairing that, I come into contact with so many faculty and students. So, I’m sort of deluged [laughs] with students that I come into contact with, in many different ways. And so, my company helps me to facilitate that.
Well, I think that gets us right up to the present. I think for our last set of questions, I want to ask you a few bigger, retrospective questions to reflect upon. The first is: you’ve been involved in physics in so many different ways and in so many different areas over so many different decades. I wonder if there are certain fundamental concepts in physics that you learned, maybe even as a high-schooler or an undergraduate, things that stay with you that are close to you, that help you inform the way that you see how the world works, both science and culturally, and just your overall perspective. Are there any fundamental concepts that remain close to you that you rely on day in and day out?
Right. Right. The thing that impresses me, which is why I got involved in physics to begin with — physics is simple, and I try to tell people to stop telling your children physics is hard. You know? [laughs] That just scares them away. It’s such a beautifully simple thing. So, everything I try to find — you know, the fundamental principle that’s driving it. You know, and the physics tends to have some underlying truth that’s simple. So, for instance, the plasma wakefield thing. I wanted to prove, in a very simple way, that this is a legitimate concept that will work in a finite-length plasma. So, I was looking for how to explain that in a simple way. Intrabeam scattering — the work that Bj and I did, in many ways, it’s quite complicated, but the reason I went to Berkeley during the summers was to try to create some very simple expressions that would approximate extremely well the more complicated full expressions for intrabeam scattering. And so, that’s driven my interest in going back, after a number of decades, to intrabeam scattering again and to afford people the opportunity to understand it in a much simpler way. Although, when you actually get ready to design your accelerator system, you want to run the full theory. Okay? You just do it. But when you’re just trying to understand design, you want to tweak your design a little bit — what’s the effect of intrabeam scattering? It’s good to have something that will give you a quick answer, that’s a good approximation. So, much of what I do is always trying to look for some way to simplify things. And fortunately, physics is simple to begin with. [laughs] The mathematics can get complicated, but the physics is simple. [laughs]
For you, with all of your interests, I’m going to have to split this into two questions. What do you feel are your primary contributions as a physicist, and what do you feel are your primary contributions socially, or as a humanitarian, or in terms of all of the other things that you work hard at to improve society? So, I want to ask, in both ways. And do you see those areas as separate, or do you see them as linked?
I think they’re linked. Okay, but as far as my technical contributions, I think I’m very proud of three things that I think I was able to do. One, the antiproton system at Fermilab, building the magnet and what we call the beam cooling system, which helps to keep the beam at a reasonable size and shrink the size of the beam, so it would be more intense. Building that system at Fermilab, I’m really extremely proud of that, because that led to the discovery of the top quark at Fermilab. We built that in the mid-’80s, and the top quark was discovered around 1995. So, I’m very proud of that. I’m very proud, extremely proud, of the work that Bj and I did on intrabeam scattering, because that has been extremely crucial for any accelerator that’s being built nowadays, because these are all the big, intense accelerators. The thing they have to — when they do everything that they do to make the best accelerator they, in the end, have to face intrabeam scattering. That’s the ultimate limitation on it. So, I’m very proud of that. And I’m also proud of the work on plasma wakefield acceleration providing one of the early proofs that this is a viable concept. So, those are kinds of physics contributions that I’m extremely proud of. On the social side, I’m very proud of being able to work with so many students, faculty, and administrators. I mean, some of the people that I mentored — for instance, when I was at MIT, I’ve mentored people who have gone on to become Vice-Chancellors and Deans, and just have extremely successful careers. I never achieved any of that in my career. [laughs] So, I’m so proud to see — I’ve never been President of any university! [laughs] Not that I really could say that I really want to be. Too many headaches. Oh, lord. But it’s just great to see that they’ve gone on to have done such outstanding things in their lives. Whenever I see young people coming up, I always grab them, so I can try to help them as much as I can. I mean, one of the things that I do now, that I enjoy doing, is interviewing students who have applied for admission to Princeton and MIT, just to even play a minor role, to see what they’re doing and to be able to pass judgement on them and promote those who have done such outstanding things.
Now, on all of your work as a mentor, I wonder if you could talk — I’m sure you’re aware — AIP recently put out the TEAM-UP Report, detailing the crisis of African-American representation in physics. And you have such a unique perspective, because you have strong roots, both at elite places like MIT and Princeton, as well as at historically black colleges and universities. I wonder if you could help us understand the history of the issue. Right? So, if we say that there’s a crisis in representation today, it suggests that at some point in the past, there wasn’t a crisis in representation.
We just didn’t realize there was a crisis. [laughs]
Oh, so you think —
The crisis has always been there.
It’s always been there.
It’s been there. Right. Right.
How do you understand the crisis? What exactly does it mean that there’s a crisis of representation of African-Americans in physics? The numbers clearly state that, but what does that mean to you from a more broad perspective?
For instance, when I’m at MIT, it just hurts me in my heart that there’s no physics professor there who has tenure. And so, when young African-American students want to go into physics at MIT, I have no one who is African American that I can send them to. — I’m here now. Even there, I was not a tenured professor in the physics department. So, it hurt me then, and it hurts me now. I cannot give them any African-American physicist to go to, because it’s important for them to go not only to talk about physics — I mean, the most important information I got from Jim Young — we rarely talked about physics when I was an undergraduate. We talked about his life. You know, the kinds of challenges that he had to overcome. He told me about things that I would face. Just like the students now — I tell them: graduate school is very political. Undergraduate is different. [As a] graduate student, you need to identify somebody that you feel good with, you have rapport with, and cultivate that relationship. So, I mean, those are extremely important. Of course, the original question — I think I started getting away from the original question.
The original question is so that — you don’t see the crisis in representation as current?
This goes all the way back to your own experiences.
Right. It’s always been there. But it’s kind of like slavery. You have to have complete slavery. There’s no such thing as partial slavery, because once people start getting emancipated, there is a crisis, because everybody else wants to be emancipated. Right? And then, you get the Civil Rights movement, and so forth, and so on. So, it’s the same thing in physics. You know, you can keep all African-Americans out of universities if you can. You don’t want that. Of course, that’s a horrible situation. But as long as you start admitting students, then it’s a tremendous crisis in the fact that they don’t have anybody they can sort of go to and personally relate to. Because coming up as an African-American, even living as an African-American, we live with microaggressions every day. Right? So, it’s good to have somebody you can talk to who experiences your microaggressions. You know, it happens — and one thing that I note — when I’m on airplanes, and I see the flight attendants coming down, and they will serve the person on the left, the person on the right, go a little bit further — person on the left, person on the right — then they get to me, I’m there on the left, and then they go right to left. [laughs] That’s very common. It happens to me all the time. That’s a microaggression. And the person is not mean. They don’t think they’re doing that. Right? In other words, you have the obvious aggressions, and you have these microaggressions. You need people like that on faculty. Unfortunately, physics faculties around the country at many of these elite institutions like MIT, they have done zero in terms of opening up opportunities, getting tenured black faculty.
So, you see the core of the problem as starting with the lack of representation among the faculty.
Absolutely. I think that’s the problem, because we’ve gone a long ways to solve much of the students’ problems in terms of numbers. But we need to have faculty, and that’s sort of the last bastion that has to be overcome.
So, the idea there is that if you do have that representation, then the numbers of undergraduate black students going into physics would be better — it would be larger.
Absolutely. No doubt about it. Looking back over my career, I mean, I won every top award you can win, right, except the Nobel Prize. But I mean, I won the American Physics Society’s top prize. The research I do is used by top accelerators all over the world, and were crucial for the top quark, the Higgs particle. You know, in nuclear engineering, I’ve led studies that have opened up nuclear physics opportunities for students. As far as teaching goes, I mean, I’ve taught — when I was at Harvard, I received extremely high marks for teaching. At MIT as well. But Harvard students seemed to like me more for some reason. [laughs] I don’t know why. I was a star with them. And you know, the mentoring I’ve done — I’ve won the top mentoring award. I mean, what more — when you say you want faculty, you want research, you want service, and you want — research, service — what’s the other thing? Teaching! [laughs]
I wasn’t going to say it. I wanted to make sure you came around to say it. [laughs]
So, I mean, I’ve done those to the highest degree, but nobody knocked on my door saying, “Please come.” So, that just shows you the hypocrisy that goes on .
Yeah. So forecasting into the future, do you see this issue getting better over time? Worse? Staying the same? What are you feeling?
It has to get better. It will get better. The question is: will it get better exponentially, or barely? [laughs]
How? What’s the road map? What’s the solution for it to get better?
I don’t know the solution. You know, I really don’t know the solution, because we’ve worked on this problem. I’ve been involved in dealing with this problem for decades. So, I don’t know. Maybe when the younger generation takes over, it will be better. I mean, the older generation is still there. Faculty who were at MIT when I was an undergraduate, some of them are still there, although as emeritus. But their mentees are leading the departments. So, much of that old attitude still exists.
How to get rid of that, I don’t really know. It will take time, but I don’t know how fast it will happen. If people want to do something, they can. There’s no doubt about that.
Yeah. Well, I think for my last question, similar to this: what remains for you to do? What are the things that still excite you, both as a scientist and in terms of your social endeavors? What are the things that motivate you day in and day out? What are the things that you’re so happy to be involved with? And what are the things that are really exciting to you as you look to the future?
As I look to the future, I think I will continue to press on the things I’m involved with: the InCREASE program that I’m serving as President of, and we have about 200 faculty in our network that we’re trying to continue to connect to research opportunities. We’ve been able to get many new users at Brookhaven, for instance, at its National Synchrotron Light Source, something like over 50. So, I’m excited about that. Now, we will push harder on that in the future. I’m excited about being able to bring a synchrotron light source to Africa. I’m Deputy Chair of the African Light Source Foundation, which is the organization pushing to make this happen. So, I want to push on that. The LAAAMP project. Training people to use light sources — we have to ramp that up. We are sending about 15 faculty and 15 graduate students with them to light sources around the world. We need to get the numbers of that up. So, there’s a lot that I’m involved in that I feel is still in its infancy. So, I’m excited about the pushing of that. At the same time, I’d like to write some books. I’ve written one book on my lectures. I’ve turned my lectures on electricity and magnetism for freshmen into a book. I want to do the same thing for mechanics. I just haven’t had a chance to do it. I just don’t have time. The embarrassing thing is, I gave a series of lectures way back in 1991. I traveled around Ghana to its various universities, all over the country, and gave lectures to high-school students and college students and faculty, pushing science and technology for the development of Africa. And I have a book that’s half-written. I’ve been writing it since 1991. [laughs] My wife told me the other day, it’s a shame I don’t finish it. [laughs] So, I’m going to — this break, this coronavirus, it’s going to give me some time to make some movement on that. So, if that book ever hits the stands, I’ll definitely send you a copy.. [laughs]
There you go. Well, Sekazi, it’s been an absolute pleasure speaking to you today. I feel like I’ve been traveling with you all over the world and around your career for the past few hours. So, I really appreciate this time, and I want you to know, this interview is going to be a tremendous resource for researchers and historians in the future. So, I really appreciate this time with you today.
Thanks so much. It’s been a pleasure, and I look forward to meeting you the next time I travel to Washington.
That’s right. So, we’ll end it here. [[END]]