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Interview of Tyrone Porter by David Zierler on 2020 September 29,Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,College Park, MD USA,www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/44893-2
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In this interview, David Zierler, Oral Historian for AIP, interviews Tyrone Porter, Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. Porter recounts his childhood in Detroit, and he discusses his recent move to Texas from Boston, and the opportunities afforded to him as he builds a new laboratory. He describes the importance of science fiction in fueling his early interests in science, he describes his undergraduate education at Prairie View A&M University, and he explains the opportunities afforded him to pursue his academic interests at a Historically Black University. Porter discusses his interests in engineering and computer science and how he became fascinated with the nascent field of biomedical engineering. He explains his decision to pursue a PhD at the University of Washington, and describes some of his impressions moving to a nearly all-white environment there. Porter discusses his research under the direction of Larry Crum in acoustics and ultrasound technology, and he explains some of the tensions he felt in balancing the focus of his work on basic science research vs. therapeutically-oriented results. He describes his postdoctoral research integrating membrane disruptive polymers into liposomes with Christy Holland at the University of Cincinnati. Porter explains his developing focus in nanomedicine, and the interest his research sparked in several major pharmaceutical companies. He describes his decision to join the faculty at Boston University, and he weighs the different kinds of impact in fostering diversity that he can have working at a major research university vs. working at a smaller HBCU. Porter notes the many colleagues at BU who have supported his efforts to improve diversity and inclusivity in STEM, and he describes the successes he achieved in setting up a lab and how the field of biomedical engineering had matured over this time. He contextualizes his recent leadership efforts within the Black Lives Matter movement from an academic context, and he describes how these events came to a head in the summer of 2020 and why he has been more committed than ever to ensuring greater and better diversity initiatives in STEM. Porter describes his ongoing work in therapeutic ultrasound research, and at the end of the interview, he describes himself as an “activist scholar” for whom accomplishments in the lab and in advancing racial justice and sensitivity are two aspects of a single career goal.
Okay this is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It’s September 29th, 2020. I’m so happy to be back with Dr. Tyrone Porter. Tyrone, thank you for joining me again.
You’re very welcome and thanks for having me.
So, I want to pick up back at your postdoc. And I want to ask sort of a broad question at this point. When do you get into what is understood as nanomedicine? Where is this term? And where are you situated within this field as it pertains to the work you were doing as a postdoc?
So, that is a good question because I was introduced and interested in nanomedicine when I was a graduate student at University of Washington in bioengineering. And I would say Patrick Stayton and Alan Hoffman were certainly working on things that could be included under that umbrella. But at my postdoctoral fellowship, the project I was working on involved gas filled liposomes. These were referred to as echogenic liposomes, which is a very unique designation because liposomes…conventional liposomes, they are liquid filled. And so, gas filled particles tended to be more along the lines of bubbles, whether they were microbubbles or really large bubbles. So, actually taking a liposome that traditionally is filled with a liquid and then somehow being able to incorporate and trap gas inside the liposome is something that did make it fairly unique. We were using them for some imaging applications. Or at least that was one of the goals. But also, for some drug delivery applications where ultrasound was used to trigger release of encapsulated drugs. So, that was also another unique feature because you could have the liposome filled with a liquid and a gas. You could disperse or sequester a soluble drug inside the liposome along with the gas. And the gas then would serve as a responsive component to the liposome to ultrasound in order to bust open the liposome locally at the disease sight. And that really was attractive to me. I had some experience with lipids and cell membranes, which are a major part of cell membranes. And of course, I had experience with ultrasound and physics. It was a really unique opportunity to hone my skills and introduce myself to the nanomedicine community as well as continue to figure out ways of using ultrasound as an external energy source for triggering drug release. Controlled drug release with nanomedicine formulations. And that was, I would say, really the start of my career in nanomedicine.
So, it sounds like nanomedicine, by the time you got involved in the early 2000s, had moved beyond the sort of conceptual phase, but it was still early enough in its development where you were really well positioned to make fundamental contributions really from the get go.
Yeah, absolutely. So, the term I would say really kind of evolves out of nanoscience and nanotechnology. I would say it kind of comes out of electrical engineering and really pushing the envelope on engineering and constructing or fabricating transistors and circuit boards. Other disciplines paid a lot of attention to what was going on in electrical engineering. As scholars, and researchers, and scientists became more adept at being able to construct the formation or the fabrication of materials or the manipulation of materials at the submicron scale then that brought in other disciplines in other fields that could leverage that capability. So, now you could make a contrast agent for optics or for computed tomography or MRI. For example, small paramagnetic iron oxide nanoparticles are a contrast agent for magnetic resonance imaging. Being able to actually, in a very controlled manner, make iron oxide nanoparticles repeatedly of roughly the same size and then use that agent in imaging applications that sort of helped push the field from a diagnostic perspective. And then being able to make polymer nanoparticles, such as the work of Bob Langer, who is a giant in the field at MIT. He was one of the first to actually say we could package drugs that are poorly soluble in water inside of these polymer matrices at the nanoscale. And we can control the size. We can measure the release kinetics. We can measure how much is actually trapped within the particles. And that basically brought in…that announced to the rest of the world, especially the medical community and pharmacologists that, hey this is something that we can actually take advantage of because that was a huge hurdle. If you have something that is very effective against a certain disease, whether it is cancer or heart disease or liver fibrosis, but is poorly soluble in water, that means that you cannot give to a person through the bloodstream. So how are you actually going to be able to administer it? You have to literally inject it directly into the organ and then it might just aggregate and then might cause additional problems? So, if there’s a way to sequester the drug in materials that are biodegradable and nontoxic, then a lot of people are like okay, I’m all ears. How do we take advantage of this? How do we do this safely and also make sure that we maintain effectiveness or efficacy of whatever we’re putting into the particles. So, there was…you’re right. I got into it as the field had already been gaining momentum. But it was still fairly early in the field of nanomedicine where it was still sort of defining itself. And that does present a lot of opportunities for a young person that’s trying to get established within the field. Absolutely.
Now, in terms of getting established, it’s clear that the clinical and therapeutic promises of this technology…it’s quite obvious. And so, to go back to an earlier theme from our last conversation. You know, your commitment to the discovery in the basic science is unequivocal and that’s number one. That’s clear. But in terms of who might be interested in your talents…as a postdoc, what kind of opportunities might you have been considering beyond sort of the academic route that you ended up taking?
Yeah. Working for pharmaceutical companies was an interest. As a graduate student I had a fellowship from Merck as a UNCF-Merck Fellow. The United Negro College Fund. And so, this was really targeted for Black Ph.D. candidates and I think also postdoctoral fellows. Merck invested or donated some funds and worked cooperatively with UNCF to make sure that they were able to increase awareness and get applicants for the opportunities. I did have that as a graduate student and that also connected me directly with Merck. And so, working for Merck was something that really, to be honest, was of interest. I mean, Merck is a global pharmaceutical company. It’s been in existence for many, many decades. They’ve got a track record of being successful and productive. And so, absolutely. Looking at an opportunity there peaked my interest. And then, of course…well, not of course, but I had a friend who got his Ph.D. at University of Washington but also pursued a law degree and became a patent attorney. That was another opportunity that really piqued my interest because from having conversations with him, that was something that the field really craved. Also public policy and politicians were really seeking individuals with PhDs in the sciences. They could lend their expertise to crafting policy. And so, that also peaked my interest. These are also…let’s be…maybe state the obvious. These are much more lucrative—[laugh]
—professional opportunities, right? That one could pursue. Not only just from salary, but in some cases from stock options.
Right? You can literally be able to get stocks that…stocks continue to do well. You’re generating wealth that could take care of your family. So…
Tyrone, I wonder what about on the diversity side? It’s an important question, particularly at this point because as you’re considering an academic career, your views about some of the frustrations, you know, in terms of diversity and equity and inclusivity that are…that were and obviously remain a problem in academic science, right? I wonder if a place like Merck which had gone out of its way to promote diversity and go after promising postdocs like yourself, if that was part of the equation as well? And if there was something that was attractive in that regard?
So, I did plan on revisiting or at least talking about…getting involved and pursuing a career in nanomedicine. And my research interests certainly pivoting towards nanomedicine while I was a postdoc. I did actually want to talk about it in the context of being a person of color. Being a Black man in nanomedicine. I participated in a panel conversation last week or two weeks ago. I think it was about a week and a half ago. It was called the Power Hour and it was a conversation on diversity and equity in nano or lack thereof…in controlled delivery and in nanomedicine. And the person that moderated the conversation…he’s a friend of mine. And actually, to be honest, I consider him to be a bit of a mentor. His name is Joe DeSimone.
And he is a bit of a giant in multidisciplinary research in chemistry, in particular. And he’s come up with very, very creative ways for making scalable approaches for formulating and fabricating nanoparticles. You’re nodding your head as if you’ve heard the name or you know this individual.
Thomas Epps suggested that I talk to him. So, that’s where I know that name from.
Oh. Joe is fantastic. Joe is phenomenal. So, I highly recommend you talk with him as well.
But he…so I mentioned electronics in the context of nanotechnology. He looked at nanotechnology and circuit board fabrication and the use of templates, right? For making the circuit boards and said, “Well, can I make, or can my group make templates in order to make nanoparticles?”
And that’s what he did. There’s a lot more that goes into it. But he is a innovator, right? And so, I bring him up because during the Power Hour, he mentioned when he was a fairly young assistant professor, fairly young, like junior faculty member, he went to a meeting and when he entered the room at some conference it was a room full of white men. And they were all from one of two groups. All of them were from basically the same two groups. And so, they were the offspring or the products or the recipients of education and training from the same individuals. From the same groups. And so, that in itself is inherently exclusive. Right? How are you supposed to increase awareness? So…
…was that a factor in my equation of pursuing nanomedicine? Well, just going into biomedical engineering alone, I was already thinking from the perspective of I’m gonna be one of a few. I need to position myself to be able to increase awareness and educate as many people about this fantastic career and academic opportunity that’s out there. That in certain communities, it’s just not discussed.
It’s an unknown. Nanoscience and nanotechnology…I think it’s sort of worked its way into the public sphere now. Much better than 15-20 years ago. So, I think there’s a greater appreciation publicly about nanotechnology. But 20-25 years ago, that was still a fairly new idea publicly, right? Within academia, within certain companies, you know, they were making profits off of it. But in the larger public sphere it was less known and who’s going to probably learn last? Those that have been oppressed. Those that have been marginalized throughout history are probably going to become aware last because now you’re talking about access to information. And also access to role models. And so, if I’m watching television growing up, I’m seeing MacGyver. MacGyver is going to be that person, that guy, that’s going to do something that’s probably going to be related to nanotechnology. Right? But am I going to see a Black face? And I want to see somebody I can relate to that’s gonna make me hopefully…inspire me. Right? To pursue that as a career. Or even just ask a question. BET, when I was watching the network they didn’t talk about nanotechnology. But if they had, I would’ve been more aware, but also would’ve questioned what is nanotechnology? Because they’re talking about it on a vehicle or a platform that I usually…that I know about. And I see people who look like me, talk like me, and have similar interests to me. And so, if they’re interested in it, maybe I should be interested in it too. So, certainly from a…the opportunity to raise the profile, increase awareness, and serve as an ambassador, right? That’s the word I was looking for. I could actually serve as an ambassador within BME first. I am a person that is just interested in science. I am, in my opinion, I’m a scientist. My curiosity actually worked to my disadvantage a little bit when I started graduate school because I was just interested in so many different things that were scientific and coming from smaller schools where you did not have as rich an environment of innovative, novel, scientific discoveries. I was like a kid in a candy store.
I was bouncing from room to room, group to group. Conference to conference. Seminar to seminar. I was at everything. Right? And then it’s just a question on when will you focus? The benefit of that is that I became more aware of imaging modalities. I became more aware of nanomedicine. I became more aware of biomolecular engineering. I became more aware of signal processing that could be utilized in artificial intelligence. Or it could be utilized in robots. I became aware of all of this. So, when I go to a conference like National Society of Black Engineers, National Society of Black Physicists, Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, American Indian Science & Engineering Society…I can actually talk about the diversity of sciences out there and opportunities and help a person figure out what are they really interested in? But, I didn’t limit my scope because I knew that there are so few of me in any of these fields that I needed to be somewhat well versed in a multitude of fields in order to get more people like me into the fields.
So, it sounds like to the extent that you had that fork in the road kind of decision, you could’ve gone either way, and it’s just a matter of academia providing sort of a larger stage for you to be that ambassador. And to allow you to have as wide and broad ranging a research agenda as you wanted. It sounds like those were the two key factors for you.
Yes. So, what academia does provide is some level of freedom and flexibility that in my opinion does not really exist, not to that extent, in the corporate setting. They’re going to work towards satisfying the bottom line. They’re much more product driven and there’s less of a platform as you mention to engage and interact with younger people or a diverse spectrum of people. That’s absolutely true.
That’s absolutely true.
So, that sort of begs the question once you’ve settled on academia, because of your positive experience with Historically Black Colleges and Universities…did you consider that as a place to become a junior faculty member?
You had to bring that one up. [laugh]
[laugh] I mean, BU. Let’s face it. It’s a pretty white environment.
It’s a very white environment. And Boston…actually, Boston is a somewhat diverse environment. Doesn’t necessarily mean it’s equitable.
It’s a diverse environment with a highly problematic racial history.
Yes. So, you certainly have a decent mix in Boston. But it certainly does not mean it is equitable and inclusive. At least not to the level that it could be…it certainly has not reached its potential. So, the HBCU question. Yeah. So, I’ll admit. I went back and forth on this because I am a product of an HBCU.
I advocate and speak highly of HBCUs. At the same time…[sigh] you know, what I had…with regards to my research interest…so, it becomes a question of can I find a place that will allow me to continue to satisfy my scientific and research curiosity at a very high level? And be able to contribute to the field, right? As well as, be able to engage and interact with hopefully a diverse student population. That’s part of it, right? That’s part of the reason why I go to a predominantly white institution instead of an HBCU. The other part of it is unfortunately, HBCUs are not valued and respected at the level they should be. And the faculty who are there are not valued and respected and so therefore, their voices unfortunately, in the larger context of transforming academia, are not heard. They’re more or less kind of an invisible voice. They’re sort of a minority collection of voices and it’s hard to break through the barrier in order for them to be involved in the conversation for systemic, systematic change. They’re probably the best people to actually, really contribute to that conversation and that discussion.
But what tends to happen is your typical bias.
And those who are at the predominantly white institutions of the world seek out colleagues at other predominantly white institutions of the world. And then they gather together to have their conversations and their meetings.
So, Tyrone, to really hammer that point home. Let’s just fast forward to the circumstances of how we connected, right? You know, you’ve been recognized and greatly respected for your advocacy work in recent months as it relates to Black Lives Matter and inclusivity and diversity in STEM. You know, you’ve been recognized by the ASA, by many of your colleagues, and that’s how we got connected, right? The counterfactual…we can’t prove it for sure, but it’s obvious you would’ve had these feelings and you would’ve been this active had you been a professor at an HBCU. But perhaps your advocacy efforts might not have received the attention that they did in your current position. I mean, is that basically a fair way of assessing how well and how effective you’ve been? Not based on the work you’ve done, but the places you’ve represented.
So…if I were working at an HBCU, I think I certainly would have…I would say I would have impacted more Black students just because of sheer numbers.
I would’ve impacted more academic trajectories and lives of Black students.
And Black adults. So, when I’m doing this equation or I make this comparison, I had to ask myself am I going to just focus mainly and almost exclusively on the students?
And if that is my goal…if that’s what I want to do, going into an HBCU is going to be the best decision.
It’s where I can be the most impactful and have the most value.
It’s like a micro-to-macro distinction, basically. You can be tremendously influential on an individual level, but you might not have that platform to affect change that is a wakeup call for all of STEM, essentially.
So, for all of STEM, who…the system…so, I’ve been working on a seminar and a presentation and so these kinds of thoughts I have been sort of processing and working through over the last few weeks. There’s a racial hierarchy. And who’s at the top of the pyramid that basically manipulates, governs, regulates, and controls all other stakeholders and members that exist within that pyramid is predominantly white men. That’s at the top of the pyramid, right? And we’re talking in large percentages. They’re not at HBCUs.
And so, where do I have to be in order to first and foremost have a greater understanding of what the conversations are like amongst them. In boardrooms, right? Where decisions are made. And also have a better understanding of how money flows because it all comes down to who controls resources.
Who manages resources and who has the authority to make policy decisions and changes that impacts the system as a whole. They mainly exist at predominantly white institutions. I won’t say that they’re only at predominantly white institutions because there have been persons that I’ve become more aware of over the last 5-10 years who are at smaller schools. They’re at teaching oriented schools. But how long does it take for them…how big is their platform? How long does it take for them to actually get a point where they’re recognized? Their opinions, their thoughts are respected and valued. Now in today’s current social media driven environment, maybe I make a different decision because that becomes part of the equation.
That’s a great point.
Twenty years ago, right? You didn’t have Twitter, you didn’t have LinkedIn, you didn’t have Instagram. And so how you actually are able to post and message and become part of the conversation is different than it was 15-20 years ago. They certainly controlled that. They had control over the portals, the access points, in order to get information out there. You had to write probably to Inside Higher Education, or Chronicles of Higher Education, or be part of the conversations at National Science Foundation about how resources should be allocated and budgeted for these kinds of initiatives, for example. But in today’s world, you could post and get a lot of followers. Or have webinars. Virtual webinars. And that captures a much broader audience. If that existed 20 years ago, would my decision be different? Possibly. Once again it’s a question of satisfying my scientific curiosity as well as what I have been told that those who are in positions of authority in higher education generally are promoted to full professor status. You don’t want me to tell you the percentage of full professors in the United States in general that are persons of color.
Because it will make you sick to your stomach.
Right? We’re talking probably less than 2-3%. Of all full professors are persons of color. So, once again at some point like, if you’re such a miniscule number, it’s much more difficult to get your voice heard and recognized and respected. So, I had to figure out what does it take to actually get there and those rules are more clearly established and embedded within the predominantly white institutions.
And Tyrone, given that your thoughts as you’re considering your options at this time, they were quite strategic, right? It sounds like you really had these sort of really thought out in terms of where you can make the most impact. And so that begs the question, as you’re in negotiations with BU, what’s part of the conversation? Obviously, you know, the science is gonna be cutting edge. You’re gonna do really exciting stuff. But is part of the conversation the kinds of ways that BU can support you on the sociological side of things so that you can accomplish these diversity initiatives that are sort of built in to your objectives as not only a scientist but a citizen and somebody who’s concerned about where the country is headed?
So, I didn’t challenge BU through that lens and in that manner. What did resonate with me with regards to Boston University is that they did value teaching. It was an important part of the job. It was very clear from conversations with the faculty. I was in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. It was very, very clear in conversations with the faculty that we certainly want you to be successful with your scholarly pursuits and your research. But you also need to be an effective teacher. You need to hone your craft, you need to improve and your craft needs to evolve. That signals to me because you hear a lot about predominantly, the PWIs, that are research one institutions that…teaching is sort of given a second thought.
That you certainly…you’re obligated to teach. But, you don’t necessarily have to be the most effective and most successful teacher in the classroom. Especially if you’re doing really prominent, high-profile research. Right? That’s going to bring in prestige and publicity to the university. So, Boston University caught my attention because they valued the research, but they also valued me as a teacher. And that suggested to me that if I wanted to mentor, right, mentor students of color. If I wanted to advise student groups that were specifically for students of color, like the National Society of Black Engineers…that they were not going to dissuade me necessarily from doing that. Now were the resources available? Was their staff support available when I first arrived? Did I ask them and say, this is imperative that this exists? Once again, this is 15 years ago. The United States of America was not where it is today. And to be honest, without the pandemic, and without body cameras, I still don’t think we would be where we are today. Let’s not forget, so when I went up…when I applied to Boston University…this was 2005. The Rodney King incident was less than 20 years old.
And America hadn’t moved far past the Watts riots. The riots in L.A., from that point. So, the climate wasn’t necessarily much better than it was from the 1970s and 1980s. And America…and it still is to this day, is still somewhat…there’s a large fraction of society that is very hesitant to acknowledge the deep seated history of white supremacy and racial inequities and inequalities that exist and have been perpetuated and allowed to continue to exist throughout history. That is the core, fundamental reason for the discrepancies in wealth, degree attainment, positions of influence, position of authority…within the United States. Political positions. It’s all embedded in the system that was established and created predominantly for white men at the birth of the nation. And was designed to subjugate a particular demographic, in particular, and much more in a targeted manner. I’m not saying there are no other particular demographic or group that has not been marginalized or subjugated or oppressed. Not saying that at all. Cause you could start with indigenous peoples and Native Americans if you really want to get into a deeper, much deeper conversation. Right? So, paying all due respect to other groups. But we’re talking about a group that was brought to the United States. Brought to these shores against their will and a system that was created and established to make sure that they remained second class citizens for the benefit of one other particular demographic. That is unquestionable. It is unquestionable. [choking up] And as a Black person, I cannot stand to continue to let that [fist slams] exist! And continue to be promoted and advocated without making my voice heard. And the way the system is designed and set up…I have to play by those rules. Because I didn’t create the rules. I have to play the game the way it was designed and hopefully find allies along the way. And those allies have to be in positions of authority and influence, such that my platform can either expand or my…the ability to transform the system becomes maybe more a reality.
On that point, Tyrone. At BU, who were some of those allies? Who was maybe the Vice President of Academic Affairs or the Provost or the Department Chair or whoever that got it? That understood where you were coming from? That was there not just to celebrate and support your science, but to really look to be ahead of the curve in terms of where the country was and where you wanted to push things? Who were some of those allies for you at BU?
So, Joyce Wong is in biomedical engineering. Irving Bigio is in biomedical engineering. Alice White is the chair of mechanical engineering. So, the first two I mentioned were full professors in BME. Ron Roy was the chair of mechanical engineering when I first started and he really advocated for my recruitment to the department. Robin Cleveland was also a faculty member in the department. Sheryl Grace is a faculty member in mechanical engineering. And then beyond that, Dean Kenneth Lutchen was supportive. In his own way. He’s got a lot of other things that he is responsible for. But if I went to him and asked him to attend anything…I asked him to attend the National Society of Black Engineers Deans’ Council conversation. He attended and participated. I asked him to increase his support for students who were attending these types of conferences, right? Who could find community. He stepped up. He did that. Is he perfect? No. Was he somewhat proactive? Yes. Was he willing to listen? Yes. At the senior leadership position and level, that was where I did feel Boston University was lacking to some extent. The provost when I first started was David Campbell. He was supportive. And then Jean Morrison was hired. I might have been in my fourth or fifth year maybe. It might’ve been right before I got tenure or right after I got tenure. She came from, if I recall, the University of Southern California. She came with this intent to begin to transform the culture and the climate with a lot more of a lens and a lot more deliberate efforts and activity in diversity, equity and inclusion than the university had before she arrived. Before that it was more, I would say, department specific. There were certain faculty members and maybe some department chairs that certainly put more effort into it. And then I would say probably lastly, last of names that I’ll mention is Kenneth Elmore who is…when I started he was the Dean of Students. He now remains the Dean of Students. And is also now, I believe in the Provost office. And there was Bennett Goldberg, who is at Northwestern University now. When I started, he was the Chair of Physics and the Director of the Center for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology…this actually comes back to nanomedicine and nanotechnology. He was the Director for the Center for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology. And Joyce Wong was an Associate Director when I first arrived at BU. She stepped away from that role to get much more involved in some other advocacy efforts on campus. But they embraced me and brought me into nanoscience and nanotechnology. And Bennett…his goal was to find an ally. Bennett sort of, in a very systematic approach…he recognized and knew what it took to get tenure and to be recognized and sort of accepted from the larger community. It comes with titles and t comes with positions. And so, he asked me fairly early on would I like to be an Associate Director for the Center for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology. Right? I might’ve been in my third year…third or fourth year. And I said, “Certainly. I’m not sure what exactly is required of me, but it sounds like a fantastic opportunity.” He also asked me to do more…to increase the connections between BU’s main campus and the medical campus. Which was…there was a physical separation of about three miles or something like that. And so, I went over to the medical campus on a regular basis. But he was giving me opportunities to be seen by other people as well as giving me a titled position that would suggest that I’m in a position of authority. Whether it’s true or not…often times it’s just a perception.
Right. That is important. And so, he gave me those opportunities. And I still value him and he’s white and Jewish, from the Northeast, I think originally. He’s at Northwestern University now, but he continues to advocate and promote for persons of color and women in the sciences. I have a lot of respect for him.
As a proposition, coming into BU and being motivated by having that larger platform. By having the opportunity to affect that change on a more macro level, right? Obviously this is not a laboratory environment where you can precisely measure progress. But I wonder if you can give a sense of what were some of the feedback mechanisms that you were getting that encouraged you and told you that you had made a decision and you were forming alliances and you were doing work that really was moving the needle on a societal scale? How were you assessing those ways that progress that you were envisioning was actually playing out and was not just, you know, tokenism? Or a perception thing? How did you know that this was real movement that you were a part of?
So, throughout my academic career I’ve gotten…I’ve had the microaggressions. So, I’ve gotten the signals that you know, are associated with certain stereotypes and biases. So, I have certainly gotten those signals. There certainly has been some tokenism where I’m one of the few Black faculty members in STEM and in particular, more specifically, within engineering and so being asked to serve on certain committees, that certainly happens. Or certainly happened when I was at BU. I suspect it will continue to happen while I’m here at The University of Texas at Austin. I accept invitations to committees where I feel like I can provide…I can contribute the most and that also seem to be maybe the most impactful. Especially at this point in my career. Can have larger systemic impact rather than something that is maybe on a smaller scale. I look for those opportunities now. But at that point in time when I was in the early phases of my career, I really looked to the students. The cues that I got came more from the students than from colleagues. I was focused on helping students, exposing them to research, raising their awareness of opportunities in graduate school but also beyond that. Discussing why they should pursue a graduate degree. How is this going to be beneficial for their career? Having those conversations with the students. Additionally, sort of helping the students foster a community as well as identifying with a particular discipline or field. Seeing themselves as an electrical engineer or a biomedical engineer or someone who’s in nanomedicine. And this was men and women, students of color, as well as white students. But I certainly will say, I deliberately and proactively pursued students of color and women to somehow try to serve as a role model. So, that would mean going to Women in Science and Engineering events, just so that they know that they have a ally. Right? The positive reinforcement would come from getting continued invitations to those activities. They’re going to be selective. I mean they’re not gonna send these invitations for some of their activities and events to just everybody. Some of them they’re gonna identify well, yes. Professor Porter or Professor Wong or Professor Roy. They’ve come to our events in the past, right? And they…students talk amongst themselves, right? They discuss faculty that are willing to advocate and support them so they recommend faculty to younger students known to provide really good mentoring or write a really strong letter of recommendation. So, the positive reinforcement, the signals, and the cues mainly came from the students. Mainly. And most of my efforts at that point in time in my career, once again, just based on my position. I only have…my sphere of influence was limited early in my career. That’s true for I would say most junior faculty. So, I was really focused. Razor sharp focused on the students. I did get…so I mentioned that I got some of the microaggressions and you hear about the biases. But I also got some positive reinforcements from a few faculty and Dean Lutchen. So, the biomedical engineering department has a unique senior capstone project structure…undergraduate students work in small teams of two or three students. It might have grown to four by now, just because they have such a large senior class. But initially when I started it was just one or two students that would work together. And the concept of a project was proposed by a faculty, and then that faculty member would work with the students to achieve their goals and their aims. I have heard on more than one occasion from Dean Lutchen and from faculty like Irving Bigio or Joyce Wong. Also John White is the chair of the BME department now and a few other faculty members in the BME department. I have been told, “Your students, they seem to really enjoy being in lab. They enjoy what they’re doing. And they do a really good job.” “When they present. We can tell. Or I can tell that you spend time mentoring them and supporting them and nurturing them, so they can be successful.” Unfortunately, not every faculty member makes that a priority. And so, it was a positive reinforcement from more senior colleagues that what you’re doing does matter. And in addition to that, you’re helping and supporting some of our students of color, so they’re having a more positive experience when they’re here at Boston University. I did get those cues. But like I said, I also received microaggressions and some other cues that would suggest that you’re spending too much time away from your research. In order to get promoted and to get all of the accolades and the awards you need to be much more focused on your research. I certainly got some of that as well. And that still exists.
Now, on the research side of things. When you got to BU, what kind of support did you get in terms of building the lab that would be designed to find the answers that were most compelling to you, you know, for your own expanding research agenda?
What kind of support did I get?
Yeah. Like in other words, how well were you able to communicate, here are the questions that I’m most interested in and here’s the equipment and the environment that I’m gonna need to pursue that research. What kind of support did you get as you were engaged in those discussions?
So, do you…I’m gonna ask a question. I just…I had to ask this question of you. Do you know how academia works?
In regards to accruing resources?
[laugh] I know it’s not easy.
Yeah. What normally happens is you have to be in the position to negotiate. You need to have some leverage. And any faculty member is probably going to be in the strongest position for negotiating when they’re negotiating their startup package when they were being recruited or there’s efforts to retain them. That’s when you have the most leverage. Usually. Now certainly as my research interests expanded, as my laboratory grew, I certainly went and asked for more resources. And because I guess, one of the positive reinforcements and cues that I did get was that I was a valued citizen.
Because…[sigh]. I really strived to excel…so for faculty members we are being judged and evaluated in three areas. Research and scholarly pursuits and productivity, teaching, and service. I strived to excel at all three levels. I won’t say I excelled at all three levels simultaneously. Some years I did better in the research space than I did in the teaching space. It’s hard to excel in all concurrently because each can be a full time job.
Each of those three individual things can be a full time job. Which is why if you’re an administrator like a chair or a dean, which is service to the university, usually that impacts your research output.
So, it’s hard to excel at all three simultaneously. But I strive to excel at all three. And I think because of that, I had some political capital that I could use in order to expand or get more resources. Accrue more resources.
Yeah. I guess I’m asking, you know, if it was appreciated that there was a duality to your endeavor. In other words, you want to make a positive impact in so far as racial justice is concerned, but you’re there at BU in your capacity as a scientist, right? So, the science—
—is where you’re going to make the impact. So, the duality question is, was it appreciated among your allies, among your academic colleagues, and academic administrators, that your success in the research realm would translate to success in terms of making the academic environment more inclusive and equitable? I guess that’s what I’m asking in that regard.
[inhale] Um. I don’t know if that would be true. I think…[sigh] I don’t know if the leaders of the university recognize it in that way. And you ask a really good question. And it’s one of these points that I’m going make during this webinar when I present. There’s a tax. And I might’ve mentioned this term at our first interview. There’s a tax to being the one, the only, or one of the few. And there’s particularly a tax if you have passions or you have interests beyond the research—
—enterprise. A person of color often times, especially a Black faculty member, oftentimes we feel there is a social responsibility to be an ambassador. To be a role model for the students of color that are at the institutions. I think that’s a generalization that you can apply to the majority of faculty of color and faculty who are Black at American Universities. So, I think what you’re asking is…is there a connection between research productivity and success making STEM more inclusive? Do they feed off of each other? Is there synergy? Is there synergy between the two? I don’t think the leaders look at it in that manner or in that fashion. I think there were leaders who were saying, “You know what? Tyrone has worked hard to be successful. And so, at the very least, we could give him some latitude to pursue these other interests.” Right? As well as, “You know what? He is actually contributing to making this a much more equitable and inclusive environment. And so, therefore, we should find ways to make sure that he continues to be successful with his research.” So, that could mean supporting a student. And that’s actually what happens with those who take on chair positions. They just don’t have the time to dedicate to the research. So, they negotiate for a postdoctoral fellow or a senior scientist in order to keep the research engine running. That’s kind of the mindset of universities. How the university system and the politics kind of work. But it is true that…and this has been shown by the somewhat more progressive companies that are out there…if you have someone who is satisfied personally, not only in their personal space outside of work, but personally within the company, they can actually be much more successful and be much more impactful for the company. That is something that companies, particularly in the western parts of the US, who have paid leave and longer maternity leaves for women, you know? They have recognized that that improves well-being. And so, if you’re a happier person, you potentially are going to be a more productive person at the company. That hasn’t necessarily hit universities yet.
I won’t say it has. But it needs to. I should say, it’s beginning to. You’re starting to see that conversation because you’re starting to hear about higher suicide rates amongst undergraduate students. You’re hearing about students struggling and stressed by the financial burden. They’re graduating from school drowning in debt and that has an impact on your well-being. Your emotional and mental well-being. And that ultimately has an impact on you physically and your productivity at the work space. So, that’s starting to be discussed and hopefully it will be addressed. But when I was junior faculty I won’t say that the leaders looked at it through that lens and said, “You know what? If Tyrone is happier because he is pursuing one of his passions, which is to diversify STEM, we need to support him as best we can in that endeavor. That’s gonna lead him to be a more productive…as a researcher. Or if we give him more supplies to do research, he is going to be much more effective in the DEI space.” I don’t think they connected those two spaces. Right? And that the duality of my personality and my interests…they didn’t necessarily bridge that. That will require [sigh]…to be honest people who are a little more observant. Who are a little more open-minded. And I think a little more…they’re in a space where they’re able to expand their understanding and their perception of how people operate within their own space. Instead of how are they playing within the system that is already established. Right? I did to some extent look to operate within the system cause I knew that was what was required to continue to have upward mobility within the system. But I understood that the system is inherently flawed. [laugh] And so, I have to demonstrate…let me paint it this way. I’ll paint this a little bit differently. Cause it’s a very long winded answer. You asked a very complex question.
That needs a complex answer.
It needs a complex answer. So…[sigh] I have a history of doing this. And I don’t know how this fits into this oral history and archive with regards to physics, but when I was a graduate student…there’s a perception that Black students, Black individuals are not necessarily intelligent. There is a bias and a stereotype that if you look a certain way in particular, not just only by the color of your skin, but if you listen to certain kinds of music, or if you dress a certain way, you’re probably not a Rhodes Scholar. You know what I mean? You’re probably not someone who’s going to be a valedictorian for your school. I intentionally took advantage of those biases. As well as tried to…tried to get people to look past those biases. So, taking advantage of it means that when I walk into a room and it’s a STEM conference or it’s a STEM class, I’m the only Black male in the room who’s dressing like LL Cool J. Maybe by your age…I might be making an assumption, but he used to—
I’m with you. I’m with you. [laugh]
—he used to wear the one pants leg rolled up, right? It was one leg that was rolled up. I did that. Right?
But I listened to hip hop and that was part of the hip hop persona. I walk into a room, I’m the only person that’s…I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody in graduate school when I was in University of Washington, that would dress that way!
But the perception is that engineers don’t dress that way. So, when I walk into a room, you can’t help but take notice that I just walked into a room. And at the same time, I’m going to change how you perceive people who dress that way and look that way. Because when I start acing the test, you’re gonna have to say, “Okay. He actually is smart. He actually does know what he’s doing. He actually does belong here.” So, I took that to its highest point as a graduate student. The state of Washington has what was known as Initiative 200, which was an anti-affirmative action billed passed by the state. It basically said, we cannot use race as a factor in making decisions in hiring for state positions or admissions for state institutions of higher learning like University of Washington. The students were outraged and so, I became a student activist. And I started going to some of the Board of Regents meetings, which is the governing body for the university. They actually are the bosses of the university president. The president answers to somebody. The board represents the citizens of the state. The president actually answers to the board of regents or the board of trustees depending upon the university. The board is required to hold public meetings since it is a state institution. Anyone that’s a citizen of a state or a student of the university can go to the open meetings. I would go to those meetings and I would intentionally dress as if I was going to a hip hop concert. Because once again, I wanted you to know I was in the room. But it’s ineffective if I also don’t make an intellectual contribution to the meeting or the discussion. So, I would look at the posted agenda beforehand. I would educate myself on the issues and I would go with a probing or critical question that would force them to actually think about the question. So, I’m gonna enter the room dressed as somebody who historically has been perceived as…let’s call it what it is…a hood or a criminal. And I’m going to ask you a question that’s gonna make you actually question the validity of whatever is happening within the room. First and foremost, students don’t do that. Right? Students probably don’t even know about these meetings and certainly aren’t going to take the time to prepare themselves to go into the room and participate in the conversation. And secondly, the board is going to think ‘we just got bulldogged by someone who looks like he shouldn’t even be on the campus.’ So, that actually…so, the biggest positive reinforcement that I got to answer an earlier question that you asked, that what I was doing did matter. At my graduation, the Board of Regents were on the stage. The board had about 12 members. I would say at least half of them walked over and either hugged me or shook my hand personally. The Dean of Engineering shook my hand personally. The President of the Student Government hugged me. Personally. This is in front of thousands of people at the graduation. That was probably the most impactful signal…in terms of positive reinforcement…that I ever received. And we’re talking about very influential people. I’ll give you a couple…I’ll give you positions. The founder of Costco…Brotman I think was his last name. Also Bill Gates’s father, who was one of the most well respected lawyers in the United States. The head of Delta Airlines. Sally Jewell who became the Secretary of the Interior for President Barack Obama. These are individuals on the stage shaking my hand. We’re not talking about just your average person. These are influencers and people in high positions of authority. And they all did something that I think is probably one of the most infrequent actions for a board of regents to ever do. They normally just sit in the back, you know, walk on stage, oversee the proceeding, and then leave. No. They intentionally, deliberately…because they wanted the rest of the world to see that they respected me and were proud of me and that what I had done over the years out at University of Washington mattered.
That a Black person and what they contributed to the university, mattered. That action let me know that I could not suppress that desire and that passion as I continued to move through my career. That was probably one of the most impactful moments for me other than my students’ appreciation and successes. The notes that I’ve received from them and the successes that they have had in their careers and their lives. The love I received from the Board of Regents was a watershed moment for me. It said that I needed to continue on this pathway and I needed to try to equally dedicate time, energy, bandwidth…to this passion. And this initiative. And this lifelong pursuit as much as the scientific pursuit. So I was going to do it whether the university where I was working valued the effort or not. Whether they recognized or not my dual role at the university, the division of my effort between science and racial equality.
But of course, you’re doing it within the context of the scientific pursuit because you’re a scientist and that’s the capacity in which you’re being employed. And so, Tyrone, I want to ask—
—on that point. As you get your sea legs at BU. As you get your lab up and running. As you figure out the kinds of courses you’re teaching. What are the research questions that are most compelling to you at this point early in your career at BU? What are the things that you want to investigate? What are the problems that you feel best positioned to sort of take on when you get to BU and you start to really get your research agenda up and running?
Yeah. At that point in time, biomedical ultrasound was used mainly for diagnostic applications. You know, diagnostic ultrasound imaging. Therapeutic applications of ultrasound were in their infancy. Not to say that there weren’t people working in the area. But what was predominantly funded, what was predominantly studied and explored at university laboratories, as well as what had been translated, was diagnostic applications.
And just to understand this. What you’re saying is ultrasound, at this point, is built to see a problem but not necessarily help heal a health malady?
Yes. Absolutely. So, capturing images for clinicians…enabling them to see into the body. To see and diagnose a medical condition. But not necessarily treat the disease.
That’s absolutely right. That’s absolutely right. So, that’s how biomedical ultrasound was predominantly used at the time. While I was in grad school. I got introduced to the idea of using it for treatment by my Ph.D. adviser, Larry Crum. And so, when I joined his group, I was already interested in ultrasound. And that came from my summer research experience at Duke University, which I had mentioned and discussed earlier. While I was at Duke University…and they still to this day have a very strong diagnostic ultrasound group and research effort at the university…I got introduced to diagnostic ultrasound as well as biomedical ultrasound in general. And so, I certainly wanted my dissertation work to more or less be in biomedical ultrasound—because I was coming from electrical engineering and it was a natural transition for me into biomedical engineering. So, Larry Crum was proposing the idea of using ultrasound for sealing internal cuts, internal bleeds. And this goes back to that Star Trek reference that I had mentioned—
—at our first interview. Where Dr. McCoy takes his tricorder or his little device…images or diagnoses where the problem is, pushes another button and then you’re just magically healed. That was the science fiction kind of pathway or platform that Larry Crum was proposing and then pursuing. He wanted to do something very similar. Diagnostic ultrasound can do a pretty good job of seeing where the internal bleed is, and then you just press a different button and it changes the parameters of the pulse or the transmitted power. You transmit with higher power or longer pulse. But it changes the transmitted ultrasound wave in such a fashion that it basically cauterizes and seals the wound. It’s more or less probably temporary, but a lot of people die because they bleed out.
Right? They have a bad internal bleed and hopefully you get them to the hospital and the surgeon can find the cut and the bleed, and then seal it before they bleed out. But, his vision was to be able to temporarily close the bleed. Seal the bleed such that you increase the chance for the person to survive the injury. So, they can get to the hospital and hopefully, find and close…permanently close the cut or the bleed. So, that peaked my interest with therapeutic ultrasound. When I got to Boston University, the field was advancing. There were more research projects in that space. It was growing and I wanted to help push it further because I had been trained as a multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary scientist. I had been trained in biomaterials; I had been trained in nanotechnology; I had been trained in nanomedicine. And I knew what ultrasound could do. I knew that ultrasound could change the pressure and the temperature locally in the body. So, one of my initial high priorities was to figure out how to make nanoparticles that were responsive to changes in pressure and or temperature. And then use ultrasound in order to actually achieve that change in the local pressure or temperature. That was my goal. And that’s what I wrote my research statement on. That’s what I pitched to Boston University. Fortunately, they believed me because it was still a fairly new idea. And it was not…I won’t say it was crystal clear who was going to fund…which external agencies were going to fund and support those ideas. As well as, where am I going to go to present? Because the Biomedical Engineering Society was still fairly young. It’s a fairly large organization now and the national meeting is pretty large now. When I was in graduate school the Biomedical Engineering Society meetings were probably less than a thousand people?
The International Society for Therapeutic Ultrasound had just started when I was in grad school…I think it was the year before I graduated. There was a meeting in Seattle and I think there were maybe 50 people in attendance? Definitely less than a hundred.
And so, universities are interested in who’s going to potentially have the largest national profile? Who works in an area of research that is going to garner and capture the largest attention, the largest audience? And if you have to ask that question about any particular research idea, they might say…[sound of hesitation] “We don’t know if we’re that interested in your work because we don’t think you’re gonna be able to be as successful. Or you’re not gonna be able to raise the profile for the university the way we want.”
The danger there is that you’re so multidisciplinary, you don’t really know where to focus your energy and you end up going nowhere.
And I’ve run into that pitfall a little bit. I mean as a graduate student, I will say I struggled a little bit with my identity scientifically. Am I am an acoustician? Am I a biomaterials person? Am I a biophysics person? Cause the biophysics community was more established.
Am I an engineer? What am I? Who am I?
Early in the career, yes, that’s a little bit dangerous. Because who writes the letters in support of your promotion and of your tenure generally come from a well-defined, well established field, historically.
And even before you get to those questions about tenure, right? When you’re asking all of these existential questions about what kind of scientist am I? You have to be able to pigeon hole that into an open faculty position. Right? And so, at BU, what was the position in terms of how you carved out your space in terms of the kind of science you wanted to do? If you were to ask yourself all of those questions. Am I an engineer? Am I a biophysicist? Am I doing acoustics? Right? The position that you filled…did you feel like you needed to limit yourself relative to what that position was stated to be? Or could you grow within a fairly wide open position as it was defined by the university?
No. This is where the…that some of the faculty members that I had mentioned earlier who were people that had been supportive. This is where they certainly, I would say, came into play.
So, my primary appointment was in mechanical engineering. But my Ph.D. is in bioengineering. And so, those who were on the search committee, those who were supportive of hiring me as a faculty member, they recognized that the research projects I had proposed, the research vision that I had, it was fundamentally still multidisciplinary. And the advocates saw my hire as a way to increase or deepen the connection with the biomedical engineering department. And I certainly interviewed and pitched myself as a person that could serve as that connection and that bridge between departments. There were a couple of faculty who were doing that already. But they were interested in trying to strengthen that connection and expand the research portfolio for the mechanical engineering department. You know, broaden the research themes and tracks for the department. They were continuing to think about how to grow the department. How can we evolve? How can we expand? And the funding for NIH and for biomedical medicine, the biomedical sciences had grown significantly. I would say when Bill Clinton was elected as president in the early ‘90s, the funding for biomedical sciences started to really ramp up.
It exploded, to be honest. It really did.
Yeah. NIH…I think its budget doubled in the 1990s.
It was astronomical.
Right? And in the early phases, I wanna even say it might even have been exponential. It was not linear.
Right? It was somewhat steady, maybe even flatlined for a little bit in the mid to late ‘80s. And then it just took off with Clinton in the White House…and he also did it for NSF. He opened the purse strings and increased their budgets. Some of the faculty in mechanical engineering at BU saw the opportunity to try to strengthen the connection with biomedical engineering. And also, potentially to be able to expand the type of student that they could recruit for the graduate programs. You know, begin to diversify from an academic background and research interest perspective. So, I certainly positioned myself for that role, but also the folks who were on the search committee and were already faculty members were supportive of that and they championed my case. And I would say, that was part of the reason I was hired. But the university and engineering in particular was beginning to become much more deliberate in hiring faculty of color. So, it was the combination of the two that I think piqued the interest of the senior leadership.
Tyrone, beyond your immediate academic circle, given what you were looking to accomplish…I wonder who needed to be sort of in your orbit as collaborators, you know, beyond these particular fields. For example, are you looking at the FDA in terms of devices and how to get things improved? Approved, I should say. Are you looking beyond the wider world of acoustics, for example? Are you talking with medical doctors about the kinds of things that they need in a clinical environment? Beyond these academic appointments that you have, who might’ve been some of the key industries or collaborators that would’ve been necessary for you to achieve what you were looking to do?
Yeah, so. I certainly…to be honest, that was one of the attractive aspects of Boston. Boston has multiple research-intensive academic hospitals. There are clinicians and doctors who also have active research programs, and they are looking to collaborate with faculty from academic institutions, like a Boston University or an MIT or a Harvard or Northeastern. They’re looking to have those relationships. So, that’s very attractive for Boston. It allowed me to expand and broaden my network and introduce myself and my expertise and what I can bring to research projects led by other people. So, as you know there’s a high density also of universities. And very successful universities. And I’ve mentioned just a few already.
There’s also a tech startup culture in Boston.
And that has grown.
That has grown. I think that I would say there always had been tech startups in the Boston area. But not long after I’d started…I’m trying to remember…Kendall Square in Cambridge. There was even more investment in Kendall Square for incubators and startup companies that were coming out of research laboratories at MIT. I would say in large part, but some from Harvard as well. And larger companies started to pay attention to that and started to open up offices, right. For example, the medical division for Philips now has an office in Boston, in Cambridge, which didn’t exist when I started at Boston University in 2006. So, certainly if you’re interested in translation, things that could be potentially patentable, that line of research…the opportunities grew while I was at Boston University to pursue that line of research and that line of work. I went to meetings, conferences, and networking events to try to broaden and expand my network. I would say I started in a clinical space. I started in the clinical space first, more than anything else. And then really became more deliberate in the academic space. I did feel like the clinical space was a little harder to capture attention because they’re clinicians. I mean, they’re taking care of patients. So, it’s a little harder to get some traction. But at the same time, the work that I was doing…was in a lot of ways motivated by clinical need and I wanted to better understand the clinical need. I also wanted to understand what would resonate with the clinician who potentially would be the end user for the benefit of the patient. But I’m certainly not going to the hospital to treat the patient. So, I need to make some connections with those who would.
Yeah, so on that point, Tyrone. What were your access points to determining clinical need? Were you going to medical conferences? Were you reading journals? Did you have friends in the field? What were your access points that helped you define what the clinical needs were and how your own body of expertise would be able to address them?
So, I would say, probably…so, conferences? Yes and no. Especially not early in my career. But reading journals, reading articles was one. I started to read and pay closer attention to the New England Journal of Medicine. A lot more than I did when I was a graduate student. There’s the Journal of Clinical Investigation. There’s a number of clinical cancer research journals. I certainly started to read the papers published in the clinically oriented journals more. In addition to that, I went over…I mentioned earlier that Bennett Goldberg, who was the director for the Center for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology…CNN, by the way. [laugh] It’s not fake news.
When he asked me to serve as an associate director for CNN. I was already beginning to go over to Boston Medical Center and Boston University School of Medicine. So he asked if I would even expand my efforts...increase my efforts. And I said, “Certainly.” So, I did. We also had a seed funding mechanism, and one of the requirements was a collaborative project. You had to have someone from the medical campus and one person from the Charles River campus. So, one of my roles as associate director was to go over and talk to the clinicians and clinician scientists to make sure that they were aware of opportunities like the seed funding. Doing that also expanded my base and increased my network. In addition to spending time at Boston Medical, I was fortunate to have a working relationship with the Chair of Radiology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. This was the result of an opportunity that ultimately was not as successful as we had hoped. We wanted to create a training program in imaging between Radiology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Boston University College of Engineering. That was the goal. And the Chair of Radiology viewed it as a real opportunity because he was very interested in having engineering students participate in clinically motivated and oriented research. He looked at that as a real opportunity. He and I really kind of hit it off working on this idea. And so, I started to go over regularly…got my name added to the grand rounds as well as the seminar series for the radiology department. And I would just venture over to Brigham and Women’s Hospital just to be in that space. Ask questions and network. I even got invited to his retirement. Now I’m gonna sidetrack here just for a moment because I wanna revisit this…I want to revisit sort of racial inequality, just for a moment.
So, he retired during fall or maybe the wintertime I believe of 2016. What happened in 2016? It was the Presidential election, which was very contentious…and it sort of reminded us of [pause]…the sort of racial hatred that had gone underground for many, many years was reawakening. And so that campaign period was very unpleasant. And the chair stepped down for the position after November 3rd... after Super Tuesday. And I went to the celebration held in his honor. I had been in Boston for some time period now. And being in academia for some time…if you’re playing by the rules, you can become…what’s the best way to describe this? You can become a little…[sigh] your awareness to the fact that maybe you’re the only person in the room is not as heightened. The longer you’re the only person in the room it just becomes the norm. But when our current President was elected…because of the campaign, it reminded me that I was the only person in the room. That I was the only Black faculty member in my department and one of the few in the entire College of Engineering.
Yeah. Everything is more amped up as a result of the election, you’re saying?
Yes. And our current President does that intentionally.
Yeah. Sure. No doubt.
He intentionally does. He says things, he does things, to insert chaos into normalcy. And sanity. Right? It’s something that he does and oftentimes, sometimes, he creates a problem, fixes the problem, and then takes credit for fixing the problem without acknowledging—
[laugh] He created the problem.
—he created the problem
It’s one of his skills that works very effectively. He’s very effective at that. So, just based on the rhetoric and the campaign and a lot of what was going on and bubbling up to the surface, racism and racial animosity was coming back above ground. Like you said, it heightened my sense and awareness of being the only person in the room. So, when the Chair of Radiology—his name is Steve Seltzer—when he stepped down, he invited me to the celebration to honor his service. And I was…I might have been the only person from BU…and this was also another one of those positive reinforcements to continue and work to make connections as a Black man. That’s one thing that I probably excel at. More than my research. More than my teaching. I connect with people. Seltzer and I had this connection established through constant communication and discussion. We had common interests in advancing imaging and also trying to diversify imaging. We had common interests in achieving that goal. And so, he invited me to the party and I went, which was over at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. It was in very sort of…the space that it was in was appropriate for celebrating his transition…stepping down from being chair and going back to being a doctor and a clinician. He was relinquishing his administrative responsibilities. When I walked into the room, [pause] and looked around, I mean I was the only Black face in the entire room other than one of his family members. In addition to that, I was the only person from Boston University in the room. So, I was the only on two accords, and it heightened my awareness to the need for more Black faculty. More faculty of color that are pushing the envelope in increasing awareness across many, many fields and disciplines.
Tyrone, at what point do you start to take these interests into a more institutional setting? In other words, you started out at BU with very well formed ideas about where and how you could make an impact. But to fast forward to where we’ve been in the past six months, you have taken that to a much larger platform. So, can you talk a little bit about how you made that transition to get more people involved? To get people involved at an institutional level? How did that happen at BU?
So, two things changed. The first was Boston university, I would say, became much more intentional.
They had a new strategic vision. Diversifying and increasing and creating a more equitable environment became a part of their strategic goals for the university. They hired an Associate Provost for Graduate Affairs. His name is Daniel Kleinman. Came from the University of Wisconsin. Signed on in 2017, I believe. They also hired a chief diversity officer. And I believe this was at the Associate Provost level. Associate Provost for Diversity and Inclusion for the university. It was the first chief diversity officer at that level for Boston University, where it was the sole responsibility for that senior leader. First time, as far as I know, in the history of the university. So, there was a signal that the university was committing more resources at the institutional level. Whereas in the past, as I mentioned earlier, individual departments…it was kind of left up to the departments to sort of create their own strategic vison and dedicate and commit their own resources. There was much more intent at the university level, at the institution level. So, Daniel Kleinman recognized the scope of the challenge, of trying to transform graduate education through the lens of racial equality.
And what year is this? What are we talking about now?
OK. So relatively recently. And connected to The White House. I mean, the larger national trends are very much a part of this story.
Not yet. I would say faculty at Boston University certainly were heightened to the racial divisiveness of the rhetoric coming out of the White House. I would say what probably called people’s attention the most was Charlottesville.
Charlottesville and the response from The White House administration…I would say it started to galvanize and I would say started to get faculty and senior leaders a little more proactive, right. It was…people were alarmed. People were appalled. And people started to say…started to look around and say, “You know what? It’s a systemic problem. Are we part of the problem?” Those conversations started to happen more frequently. They were…I would say they were kind of always simmering. They were always sort of on simmer. And I would say there was a bit of infusion of energy when Barack Obama was President. But the activity kind of ramped up, I would say, after Charlottesville. Charlottesville was just…it was disgusting. And a lot of my colleagues absolutely felt that way. So.
And scary. Not just disgusting. But scary.
Very scary. It was alarming. It was very alarming. And so, certainly what was going on in the national stage was prominent. And people were aware. But I think Daniel already had this mindset when he arrived. And the university, if I recall, cause I remember when…Crystal Williams is the chief diversity officer. I remember when she was being recruited and I believe she came for an interview and her visit before Super Tuesday, 2016. And so, the university was already beginning to commit more resources toward diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts and initiatives and create or enable positions to drive and spearhead those initiatives. I would say they were already moving in that direction. It just, it came much more urgent because of the scary environment that was becoming much more apparent on the national stage, right? And the obviousness of things that had been…once again, had gone underground. People were being emboldened. And so, yes, what was happening on the national stage certainly was recognized and acknowledged. So, Daniel appointed two Faculty Fellows for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Graduate Education. And before that point, what I was doing with regards to DEI efforts were, I would say, much more at the department level. Sometimes college wide for the College of Engineering, but that generally was through participation in graduate school affairs and trying to recruit students of color. So, it was on a smaller scale. Part of that is because I had limited resources and limited time. I had limited capacity to do something on a larger scale. That all changed with the Faculty Fellow position, that was supported by…financially backed and supported from the Provost office and there also was some staff support. So, we could do more. But also, now I have a position with a title, and as I mentioned earlier, faculty listen, acknowledge, and respect titles. They just do. It’s just…it’s ingrained in our DNA. It’s just how we operate. And so now I have a title. It’s a university-wide title. People will recognize or pay more attention to that. I can come into a room in this position that’s on a university wide scale and command attention. I began to take advantage of that and really began to think about cultural and institutional transformation rather than just department transformation or a lab-based transformation. Things began to get scaled up. Ok? Now, move to 2020, ok? And you can actually even possibly walk that back to 2018-2019. You started to see reports of unarmed Black citizens that are succumbing to police brutality. For some reason, I don’t know why, it seemed to have exploded in 2020. George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Rayshard Brooks, who was in Atlanta. The video evidence of Javier Ambler. He was killed in 2019. Was being chased by cops for having his high beams on. They stopped him and they end up more or less suffocating him. And so, he died in a lot of ways similar to Eric Garner did back in NYC. And also similar to George Floyd. For seemingly minor offenses…minor offenses. Driving with high beams. A counterfeit $20 bill. Or suspected of passing counterfeit $20 bills. Breonna Taylor…the no-knock warrant. I was talking with my wife about this. Did they actually do their due diligence to make sure that was the right house? That the person that they were pursuing was actually in that house. Right? Just killing her in her sleep. Right? So, these atrocities. They seem to be…the incidence rate seems to be increasing, and it all comes to a boiling point, I would say, with George Floyd. Because this is not new to me. I know of unarmed Black people being gunned down or killed by police officers. It’s…it’s—I’m going have to say it. I’m sorry I have to say it. You can edit it out if you want to. It’s as American as apple pie. It’s built into the country’s DNA. Right? The police agencies…policing itself originated as slave patrols, right, during slavery. That’s how policing got started. So, it’s not new to me. But when you see a person as being…that was killed in this sort of passively violent manner…like George Floyd. Knee on the back of the neck and the spine for almost nine minutes. You cannot ignore that. Crying for his mother. Constantly saying that, “I can’t breathe.” And the police officer is sort of laughing that off as, ‘Well, then just don’t talk.’ You just…it’s so—you can’t ignore that. Right? It’s…unless you just don’t have a heart. Right? Charlottesville was somewhat…I would say, Charlottesville lit a match. This might be the best way to describe it for what we’re seeing in the United States right now. In my opinion, Charlottesville…the election of Trump pulled the match out. Charlottesville lit the match. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, poured gasoline on the fire. So, now it’s like burning down the whole nation. And so, you see all of the protests. And I’ll be honest, when you know the history – this is part of the cultural tax that I have to burden, that I have to carry – when you know the history, when you’re aware of the history. And you have to go to work and suppress the emotions that you have in response to these atrocities, in response to the violence, in response to the constant police brutality. And knowing that the system is designed to enable it. The number of police officers who have been convicted before this year is maybe one. Who have been charged, I should say. It’s maybe one through all of the years of police brutality against Black people, which has to tell you that the system enables and supports the police brutalizing Black people. You cannot argue against that. Because if the system wouldn’t allow it, more police would be charged, and more police would be convicted. At the very least, just to deter it so it never happens again. But it doesn’t happen. They’re protected. The qualified immunity policy…the police are protected from paying for their crimes against Black people. So, fast forward to finish out how I got to where I am today. Cause I feel like I have to carry you through why I’m as passionate as I am now as I’ve probably ever been. So, after George Floyd, I could not as I have…and many of us have done in the past, suppress that anger. I just felt like [pause] I, in a lot of ways was contributing to the problems. Because I’m not proactively and deliberately trying to be part of the solution.
And that’s what you hear one of the chants, from the protest, you hear the chant “silence is violence.” Because you’re enabling the perpetuation and you’re sustaining the violence. And so, I felt like I could no longer be quiet about this. Many of my peers who are faculty of color, we’re asking ourselves…cause we’re in the middle of a pandemic, as well. So, is it safe to go to these protests? If we go to the protest, should we just go to one protest? And we’re upset and acknowledging the police brutality and the systemic racism that exists within policing. But we all recognize that the systemic racism and the racial injustice and the racial inequities exist in academics as well. It exists in STEM. It’s not as if it’s not known. What has not happened in the past is a public acknowledgment to what is known. There was this public acknowledgment in the #ShutDownSTEM that was part of the social media effort that allowed people to help drive the conversation that did not exist 20-30 years ago. So, if you’re trying to drive that conversation 30 years ago, it was easier for those in a position of authority or power to shut that down. Or to speak louder than you. So, you literally get drowned out. That’s not the existence that we live in today. And I began to have a better appreciation for that as I got more involved and more engaged and more active in the social media, on Twitter, participating in webinars. So, back to the cultural tax. The Acoustical Society of America has recognized it has a diversity issue. It has done a lot of work to make improvements with regards to gender diversity. Gender equity…a lot of work. And I acknowledge and give them full credit for that. They have recognized that with regards to racial diversity, they still struggle. This is something that I have seen on the academic side, at universities. If you speak up to state a problem, that generally means you’re volunteering yourself to help lead the effort to resolve the problem. [laugh] So, faculty oftentimes will remain silent because they don’t want to passively volunteer [laugh] to lead an effort. That’s pretty typical in academic settings and academic faculty meetings. A lot of faculty won’t say a whole lot because if I say too much, the chair will be like, “Oh! Do you want to form a committee and you know, take the lead on helping?” So, ASA…I did not want to raise the issue too frequently without the Society being at a point where it could genuinely and seriously pursue rectifying the issue. Does that make sense?
It’s very similar to Boston University. I did what I did on a smaller scale because if I try to do things on a larger scale and the resources are not there, I’m basically set up to fail or burn out. And burnout happens. Oftentimes people burnout while failing, and I didn’t want to do that. So, Boston University and Daniel Kleinman gave me a platform to do things on an institutional level that let me know what was possible. And what was needed and required from other institutions in order to be successful and to be effective. And so, June 10th, #ShutDownSTEM…a lot of my colleagues and peers…as I mentioned, I didn’t raise the issue of lack of diversity within the ASA too frequently. I knew the few people that recognized it, acknowledged it, advocated for it. They tended to be in the minority. George Floyd brought out all of the…it was like the silent majority. It brought out a lot of people who I feel like have been willing, but not necessarily actively engaged in trying to improve things within the ASA with regards to diversity and equity. So, the #ShutDownSTEM event…I sent out an invitation after talking with…the president of the ASA is Diane Kewley-Port. So, she and I talked via email and I think we talked on the phone once. And I said, “You know, there are a lot of people that are asking what can I do as a scholar and a academic? What can we do?” So, now we’ve gone through the pandemic. Everyone is having virtual meetings. We’re much more comfortable with having virtual meetings. They’re actually really constructive, and people actively engage. These types of meetings once again, that didn’t necessarily exist pre-pandemic. So, during #ShutDownSTEM ASA members and I had a Zoom meeting. I shared things with peers who I don’t think ever knew some of the things I experienced in my lifetime that were racially motivated. Right? Which includes being harassed at a grocery store while shopping at the start of a high school summer research experience. Had just arrived in a new city. First time I’ve been in this city. I don’t want to call the city by name. First time I’ve been in this city. It’s a predominantly white city. The research experience program had been set up for Black high school students. We all go to the grocery store at the same time. For some reason an employee for the store calls the cops. As we’re leaving the store, the cops ask to see our receipts for proof that we purchased everything that was in our bags. Why does he have to do that? We’re here for a professional opportunity and you’re treating us as if we’re hoodlums. You’re treating us as if we’re criminals. First day! Haven’t even been in the city for more than 12 hours.
Welcome! Exactly! [laugh] We want to make sure you remember what your place is…that’s the signal that you get. Don’t get too proud of yourself. So, I share…I wanted…I shared that story—
—during the Zoom meeting and that led to the formation of a committee for improving racial diversity and inclusivity for the ASA.
Tyrone, I wanna ask at this point, just to interject. I wanna make it absolutely clear just so that I have your perspective correctly, right? In this narrative of Trump’s election and Charlottesville and George Floyd, right? Amid all of this, let’s just turn it around and say you don’t have these passions. You’re still who you are. You’re still an African-American guy. You’re a scientist. But you’re just sort of, like you wanna bury your head in the lab and you just wanna do the work right? What you’re saying is even if that’s how you wanted to approach these things, right? It’s inescapable. Even if that’s what you wanted to do, society is not operating in a way that would allow you to be that person. I just want to be absolutely clear. That’s a correct read on the situation, right?
Yes. Absolutely. And there was an awakening that would suggest…and we’ve heard the term from talking heads and pundits and journalists and politicians…this appears to be a watershed moment in history.
There’s a broad coalition that seems to be [pause] speaking truth to power. Which is the system is inherently abusing and brutalizing and terrorizing and subjugating persons of color. Even to this day. And we can no longer stand on the sidelines and continue to allow this to happen without some sort of change within the system. Now, will that mean that we will reach…that we will restructure the system? Does that mean that we’re going to address all of the atrocities? And, you know, resolve and actually provide justice to all those innocents that have suffered through this? I’m not naïve. I am not naïve. I don’t expect that we’re gonna fix all of the problems. And fix the ills that have plagued the society for generations. But if we can, unlike what this White House administration has said in a previous memo, continue to raise awareness and empathy for those who are struggling on a day to day basis. And acknowledge the fact that persons of color…they’re dealing with additional burdens that white people just don’t have to deal with. That in itself provides a foundation for the slow progressive changes and modifications to the system. Because it’s going to take time. We have to start somewhere. And so, there’s an opportunity that presents itself right now that we need to take full advantage of because the one other thing that I know is that people get fatigued.
And people want to return back to their normal way of life, their normal existence. And at some point, people are gonna get tired of the conversation. Can we educate or can we increase awareness with as many people as we possibly can before they reach that point of fatigue? And that’s where…that’s been one of my goals and my visions. Over the last several months.
And Tyrone, to be clear. The fatigue that you’re talking about is a privilege that white people enjoy.
They can be in a position to say, “You know, I’m sensitive to this. I understand where you’re coming from, but at a certain point, I can walk away from it because I’m tired of hearing it and it’s not my problem to deal with.” That’s a privilege that theoretically white people have. To be fatigued.
They’re fatigued from hearing about it. They’re fatigued in the work and the effort it takes to overcome and to change…to actually achieve institutional change. It takes a lot of effort and work. And because we have been the marginalized group, we have put forth the work for generations. We also recognize that we don’t have the option to be fatigued. [laugh]
So, it’s the privilege that you mention that white people but is as a burden for persons of color. Being fatigued is just not an option for us. So, it’s fatigue of awareness. It’s the fatigue of being informed on a consistent basis. Continuously being informed. You get fatigued by that.
Combined with, what am I supposed to do with that information?
How is that going to inform decisions that I make or initiatives and efforts that I pursue and that I lead? That are not necessarily aligned with my scientific pursuits and goals? I’m not a social scientist. These types of conversations and efforts certainly exist within the social science space. Or sociology space. Or political science space. I don’t work in either of these spaces. I’m a biomedical engineer. So, the efforts that I’ve put forth…the energy that I put into this is in addition, now that I have moved to a new university, to restarting a laboratory that’s going to be as successful as it needs to be such that I continue to create opportunities for other persons of color, as well as continue to serve as an ambassador for other persons of color, as well as serve as a symbol, an example for people who don’t think that I should be able to do the things I do. And that I’m only here because of the color of my skin!
If you read the papers, that’s not the papers of a person who thinks like an idiot!
If you go to my classes and hear me teach, that’s not the words of a moron! I don’t use terms like “Bigly”.
[inhale] Yeah. Yeah.
So, I am certainly an accomplished scholar. I may not toot my own horn because the evidence should support that and should present it in that light. But there are still people who will question as soon as they see me, how did you get here?
Are you occupying the position that was meant for somebody else? Which is the sense of entitlement that has existed and has been supported by the racial hierarchy that has existed since the [fist slams] birth of the nation! [pause] And I can no longer ignore that fact. [pause] So, I have become emboldened in the last six, seven, eight months to speak more forcefully. And I call people on their [fist slams] bullshit! When they push bullshit.
On that point, Tyrone, of not being naïve and understanding all too well that there’s no magic wand.
That these are not easy things that you’re proposing, right? How do you emphasize the art of the possible? Of actually getting something done by, I don’t want to say restricting or limiting your agenda, but realistically working in chunks that people can deal with positively and productively. Right? The fight that you’re fighting is way bigger than you. It’s way bigger than a political party. It’s way bigger than a generation. Right? These are big, big problems.
So, how do you…in these last six and seven months, how do you operationalize all of these things so that something actually gets done?
[sigh] So, operationalizing. That’s a really good way to put it into context. That is the challenge. In order to, in my opinion, I have to in a lot of ways channel those who were in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s. I have to bring as many people into the camp who are in positions of authority as possible. I also…so my answer, I’m going to focus just on STEM. Because the societal problems is much bigger and much more complex and much more challenging.
And obviously, it’s in STEM that you have that voice.
Yes. So, within STEM…this is something…what I’m gonna say is something that I really, really began to [pause] sort of…I was always aware of. But I didn’t fully, fully appreciate and value. And that is we as faculty govern ourselves. There’s not necessarily an oversight committee at the university level. Universities and faculty govern themselves and they run the university. Which is a bit of a conflict of interest. [laugh]
When you think about it. It’s a bit of a conflict of interest.
Sure. Right. Right.
Which is why there’s a bit of a struggle and a challenge if you have faculty who make racially insensitive statements. It’s much like the church. And if you saw the movie Spotlight and know about the sexual abuse that came to light maybe 10, 15, 20 years ago…the church governed itself. So, they would just suppress, hide, or move priests that were known pedophiles around to other places. Now I’m not trying to equate. I’m just saying that very similar to the church, particularly the Catholic Church, universities govern themselves. And so, faculty would actually have to penalize other faculty. Faculty are not used to or comfortable with doing that.
Right? So, faculty govern themselves. Faculty also are who drive how the university operates. They drive and they make decisions in large part on who gets the seats and basically get access to higher education. Faculty are the gatekeepers. So, faculty have to be involved in the transformation. Politicians are not going to drive the change. They might tighten the screws a little bit, right? If it’s a state funded university, right? Or if there’s a lot of federal funding, maybe? They could tighten the screws. But ultimately, who is going to transform the institution? It’s going to be the faculty. But who traditionally are the senior leaders? The administrators? Other than the board of regents and trustees that I mentioned earlier. Who hold the positions of power at a university? It’s faculty! And it typically is…this goes back to a statement I made earlier. It’s typically full professors.
So, you have to get people promoted all the way to the full professor position in order to be in a position of authority to transform on a university wide scale. But certainly, at a department level or a college level the faculty for each unit can be involved in the change. So, my goal over the last six to eight months has been to engage as many faculty as I possibly can. And to align myself and leverage some of the efforts that are already underway. So, this goes into the fatigue part. And it also goes into somewhat of a dysfunction or the inefficiency. I shouldn’t call it…it’s somewhat dysfunction, but the inefficiency within universities. We are independent operators. Each college is like its own state. A university in a lot of ways is a microcosm of the United States. And every college is going to try to position themselves to get the most resources. And advocate for their own benefit. And the president and the provost, at their level in their office, are gonna try to bring all of these independent operators and the faculty together to move the university forward collectively. So, it literally is a microcosm of the United States. It’s a republic. And the governors and the mayors and the sheriffs, the county clerk, the librarian. Well, not the librarian. Within a university, are faculty. So, I have been working to try to inform and educate more faculty as well as align myself or find allies. Probably a better way to say it. Allies from senior people that I hold in high regard.
Like a Joe DeSimone. Like a Sasha Kabanov. Like a Steve McLaughlin who was at Georgia Tech. Like a Nancy Allbritton who’s at University of Washington. Who are deans and provosts at these universities and also white. So, I’ve been working to find allies that I can communicate with and now through social media and LinkedIn, I can actually connect with these individuals and ask them to participate in conversations. I can call them on the phone and say, “This is something that we’re trying to do on a national level. Will you participate?” And hopefully they do. Most of them have. Most of them have. And once again, I think this goes back to…I think many of these individuals I would say, it’s always somewhat been in their heart. So, I think it’s always been in their heart. I think they’ve always been somewhat aware. But there’s a difference between aware and empathizing with those who are struggling and suffering and actually working to address the ills and the sources of their struggles. And the election in 2016, Charlottesville event, George Floyd, and all of the other Black innocent lives too many to name at the moment, has brought to light that there’s a real problem within society. And it permeates…it’s at every aspect and every institution and every unit within our society. And so, faculty and academic leaders and scientists and research scholars are starting to say, “You know, we’ve been putting money into…we’ve been talking about lack of diversity. But nothing’s changed.”
There’s gotta be a bigger problem that we’re just not…the real true source of the problem, we’re not really addressing. And until we address that, we’re not going to see any change. So, now you get the question, are you serious about the change? Are you seriously trying to diversify? And if you are, then you really do want to know the source of it. We can’t deny it any longer. And it’s like a open…I think either Malcolm X or Martin Luther King said this before me, “Once you open that wound, you can’t ignore the pain. You can’t ignore the wound.”
You gotta deal with the wound. You gotta fix the wound. And the band-aid washes off after you get in the shower. So, that’s not gonna stick. You actually gotta get to the wound. You gotta get to the source of the crux of the problem. The last thing I’ll mention on this is…so, I am in that STEM space. I’m in the physical sciences space. I’m in the biomedical sciences space. And I mentioned earlier, this naturally fits within the social sciences. Goes back to the fatigue thing. And it’s also a weakness and a deficiency within the faculty. We don’t proactively work on things we don’t feel we’re experts in. Does that make sense?
We don’t want to go into a space in which we feel like we’re not experts. And many of us won’t take the time to educate ourselves on some new space and some new venture. So, what I’m describing to you with regards to historical context and the generational racial inequities and injustice, once again is in the social science space and the history space. And you’re asking, or I’m asking…I’m asking colleagues who are engineers, physical scientists, biomedical scientists, to educate themselves in the social science and historical perspective, right? In order to begin to, in a very deliberate, intentional, and systematic way, address this problem. That is also part of the fatigue problem. I mentioned awareness and all the information that you need to get just to reach baseline. But now you gotta really, really connect the dots historically. In order to really understand it. And then you gotta understand the sociological aspects of it. The personal dynamics around it. And some physical scientists pursued careers in the physical sciences because they didn’t want to deal with the personal dynamics. [laugh] They wanted to avoid that, right? There are some people who are just more introverted, right? It’s just, it’s natural. So, that fits into the fatigue part. Because you have to spend the time to lay a foundation in order to effectively, deliberately, and systematically work away at the established system that has been oppressive for so many generations.
Well, Tyrone, now that we’re right up to the present. For the last part of our talk, I want to ask you first if…it’s a very broad question. It gets back to this concept of the duality of your agenda. Both in your status as a scientist and of course, in your ongoing interest in making STEM more inclusive and equitable. And so, right now it seems that this is a moment of real opportunity in both regards. For you, right?
So, it is.
We started our talk last time. You know, our first discussion, how exciting it was that this is a moment where you can buy new lab equipment. State of the art stuff. Right? You’re really advanced and respected in your field and you’re well positioned to take cutting edge instrumentation and translate it into cutting edge research that’s going to have a long lasting impact. Right? There’s no question about that. And it will be very exciting to see how that develops. It’s also a moment of opportunity sociologically because you know, I hope to think that we’re not even close to the fatigue that is concerning to you. We’re really in the middle of it right now. And it’s not like George Floyd just happened and now it’s life back to normal. How many horrific things have happened since George Floyd?
Right? And so, the opportunity there is that you’re in a new space physically and metaphysically. There are new opportunities where the duality of your agenda as a scientist and your agenda as I don’t know what you want to call yourself. A human rights activist?
An activist scholar. An activist scholar.
An activist scholar. Right. How do you looking at the next, whatever you want to say, X number of years…how do you maximize the potential of that duality so that your interest in both realms is as productive and wide ranging as possible? To go back to that earlier conversation about you’re really not making those micro impacts on a student to student level. You’re doing that because you’re still interested in being an educator and a mentor. But you do have this platform. You do have this stage. People are listening to what you have to say. In the faculty and nationally. Right? So, when you put it all together and you look at your goals for the next X number of years, what’s the game plan in both realms for you to be as successful as possible?
That is a big question. And it deserves a big answer. So, I can no longer think small.
And I had this conversation. You know, it’s funny that you ask this question in the manner that you ask the question. Because it was something that I asked of myself, and I talked to my wife about it before we moved to Austin. And it parallels with my past experiences. So, I’m gonna answer your question, but once again, I have to answer the question in a story format that dives back to the history of who I am and decisions that I have made over the course of my academic and professional life. So, when I was at Prairie View A&M University as an undergrad, I started up an organization. It was called Peers Advising Counseling and Teaching (P.A.C.T.). I did it because as a sophomore in college…going back to Detroit, a predominantly Black city that has struggled through the years. Their struggles are no secret, right? Filed for bankruptcy maybe 10 years ago. They were dealing with severe violence. And I think Detroit had one of the highest murder rates in the United States when I was a preteen or a teenager. So, as an undergrad at Prairie View A&M, new space, new opportunity. I’m in, I’m in…you know, for me, the peak of academic opportunity, which is college. Right? I’m learning really fascinating things. Right? At a very fast pace. Much more accelerated than high school. During winter break, my father asked me to go to the high school where he was the principal. Actually, I think it was the department chair for math that asked me to go back and talk to some of the high school students. Which I did. But when I did it, I’m just thinking to myself, I’m only like 19 years old. Who’s going to listen to a 19-year-old student? 19-year-old kid? Right? That just started college. I haven’t really experienced life just yet. But they listened. They asked questions. They were engaged. And I talked about college. And it seemed to pique their interest. It was as if somebody my age had not come back to them in their space and talked to them about college. I was just like, really honest about college. And so, we started this organization P.A.C.T.…so I’m in college thinking I’m just gonna focus on academics because after my freshman year I had an interest in going to graduate school and everybody said you need to excel academically in order to get to graduate school. So, I’m like, I’m going to focus. But, I could not ignore this…and my parents were teachers. At that point in time, I was like, I’m not going to be a teacher. Cause I don’t want to do what my parents did. But I could not ignore that I connect with people. And in that moment I recognized that I had a capacity to connect to students who are following behind me and make an impact. And so, we started this organization called Peers Advising Counseling and Teaching. And so, my semester breaks were spent going to high schools. I didn’t take time off. Like most people would probably do. Go home and just watch movies, and hang with the family and friends. I put in work! So, it was already a part of me. So, fast forward. I finish up at Prairie View A&M. Peers Advising Counseling and Teaching, very proud of what we were doing. I get to Seattle and it’s a much bigger university. Much bigger space. The stakes are higher because in undergrad as long as you fulfill the requirements that are clearly spelled out, much like high school, you’re going to get your degree. You’re going to graduate. For a Ph.D., a committee, which once again, faculty gatekeepers…the faculty have to approve you. That you’re worthy to join the club. So, in my mind, I have to think differently about how I’m going to…what is going to be my modus operandi in graduate school. So, as an example, when I finished up in undergrad, I had two nicknames because I was very active. Borderline militant when I was in undergrad. One was “Pantha.” The other one was just “TP.” I got to graduate school, I said, “I’m retiring these monikers. I’m not going to use those monikers any longer. I’m going to…I’m Tyrone Porter. I’m going to focus.” The anti-affirmative action bill Initiative 200 passes. And I said, “I cannot ignore this indignation. And I cannot ignore the need of the students.” Because I had organized, I had put together an organization in undergrad. I knew how to organize students. I knew how to bring people together to work cooperatively and also give them the opportunity to have equal contribution where all basically…very equitable organization. So, I had experience with organizing people. I get to University of Washington and the undergrads don’t necessarily know how to organize…at that point in time. Now, they organize much better today. Especially through social media. But they didn’t do a very good job of organizing at that time. So, you had different groups who were expressing the same grievances, but we know that there’s strength in numbers. So, my goal was to bring people together to show force to the university and to the political electorate, the elected officials, that there was strength in numbers. That was not what I set out to do when I got to University of Washington. So, I pulled back out the “TP” hat. I pulled back out the “Pantha” hat. And I started to once again put in the work. Fast forward to 2020. And actually, I would say 2016. The election. I’m sort of cruising along. And then this opportunity presents itself to be a faculty fellow. I take it. Now I come to The University of Texas at Austin. And I have this opportunity to create something that is really transformative and really impactful on a much larger scale, as you had mentioned, already scientifically. And scholarly. But also, there’s a platform now to do something socially. And so, I can be in the physical and metaphysical space as you, I think, so rightly mentioned earlier. So, how do I do that? So, I had a conversation with my wife back in July. And I told her that it’s going to take a lot of energy for me just to get the lab back up and running and to be as effective. Cause I am literally disassembling and leaving things here in Boston. I have to recreate the research at the level I was at when I left Boston. I can’t slowly ramp. I gotta literally, quickly get back to that level. And, in my opinion, I was performing at a very high level. And now, I can amplify that activity. Because of the resources that UT has presented. At the same time, we have this social justice…this cry for social justice. Racial justice that I can’t ignore. How do I satisfy both desires? And my wife told me, and I’ll never forget it. She said, “You have the most impact when you honor your desire to address and work towards social justice and racial equality. That’s where you have your greatest impact. You cannot ignore that.” She told me that. And she also gave me a license to pursue that because it’s going to take a lot of work and effort. Now, that’s the long answer. The short answer…but I had to tell you that because I had to give it into context, what I’m gonna tell you now. So, I am going to, because I have been in this game long enough, I know what people who have been extremely successful on a national stage…scientifically. They have teams of senior scientists. But they have at least a couple of senior scientists and postdocs that help with managing the lab and the research. That’s not what I had when I was at Boston University. I’m very intentionally going to build that. On the other side, I have become much more proactive in the social media space because of the pandemic. I paid closer attention to what politicians were doing. And politicians control the narrative by constantly writing the narrative. And so, I recognize…as well as my colleagues who have been able to amplify their profile. They’ve also leveraged social media with regards to scientific advancements and their research careers. And so, now I’ve become much more deliberate and intentional on leveraging that tool that I ignored for so many years. The last thing I’ll say is, I do and I already have pushed the leadership for the university and I’m working to make connections with the leadership for the university, much the way I did when I was at University of Washington. I had mentioned the UW Board of Regents…shook my hand at my graduation because I actually went to the meetings. I talked to the Regents. I had conversations with the Regents on multiple levels. And that’s a connection that I need to have and want to have with the leadership that’s here at The University of Texas. And it does take work and it is exhausting because I not only have to draw connections with people that are within my circle…within my scientific circle. But I also have to draw connections and expand my network with folks who are in positions to actually have an impact on the system itself. So, I am very intentionally and deliberately talking to the Dean of Engineering. Talking to the Dean of the Graduate School. Talking to the Vice Provost for Diversity. Talking to the Assistant Dean for Diversity within the college of engineering. Getting on various committees at UT and spearheading committees within the Acoustical Society of America. Sitting on the Board of Governors for the American Institute of Physics. So, I sit in these positions with other influential people and whereas before, I might have been a little more passive with driving the conversation. I have become beyond proactive with driving the conversation. The last thing I’ll say on this is, and this is one other thing that really resonated and touched me very deeply. I went to Cal Poly Pomona in California last year. I believe it was winter of 2019. And much like I felt when I went back to my father’s high school, I didn’t think I had a voice. I didn’t think people would actually listen to me. I had a similar opinion when I went to Cal Poly Pomona for a visit. It was to talk with students who are part of their…there’s a minority engineering program. MEP. And the director for the program...I reached out to her. She invited me to come and talk to the students. And she not only encouraged me to tell my story, she demanded that I tell my story. Because she said the students already hear about these academic programs from all of these universities all over America. They already know about all of the opportunities that are out there. Right? From other recruiters that have come and paid us a visit. They need to hear it from you. And how you got to the position you are, where you are today. They need to hear what you had to do, what you had to sacrifice, who you had to align yourself with, what games you might have had to play. They wanna hear from you. And at first I kinda stepped back and said, “I don’t have a presentation designed to do that.” [laugh] That’s…I brought a lot of slides on research at Boston, and this is what Boston has to offer, and… She said, “Throw all that out the window. I’ll give you half an hour. Put something together that just talks about you. Insert that into your presentation. Because they need to hear it from you. I wanna hear it from you.” And so, it signaled to me…it was one of those positive reinforcements. It was one of those cues that people did want to hear my story. Cause my story is one of…it’s a combination of privilege. It’s a combination of acknowledgement. It’s a story of struggle. It’s a story of sacrifice. It’s a story of cooperative endeavor. And that is something that the American system is not necessarily built upon. The American system is built more upon a meritocracy. It’s built, as The White House administration has said, it’s built upon who wins. Who is better than someone else. That is in direct conflict with the whole notion of equity. So, being someone that is able to navigate the system to be considered successful in the space that’s based solely off of your merits. Predominantly off of your merits, while still striving to achieve equality along so many levels within society. Academic. Research. Professional. They want…she basically told me they want to hear that story. How do you do that? And so, I’m here to tell that story.
Well, Tyrone, I’m tremendously honored that you shared it with me in such great detail. I just want to observe editorially that, you know, colleges have a reputation of being a liberal place. And you demonstrate that even if that’s true that doesn’t make what you’re trying to accomplish easy.
And even if it’s science that proves that racism has no basis in reality…
This story demonstrates that scientists are people. With all of the weaknesses and frailties that any other kinds of people might have. And so, that’s very important to convey. I wanna thank you specifically because you shared with me some raw emotions that were [pause] not only meaningful to me personally, but are going to come across when we publicize this transcript. And it conveys that, you know, these are not just academic concepts that you’re dealing with as a scholar. That you feel them as a human being. And I don’t think that anybody that feels what your conveying could ever get fatigued of the problem, so long as the problem exists.
I sure hope not. I sure hope not.
It’s been an honor spending this time with you. And as I’m sure you know, AIP sees itself as an institute that is right at the frontlines of being a positive force in this large scale conversation and of all of the places where your story should be told, and it should continue to be told. To be able to have this in the oral history format where we were able to get down at the detailed level to understand not only truly where you’re coming from, but where you wanna go. It’s a real honor that AIP is gonna be able to have this story and amplify this story. So, Tyrone, it’s been a real pleasure spending this time with you. I know at times it hasn’t been easy to explain all of these issues. And you know, if you succeed, that means we all succeed. And so, I know I speak for a whole big community out there that wishes you all the best and we’re all gonna continue to watch you and root for you and great things hopefully are coming in the future. I really do hope that for you and for everybody in STEM.
No. Thank you. And I wanna thank you for giving me the space to tell the story unequivocally and uncensored. I really, really appreciate that. Because as you mentioned, these are difficult issues and in order to really understand the nature of the issues, the perplexity of the issues, and the pains in the extent that a person will go…I think you also have to have a better understanding of what drives them. What motivates them. Where they’re coming from. One thing that was said about politics…and really how systems govern themselves. It’s an emotional endeavor.
It’s an emotional endeavor. We can lead with…or at least create the ideas with our minds. But actually pursuing the endeavor and being committed to the change, it’s an emotional endeavor.
Well, on that note—
So, I want to thank you for allowing me the space to share that.
I want to thank you. So, on that note, Tyrone, I hope that we keep in touch personally and institutionally. And I hope good things come in the future. Really. Thank you.