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Credit: Geri Venable
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Interview of Demetrius Venable by David Zierler on May 12, 2021,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
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Interview with Demetrius Venable, Professor Emeritus at Howard University. Venable discusses the administrative distinctions between physics and astronomy at Howard, and he surveys some of the most interest projects currently in train at NASA. He recounts his upbringing in segregated small-town Virginia, the educational limitations this imposed, and his service in ROTC at Virginia State University. He discusses a formative intensive summer program at Columbia, and he describes the opportunities that led to his graduate admission at American University to work with Richard Kay on the effectiveness of circular polarization versus linear polarization in excited states in solid material. Venable describes his postdoctoral research at IBM, then taking a faculty position at St. Paul’s College, before taking a longer-term position at Hampton Institute. He discusses his early involvement with NASA’s remote sensing program, he describes his tenure as director of the dual degree engineering program and the collaborative opportunities he was able to pursue with Jefferson Lab. Venable recounts his increasing administrative responsibilities leading to becoming Provost at Hampton, and he discusses the growth of the NASA-supported Center for Optical Physics. He explains his decision to move to Howard, where he could be more fully involved in research for CSTEA and the LiDAR system, and his partnership with NOAA on climate modeling. Venable conveys his enjoyment at receiving NASA’s Distinguished Public Service Medal, and he provides historical perspective on current and past calls to make STEM more diverse and inclusive. At the end of the interview, Venable explains his deep interest in physics education, and he expresses optimism in the long-term strength of Howard’s physics program.
Okay. This is David Zierler:, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is May 12, 2021. I am delighted to be here with Professor Demetrius D. Venable:. Demetrius, it’s great to see you. Thank you for joining me today.
Thank you. It’s my pleasure.
Demetrius, to start, would you please tell me your title and institutional affiliation?
Okay. I am Professor Emeritus, Howard University in Washington, D.C. I officially retired in 2017.
In what ways have you remained connected with Howard since you went emeritus?
I no longer live in the D.C. area, so most of my interaction with Howard has been informal. Individual interaction with faculty members—I am no longer actively participating in any research that I did before retirement.
I’m always interested in how universities group together or categorize departments of physics and astronomy. Sometimes they’re separate. Sometimes they are jointed. How do these things work at Howard, and what might that tell us about Howard’s approach to the discipline overall?
Hmm. I think at Howard it’s primarily historical. As an HBCU, Howard probably is the premier institution with respect to which programs it offers, the breadth of programs that it offers compared to other HBCUs, but nonetheless, it is an HBCU, so historically resources have never been as much as they should be or could be. So, the physics and astronomy department were developed probably somewhere in the 1930s, I believe. I don’t have the history on the tip of my tongue. I’m somewhat familiar with it, but I’d have to pull out some of my references to be more accurate with respect to dates and times. But the department was combined as physics and astronomy. As far as I am aware, it has always been one department; they have never been separate departments. The emphasis has primarily been on astronomy. I’m sorry. I said that wrong. The emphasis has primarily been on physics, with astronomy not being quite as prominent in the department. The department first offered the PhD in…I think it started in 1957 or ’58, and the first degree was probably awarded in about 1961, the first doctorate degree. They have offered the degrees in physics as well as degrees in astronomy/astrophysics, though the predominant number of degrees has been in physics.
Demetrius, in light of your longstanding work and collaboration at NASA, what’s going on at NASA that’s most compelling to you these days?
Oh well, the popular things are interesting these days: going to Mars and asteroid missions and returning to the moon. Those are certainly things of interest. I’m certainly interested in the technology associated with the human return to outer space. But personally, what I was involved with at NASA was more along the lines of remote sensing of the atmosphere. We operated at Howard a ground-based observing system that had to do with validating satellite measurements. I specifically worked on a LiDAR system for measuring water vapor concentrations within the atmosphere. These measurements obviously have consequences with respect to climate change, so my work with NASA for the last 15, 20 years has been involved in remote sensing of the atmosphere.
We’ll develop this as we go along in the narrative, but for now, let’s take it all the way back to the beginning. Let’s go back to Virginia, and we’ll start first with your parents. Tell me a little bit about them and where they’re from.
Okay. Well, I’m sitting right now in Powhatan, Virginia on property that my father’s great-grandmother purchased back in 1881. So, my father is from Virginia. His family is from Virginia. He was actually born in New York. He moved back here when he was two years old to live with his aunt and uncle. My mother’s family is also from Powhatan, Virginia, about five miles down the road from here, so I have an extensive family history in this area. My father was a schoolteacher. I’m going to say it this way. I had the privilege of studying both mathematics and social sciences (history and government) from him as a high school student. High schools were segregated in those days, so our school was extremely small. I think in the total school, which went from the eighth grade through the twelfth grade, we had about 125 students at the most, so it was a very small school. But my father, in my opinion, was an excellent teacher and I did learn a lot of mathematics and history from him, and those became my favorite subjects as I progressed on through in life. My mother was a homemaker. She also probably--She has even a larger family, a much larger family than my father, so I have lots of cousins and aunts and uncles in the area.
Demetrius, beyond the school, how segregated was society in general in your town?
You know, it was a typical Virginia town. It was segregated. If I didn’t have much of a reason to interact with a Caucasian neighbor, I probably would not have, not for any reason other than you typically didn’t get to do that. There was not a whole lot that we shared in common. Some people obviously interacted through work and you interacted when you went to the store. This was in the ’50s and the ’60s timeframe, so the civil rights movement was beginning to really pick up. So, there was some conflict at that time. The schools were beginning to be integrated. I don’t know how familiar you would be with this, but there was not a full integration initially in this area. I think after many years of struggle, the school system finally got to the point based on court rulings that students would have a choice of…families would have a choice as to whether they would send their student to the—and I use the word “the white school” or “the black school.” There was obviously some conflict there. There was never, that I’m aware of, any serious violence. Of course, I was fairly young. A lot of things could have happened that I was not aware of, but I’m not aware of any serious violence. There was certainly a lot of hostility, certainly a lot of resistance to the integration, but I don’t think it was atypical from the rest of the South, at least the Virginia general area. I don’t know if you go further down south, things could be even worse. But there was no violence when the first African Americans attended the Powhatan High School, which was the white school. There was certainly a lot of tension at that time, and there was certainly presence of authority, but no violence.
Demetrius, at your high school, was the curriculum in math and science strong?
No, it was not, and the reason is…And I graduated from Pocahontas High School, which was the African American school, not Powhatan High School. It was not. The offerings were restricted to the minimal requirements, so there was nothing offered beyond the minimal requirements simply because the resources were not available. There were not enough faculty to have offered anything beyond the minimum requirements. I was a decent student, and I took the highest-level courses that I possibly could. For me, that translated into taking my first course in algebra in ninth grade. That was the first time I could take a course in algebra, and I took a course in geometry in the eleventh grade. Those were the only two math classes I had in high school…and my father taught me both of those classes, so again, I have to say what I took I learned extremely well. I never felt really hindered. I mean, I didn’t know anything about calculus until I got to college and had to take a calculus course. You could have asked me what about calculus and I would have had to scratch my head and think about it in that timeframe. So no, the curriculum was not strong. I took a course in physics which was taught by my physical education teacher. I don’t remember it very well, but I’m quite sure we did not get past chapter 2 in the textbook in the course of the year taking that class. One thing I can say that was more positive. As a…I don’t know, perhaps in my junior year, in the summer before my junior year maybe. I don’t know exactly which year. I attended a National Science Foundation summer program at Norfolk State University in Norfolk, Virginia, which was another HBCU. I had the opportunity to take a class in mathematics, and that was a class in set theory and a class in chemistry. I did well in those and learned a lot, so that helped to strengthen me as I was preparing myself to go on to be at a college. That course in set theory was…it helped me to understand fundamentals of mathematics, although I don’t think math is taught that way these days. But to me, it was helpful (and this was after I took the course in algebra). [Overlapping voices] …
Demetrius, when you graduated high school--
…knew how to do algebra and gave me a little…
When you graduated high school, was the draft something you needed to contend with?
Oh yes, absolutely. I graduated in 1966 and I was 18 at the time. I had a notice to go for my physical I think almost within a week of finishing high school. In a week or so I had to go for my physical examination for the draft. So, a lot of my high school colleagues actually did were drafted. Because I went to college, I had at that time what was referred to as a 2-S student deferment, so I had a deferment for…I don’t know how it worked. I think it was annual. This was in ’66. So, my first year in college I took ROTC, which was a requirement in the college for two years. So, I took it in my first two years there. I didn’t go into what’s called the Advanced ROTC Program which would have obligated me to go into military service, but I clearly remember a conversation with, I don’t know, one of the officers or sergeants-in-charge of the program at Virginia State who was trying to convince me to go into the Advanced ROTC Program, which would have obligated me for military service, indicating that if I did not sign up for the advanced program, I was going to be drafted. I think my response at that time was, “Well, I really want to go to graduate school, and if you can guarantee me that I’ll be allowed to go on to graduate school, then I would.” They could not make that guarantee, so that was just about the same time that the lottery was coming up, I guess. I don’t remember exactly how the timing was. I think it was a couple of months before they were supposed to have the lottery, and I said, “Well, I’ll take my chances with the lottery.” The lottery was a random drawing of numbers and birthdates in years to determine who would have priority in the draft. I ended up with a low priority number, so at that point in time—this was, I guess, around end of my sophomore year, beginning of my junior year—I was pretty confident that I would not end up being drafted because of the number that came up with my birthdate. It was a problem. I had colleagues who I went to high school and college with who went on to Vietnam. I was not a big fan of fighting a war. I mean, it wasn’t a very popular war, I guess, at that time. I don’t know anyone… (I don’t know why I am hesitating…) I don’t know many people who actually volunteered to go into military service at that time.
Demetrius, did you specifically want to attend an HBCU? Did you apply to other colleges that were not HBCUs?
The only other college I applied to that I remember was University of Virginia, and I was not accepted there. I think I was told that my SAT scores were not high enough for admission. I think I had applied there in astronomy, actually, and I was told that my SAT scores were not competitive enough for admission into that program. So, I applied to Virginia State in mathematics, and they did accept me.
But then at some point you must have switched over to physics.
Yes, I did. I started in mathematics and I switched over to physics, I guess, in my sophomore year. I didn’t take physics in my first year; I took physics in my second year. I was doing fine in math. I loved math, but I think that the main thing for me was that I was more interested in the experimental side. That was something that I did not or could not take advantage of in mathematics, so I wanted to do experimentation. That was the main reason I went over to physics. I think I still had a minor in math. I completed the coursework, but I really wanted to do experiments. I have a love of building things and making things work. We didn’t have an engineering program at the university. Well, it was Virginia State College at the time. There was no engineering there, so it wasn’t a choice between physics and engineering. And the other thing is that I thought of myself as a good student with good potential. That was just, you know, me personally. I guess that was always told to me as a person growing up. I really wanted to continue to challenge myself, and I thought that a major like physics or math would allow me to challenge myself. That was what attracted me to disciplines such as that.
Did you consider yourself a political person at all as an undergraduate? Did you become involved formally in the civil rights movement?
No, not really. We had several protests going on on-campus at that time for a variety of things. This had to do—I don’t know. I may not have all the facts exactly correct here, but one of the issues was that…Well, I guess the bottom line was that the state was not allocating what we or what many considered the appropriate resources to the Historically Black Colleges as opposed to majority colleges, and one…I don’t know. I was going to say it’s a simple thing, but it probably wasn’t a simple thing. One issue was Virginia Tech—the state was arguing to change the name, to rename Virginia Tech to Virginia State University, or something similar to that and the HBCU I attended was Virginia State College. The community felt that that was just another way of saying, “We’re going to close Virginia State College out altogether,” or limit it so it certainly couldn’t grow if there was another “Virginia State” that’s a major institution and that receives the bulk of the state funds. So, there was a lot of protest about things like that, but I was not overly involved. I certainly was not unsupportive of those movements, but I had no leadership role or anything like that politically. I focused mostly on studying.
Demetrius, tell me about the Intensive Summer Studies program at Columbia that you attended in 1968 and ’69.
Right. That was…Again, it was a period in time where major institutions were beginning to think that they should or could or would do more to help underprivileged people or people who may not have had the same opportunities to develop and get exposure to more advanced studies. I think I first entered the program as a math person, but I switched over to physics. The idea was that selected students from Historically Black Colleges in the South were given scholarships to attend summer school at Harvard, Yale, and Columbia in order to help them become better prepared for competitive graduate study upon graduation. I was first admitted to the program at Harvard…I guess it was that you got into the program and then later they decided where you were going to go based on the course offerings that they were giving or that they made a part of the program, so I ended up going to Columbia University in New York City. I studied physics. Essentially, I studied experimental physics. I spent my summers there working in the intermediate physics lab working on classical physics experiments, the same lab that the Columbia physics students would have taken.
Columbia must have been quite an interesting place to be at in the late 1960s.
[Laughs] That would be an understatement. I think I came in…I squeezed in between protests on campus, I believe is probably the best way to put it. Yes, it was extremely interesting, and I have very fond memories, but again, I was never directly involved in any protests, per se. You know, physics was…Being in physics, I went to the physics building and you didn’t get to see a whole lot of anything else, but I will say I met my wife through that program. Her brother was in the program. I met my wife through that program, so I have to say it was a very positive experience for me.
Demetrius, what was the research that you were doing at Columbia, and who were some of the professors that you were able to interact with?
Well, it was an experimental physics lab. It was a teaching lab, and the main faculty member I interacted with was Professor Lucy J. Hayner She was the faculty member who was the instructor for that experimental physics laboratory course. She was the individual who I interacted with most and the one that I remember. In fact, I actually continued to correspond with her a bit after leaving there. I don’t remember the gentleman’s name, I’m sorry to say, but there was an excellent…I guess he was a graduate student there. He was from South Africa, and he was actually working on his dissertation at the time. He was working as an instructor in the lab, and he did an awful lot to teach me a lot of experimental techniques and laboratory techniques that I learned there at that time. His name escapes me, but I remember very well he was working, studying to be an astrophysicist. He was working on x-ray measurements with sounder rockets. I had these conversations with him about, well, you go to all this work and you spend all this time and suppose that rocket blows up on the pad and he’s just out of three years’ worth of work. He said, “Yeah, I guess you’re right.” But I remember him very well.
Demetrius, was this program successful in its mission? Did it open up opportunities for graduate school that may not have been otherwise available to you?
I think you can probably say it opened up some opportunities to graduate programs because the fact that I was in the program I think gave me some exposure. But I had mixed emotions about it. I felt that the program…I guess it did what it was trying to do, but I was of the opinion that it picked what it considered to be the very, very best students it could find and brought them into these programs. My argument was that probably the students that they picked were going to be successful in getting into graduate school and navigating graduate school anyway. It certainly doesn’t hurt to give them more, but I thought perhaps that the program could also think of some way to reach down to the student who may be really needing that assistance in order to make sure they can get into graduate school, or once they get in they can be successful. In my experience, I think almost every student I met in those programs were exceptionally good students, and I could see no reason why they wouldn’t get through any graduate program that they chose to go to. But in answer to your question, I certainly got offers from schools I did not apply to, and that’s probably because my name was on lists associated with programs like that and programs like the Woodrow Wilson, programs like that. So, that did give me exposure that I would not have otherwise had.
Of course, experimental physics is a very broad field. How well-defined were you in your interest in terms of graduate programs to apply to? What kind of experimental physics did you want to focus on in graduate school?
When I applied to graduate school, I guess I wasn’t 100% sure of exactly what discipline I was going to go in. I can certainly say I was open-minded, but what I had an interest in was optics. I had done some x-ray work as an undergraduate for my senior thesis, some x-ray spectroscopy, so those were the things that I knew about. But I was totally open-minded when I went to graduate school. I did not pick a school because of a particular area of study. I was looking for a place that I thought would be a good fit with me and my personality. I’d say my learning style, although nobody used a term like that when I was getting out of school—but a place that I could work at and feel comfortable with. I strongly believed then, as I do now, that…I’ll just finish my thought…and then come back to your question. I strongly believed then, as I do now, that success in graduate school is extremely dependent on the relationship between the student and the dissertation advisor. If that relationship is a good relationship, the chances of getting through graduate school are just so much better, and the chances of getting through graduate school without heartburn are significantly better. So, I was looking for a place that I felt like I could fit in. I’ll let you go back to your question now. Sorry about that.
And so, would that include HBCUs for graduate school? For example, did you think about Howard, given that you were already thinking about living in Washington, D.C. since you ultimately went to American?
Yeah, I did. I thought about Howard. As an undergraduate, one of the professors at Howard, the late Arthur Thorpe, who was an excellent experimentalist—worked with me for my senior thesis. So, I had a very good relationship with Howard. My physics department chairperson who also worked with me, James Davenport, also received his PhD from Howard, so I had a very strong relationship with Howard. I think I could have felt comfortable there. I didn’t choose…I didn’t finally decide to go there. I guess kids today would call it your safe school…That would have been my safe school, maybe, but I didn’t decide to go there as my final choice, although I certainly applied there, and I certainly would have been happy to have gone there. But that was not my first choice. I think it was perhaps also looking for some independence, moving away from the past a little bit.
Who ultimately was your graduate advisor at American?
What was he known for? What was his research?
He was trained in classical AMO. What we did was we built…As experimentalists we developed this laser system to look at some polarization effects and excitation in solid materials. There were some theories at the time that indicated high intensity polarized radiation could affect or impact some nuclear decay rates. We didn’t do the theory, but from the theory we had developed an experiment that could help to validate this in sort of an indirect way. We looked at the effects of circular polarization versus linear polarization when it comes to exciting certain states in solid material. I never did follow up on any of that work, so that was 50-some years ago for me. But it worked well. We weren’t able to prove the theory, but we did a good job in the experiment and were able to put some bounds on some things.
Demetrius, how well prepared did you feel relative to your classmates who may have gone to larger undergraduate programs?
I went through graduate school without any real issues.
And then what was the process developing your thesis research?
Intellectually, the things that you wanted to study, the things that your advisor was interested in, the things that may have been useful in thinking about a career.
Well, I don’t know. The approach was…My advisor was doing several different things in the lab at the time. I had a strong interest in optics, and I think that translated over into laser system development, high-power laser development. This was in 1970, so we weren’t exactly on the forefront of laser development. We were using lasers as a tool for what we were trying to accomplish, but I had a strong interest in that. Again, just being in the laboratory, I considered myself a bench physicist. I just wanted to be in the laboratory doing things. So, we’d just sit down and talk. We talked about several different experiments that could be done in his laboratory, and I didn’t really think about, I guess, which one was going to ultimately give me the best job. I don’t recall that becoming a part of the conversation. I just know that my interest was to be a bench scientist working on new things as I could and being as close to some field of optics, some type of optics as much as I could as well.
Demetrius, what would you say were some of the central findings of your research in graduate school?
You know, as I said, I haven’t really followed up on that work in a very long time, so I don’t have a thought-out answer to that. We were successful in actually showing that there is a difference in the cross-section if one uses circular polarized light versus linearly polarized light for the excitation source. There were some questions concerning impurities that we didn’t end up with a good answer for. Then we were trying to determine the rate differences. We were able to put some bounds on those rate differences, although we weren’t able to tie it down to the point that we could definitively say that the theory that we were looking at was correct or incorrect.
Demetrius, after you defended, what opportunities were available to you? Were you thinking about post-docs or industrial research or even jobs in industry? What was compelling to you at that time?
I wanted to do research. I think I had three or four job offers. One job offer was teaching at a community college, and I wasn’t interested in doing that. I had a post-doc offer at Bell Labs, and I had a couple of offers in industry. The one I ended up picking was the one in industry at IBM in Fishkill. The job market was reasonable for me at that time, so I ended up going to Fishkill where I focused on doing non-contact measurements, using optical techniques for non-contact measurements in the semiconductor industry. Certainly, the semiconductor industry was something that was taking off very big at the time. IBM was into it in a very big way at that point in time. We were looking within the manufacturing process how best one could monitor properties within the wafer itself like resistivity, things like that, in an automated online fashion that would eliminate physical contact with the structure, with the idea of keeping the yield as high as possible.
Demetrius, would you say your research at IBM was relevant to IBM as a corporation, to their bottom line, or was this more of a basic science environment?
Well, it wasn’t a basic science environment. I was certainly working with the people in manufacturing. My title was Senior Associate Engineer. I was working with people at the manufacturing level. [Chuckles] You know, IBM had billions of dollars lying around at that time, so I would never be so presumptuous as to say that what I did made a difference in whether or not they made another $100 million or not, but it was a part of a team effort, of an overall effort to improve reliability in the manufacturing process. So, I think it contributed in that sense, and I wouldn’t…I didn’t win any awards or anything for significant contributions, but I worked as a part of a team and I think that the group effort was a positive effort.
Was the work environment at IBM inclusive? Were there other African American scientists? Did you feel welcome generally?
Okay. You know, that’s a tricky question. I felt welcomed at IBM. I think there was one other African American engineer who I knew, and I don’t believe he was a PhD person. I don’t recall that he was; I’m pretty sure he wasn’t. So no, there were not a lot of African Americans there. I did not feel excluded in any way, but it was… To me, I guess the realization was that it was very, very different from the academic atmosphere that I was accustomed to. You know, you worked from 8 to 5 and you couldn’t stay late, or you couldn’t come in on Saturdays without getting 100 different signatures on a piece of paper. The work was all considered proprietary work, and you couldn’t really go into details about it with people. You really couldn’t publish what you were doing or anything like that. So, in that sense, I was a bit…I guess I could say disillusioned and maybe a little bit disappointed in my expectations because I was…After the fact, I think I was looking more toward the academic free exchange of ideas that I was used to. Even within IBM itself, there’s an awful lot of competition among teams and groups there to be the first to get somewhere. I was just a little more used to or comfortable with the friendly, open environment that I was used to in undergraduate and graduate school. And I’m not criticizing what was going on there at all. It’s just that it was a little bit different for me.
How long did you stay at IBM, and what opportunity came next that prompted you to leave?
I stayed at IBM for two years, and I left there to take a teaching position at St. Paul’s College in Lawrenceville, Virginia.
You wanted to get back to that academic environment.
Yes. I was looking for a route back into academics. St. Paul’s College was a very small college. They had less than 1,000 students, probably more like 600, and they were involved in something called the cooperative physics program which was being run by Howard University. It was a program for smaller institutions, smaller colleges, HBCUs that did not offer a degree in physics. So, the mechanism, the idea was that the student would…The program would develop a certain level of physics courses on campus. Usually there would be one course or two courses beyond the introductory level because the college would have been offering introductory physics in any case for support of biology and chemistry majors. But the cooperative physics program would provide support for the institution to develop one or two courses beyond the introductory level. Then the student who was in the program would go to Howard University in the summer and take six credit hours. I think it was for three summers, so it worked out that between the combination of what they did in the summer at Howard and what they did at the home institution would allow them to get a degree in physics. So, I went to St. Paul’s College to develop that program, and again, that was with the people who I already knew at Howard.
Did St. Paul’s have graduate students, or this was strictly undergrads that you were working with?
How long did you stay at St. Paul’s?
I stayed there for two years. The summer after my first year, I applied for and I was accepted to a…Let’s see. I guess it was an ASEE, maybe, program for…a summer research program for faculty. I guess they still have programs where a young faculty member would apply for a summer fellowship to go and work at a laboratory. So, I applied, and I think this was with AFOSR. Yes, AFOSR. I applied and I was accepted to do a fellowship for the summer at Brooks Air Force Base in San Antonio, so that summer I went down there and worked with a physicist by the name of John Taboada. We worked on…again, bench work. We worked on some laser system development. The Air Force was interested at that time in how laser light would affect pilots. If a pilot was flying around and someone just flashes a laser light in his eye, how would that disorient the pilot? So, we were specifically looking at optical tissue damage due to laser radiation. I spent the summer doing that, and as a part of that we were also looking at some measurement techniques, automating some measurement techniques for measuring laser pulse width and things of that nature. John and I had a couple of papers out of that, and as a follow-on to that, one could get a small grant, I don’t know, $10,000 or $12,000 to continue some of that work back on campus. So, what I was able to do was to buy myself a research computer that allowed me to continue that work. That got me back into research and into publishing, since I really couldn’t publish at IBM with the proprietary nature of the work. So, I started publishing again, and I was interested in continuing to do research. The program at St. Paul’s ended after two years. As I said, a grant funded the cooperative physics program, and after two years that program ended. So, from there, I left. I mean, I could have stayed there, but I wasn’t interested in staying if the school wasn’t involved with the development of the physics program. So, I left and went to Hampton, which was Hampton Institute at the time. At the same time, I also had a summer fellowship appointment with NASA Langley. With that institute, with NASA Langley, when I was there was in the summer between St. Paul’s and Hampton. I was involved with remote sensing, and that’s how I got involved in doing remote sensing work. I was doing work with NASA Scientist Lamont Poole in an ocean environment then as opposed to working in an atmospheric environment, but a lot of the same principles and techniques we were developing both theoretically and experimentally applied to both areas.
Demetrius, tell me about NASA’s remote sensing program. What were some of the broader research questions that prompted the development of this program?
In that timeframe? This was in late ’70s, mid-’70s. The questions at that time had to do with transmission of radiation in the atmosphere—no, I’m sorry—in the ocean. We were looking at chlorophyll content, being able to monitor chlorophyll content. All those, I guess as well as recent things I’ve done, all this goes back to satellite measurements, being able to validate measurements that are made from space. You develop…You send up satellites with these instruments on them, but you needed a way to validate these instruments, so ground-based measurements were always being developed as a way to validate satellite systems. So, it had to do with developing measurement techniques. I don’t know if calibration is the right word, but certainly validation of satellite measurements and being able to measure chlorophyll content and phytoplankton contents in water, ocean environments. I was involved with that for several years.
What was your original title when you got to Hampton? Were you Professor of Physics?
I was Assistant Professor of Physics.
So, it was tenure track.
Yes, it was.
How big was the physics program at that point? How many professors were there? What opportunities were there to work with students and graduate students?
Well, Hampton was interesting. My choice…, as much as you have a choice. I did have a couple of other job offers at the time, but my choice to go to Hampton was because of the closeness to NASA Langley. The physics department was a three-person department at that time. I went there in ’78, and Dr. Kwang Han and Dr. Donald Whitney and I constituted the physics program. We only had an undergraduate program, only had a bachelor’s degree, and it had, I don’t know, maybe between 12 and 20 students. I don’t remember the exact number, but it wasn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, the largest department. But it was a good program and it had some decent students. But as I said, the reason I picked that, I selected that one of the choices that I had, was because I could do research with NASA Langley. We started, the three of us, being successful in getting some grants to support some work that we wanted to do there, and at the same time, I think almost immediately we agreed that we wanted to start to expand the department, so our first effort was… And let me just back up for a second because when I first went there, the name was the Department of Chemistry and Physics, so it was a combined chemistry and physics department. The numbers I gave you were the numbers on the physics side. But we decided we wanted to go ahead and expand the physics component and have a full-fledged physics department and to move into graduate studies. The president was interested in developing an engineering program, and the University did have a dual degree engineering program with George Washington University in Washington, D.C. at that time, which was not very successful with respect to the number of students. So, we said to the administration that we as a physics program would be willing to work with the development of the dual degree engineering program and making that more successful, but at the same time to be able to pursue the development of a graduate physics program. So, in my second year or my third year, I guess, I became the…I don’t remember the title, but it was the director of the dual degree engineering program which we had revamped and moved from George Washington University to Old Dominion University in Norfolk, which is about 20 miles from the Hampton campus. We felt that by working with a local university…You know, ODU did not have the reputation that George Washington had, but we felt that working with a local university would allow us to be much more successful in recruiting students and getting students through the program. One of the problems with George Washington—not with George Washington, but with the program—was that students would come into Hampton and be interested in doing the dual degree in engineering but just didn’t want to leave Hampton and go to George Washington in the last two years of their program. So, the program with ODU, a lot of students would stay on Hampton’s campus and just commute to ODU to take courses. So, that turned out to be a lot more successful model for us for getting students through the engineering sequence. We were fairly successful with that. The outcome of that was that we left chemistry. We became the Department of Physics and Engineering Studies. I was appointed the chairman of that department. That was my third year there, and we also began to develop the research component in physics and engineering studies primarily with NASA Langley. We then moved to developing graduate courses, and we also started at that time to expand the faculty. So, we expanded the faculty and we brought on a couple of people to handle the engineering side and we brought on a couple of…at least one more person, Warren Buck, to do physics with us. So, it was four of us doing physics and another three doing engineering at that time. So, the plan was that engineering…which we were bringing in a lot of money to do engineering. It was very popular in the early ’80s and we were getting a lot of foundation money to develop engineering. We got money to build a building from Olin Foundation for a new engineering building, and as a part of the deal, we would also house physics in that same building because the physics department was the one that was running it, with the understanding that engineering would become…I think the funders wanted us to commit to engineering becoming a school, but our structure was a little different. The university structure was a little different, so we ended up creating a department that included electrical engineering and chemical engineering. Interesting choice of departments, of disciplines in engineering, but a lot of that was driven by the available funding at that time. So about, I don’t know, within about four years I think engineering became its own department and physics became its own department and physics began to offer the master’s degree. We had developed enough research that we could do that, and we had developed the graduate courses. I don’t remember the numbers, but we had hired at least one more faculty person, so it was probably five of us in physics at that time. We were really growing with the relationship with NASA Langley, and at about that timeframe as well, NEAL, which I guess you have heard of it as CEBAF… I don’t know if you’ve heard of CEBAF.
That’s the precursor to the Jefferson Laboratory in Newport News, nuclear physics laboratory. They started in the early ’80s as well, and it was called CEBAF (Continuous Electron Beam Accelerator Facility) at that timeframe. The Southeastern University Research Association, which was putting together CEBAF, invited us to be a part of it because they wanted local institutions involved, so that worked out well for us. As I said, that was in Newport News, which was ten miles from campus. As a part of that, we entered into several agreements with them, and one of those agreements was that we would be able to do dual appointments with faculty. So, we did some dual appointments with faculty whereby a faculty member would have a half-time appointment at Hampton and a half-time appointment at CEBAF. (Let’s call it Jefferson Lab because that’s the current name of it.) Half-time appointment at Jefferson Lab. That worked out extremely well for us. First of all, we really helped them in recruiting predominantly and really accomplished African American scientists. I think the first appointment we had there was with O. Keith Baker, who is now at Yale. Keith came on board as a dual appointee, and the university…Well, I mean the physics program was starting to grow at the time, but the university liked that arrangement in that the university would get a person to teach competitive physics and do research and bring in grants and only pay half their salary. The faculty member had to work hard because he was obviously splitting his time between two places, but with the advent of the graduate program, we started to emphasize nuclear physics as one of the two components—optical physics through NASA and nuclear physics through Jefferson Lab. So, things were beginning to come together for us in a fairly successful manner at that point in time. Then from there we just continued to grow. We moved into the new building probably around ’87, ’88.
Demetrius, kind of a broad question, but I’m curious about your perspective on the motivation of these partnerships between what would become Jefferson Lab and NASA Langley. To what extent was the motivation about providing opportunities in science for underrepresented groups on their end, and to what extent was it about you all were just great to partner with because you were doing good science and you were useful to their mission?
I can’t speak for them, but I can tell you from where I sit what it looked like. Certainly, they were given mandates to involve more minority scientists, and that was certainly the underlying driving rationale behind it. It’s political as well as what they would call a manpower issue and a lot of other things. But I have to say that although it was being driven from the top because they had to involve more minority scientists—you hear the same thing today—otherwise you’re going to have a big issue with manpower down the line. From my point of view, I argue diversity is important because diversity brings new perspective, and that really is how one expects science to expand itself as well as by having new ideas. But having said all that, the individuals that we worked with all the way from the laboratory directors in both Langley and Jefferson all the way down to the individual technicians in my experience were genuinely interested in working with those of us from Hampton as scientists, not just because we were minority scientists, but working with us as scientists helping to accomplish scientific goals. So, although the driving factor, the initiating factor had to do with mandates at the federal level and funding level to involve more minorities, I think at the working level, it really was more than just that. It was that, plus it was developing a working relationship with scientific colleagues.
Demetrius, in light of your increasing administrative responsibilities at Hampton as dean, as vice president, as executive vice president, and provost, obviously with these responsibilities that’s going to pull you out of the laboratory, perhaps even more than you’d like. So, with that in mind, what were some of your motivations in accepting these increasing responsibilities at Hampton? What did you want to accomplish in those roles?
Hmm. Well, it started out fairly simply. We had as a department made a commitment that we were going to do a PhD, and the university had said to us, “Well, if you can go out and generate x number of dollars”—and I believe it was $1 million a year or something like that. “If you can generate those numbers in research funding, then we will approve you to do that.” So, we had gotten to the point that we had the numbers, the dollar numbers at least. We had gotten to the point that we had the students. We had a significant number of students in the master’s program then who wanted to stay on for a PhD. The president said, “Well, the dean of the graduate school’s position is open, and you can go do that.” It wasn’t a question; it was a statement. To me and to my department, though, if we were going to be successful in getting the PhD program through the bureaucracy that was necessary, it had to be led at the administrative level. It couldn’t just be done from us in the physics department. At that time, Hampton did not offer a PhD, and as a private institution in the state of Virginia, we were governed by SCHEV (State Council of Higher Education in Virginia), and in order for us to be chartered to offer a PhD in any discipline, the university had to develop the first three PhD programs and go through a validation process, an approval process of having each program approved by the State Council. That was a lot of bureaucracy that took a lot of support across the entire university and the ability to show a lot of commitment and financial support across the university. So, I could do that. I would have a much better chance of accomplishing that being the dean of the graduate school, and dean of the graduate school was also the person who was the vice president or associate vice president for research who was responsible for all the faculty research on campus as well. So, that was the reason that I was willing to move into the administrative side. Once I got there, then we were successful in getting the PhD program approved by the State Council. So, I felt good about that. But as things happen at universities, personnel changes, I guess I had felt about myself as someone who could get some things accomplished. I was moved into a couple of higher-level positions simply because of the desires of the university at that time. I had never had a whole lot of personal preference to move up in administration. I was happy being chairman of the physics department. Being dean of the graduate school was a big plus in helping us to make sure we got that PhD program approved. So, I moved up and once you start moving up in administration, you tend to go based on the needs of the university.
Demetrius, tell me about the research Center for Optical Physics that NASA supported. How did that get started, and what were some of the accomplishments during your time as director?
Okay. We had about, I don’t know, maybe six of us in the department, seven of us or so in the department at that time and about half a dozen full time research associates, and we had a series of small grants that we had from NASA, from some other agencies, DOD agencies, and then also from energy-related disciplines. I guess I don’t remember Department of Energy. Maybe, but on the Jefferson Lab side, National Science Foundation, and a couple other grants. So, what we were trying to do was to find a way to allow us to be more efficient in the administration of all these grants that we had. NASA actually approached us and said, “Look. We can combine these grants that have a common focus into a single center and in so doing make the administration simpler.” So, we had to go in and compete with centers. I don’t remember which competition it was for NASA. We had to do some type of competition, and it was really looking at all the research that we were doing through several different mechanisms, grant mechanisms, and combining those into a single center with an overarching theme. This one happened to have been on the optics side. At the same time, we had convinced the university to develop a new research laboratory for physics. This was a…I don’t know. It was an old building that the university agreed to renovate to turn into a physics research lab. So, using that new renovated facility, combining several grants together, administratively we came up with the Research Center for Optical Physics on the optics side, and we did something similar on the nuclear side. I don’t remember the name of it. NuHEP. I don’t remember exactly what the acronym stood for. NuHEP was funded primarily through the National Science Foundation, and the Research Center for Optical Physics was funded primarily through NASA, although we had other funding agents with support for the similar activities. I don’t know if I answered your original question of accomplishments. I was not as much in the lab then. I was mostly on the administrative side, and with administration comes a lot of other responsibilities which kept me out of the lab, as you had alluded to earlier, which I was not overly happy with, but you know, you do what you do in order to accomplish what it is you want to accomplish. So, we had a lot of younger people. Since I’m rambling on, talking here, let me just go back because this was not all just me by any stretch of the imagination. When I first went to physics, there was Professor Han and I guess Assistant Professor Donald Whitney and myself. We were the original three people in physics who sort of started all this, who tried to get all this done. Over the course of time, the next person to be brought on board was Warren Buck, who was a William and Mary graduate who was a nuclear physicist who really led the nuclear physics effort. Then just to name a few, Calvin Lowe, who was an optical person out of…Calvin was from MIT. And Keith Baker; I already mentioned Keith’s name. He came out of Stanford. Don Lyons from Lawrence Livermore, Larry Petway who came over from NASA, and Doyle Temple from LSU —and there are lots of others. I’m just mentioning a couple of the early ones. Then through the grants with NASA and JLab (Jefferson Lab), we hired lots of research associates. They were really instrumental in helping us to get the work done. A lot of people who were contractors for NASA were hired through us and worked with us in our labs, as well as a lot of the dual appointment people at JLab. Because I wasn’t so much involved in the day-to-day activities in the department at that point, …I think the people I mentioned were the ones who were most prominent at the time I was in the department on a day-to-day basis.
When it was time to think about leaving for Howard, how well solidified were all of the programs and initiatives that you had built at Hampton? Was the graduate program in a good position? Was the Center for Optical Physics doing well?
Yes, yes, yes. The first PhD had not graduated as of the time I left, although students were in the pipeline. I just wanted to mention… I was mentioning names to you without any explanation, but I wanted to mention Abe Eftekhari and Alkesh Punjabi, Bagher Tabibi, and Ja H. Lee as also people who were just extremely instrumental with us in getting all that work started. I just didn’t want to leave them off. They were very much involved at the time I wasn’t working on a day-to-day basis. But yes, to answer your question the department was going strong. Physics was bringing in lots of funding. We had an excellent relationship going on with NASA and an excellent relationship going on with CEBAF or JLab. So, things were going quite well at that point in time. You know, I used to think that it was too much tied into soft money, but I guess most research institutions are too much tied into soft money. It was probably about as well as one could expect from direct university support. It would have been nice to have had more, but it’s an institution and it did a lot more things other than just physics. But the department was in very good shape. There must have been, I don’t know, maybe 15 faculty members by the time I left.
Did Howard reach out? Did they recruit you? Were you looking for a move yourself?
I was looking for a move. I really wasn’t all that interested in continuing in administration. By the time I got to be executive vice president and provost, I just said, “I really am more interested in just being in physics and doing research.” Yeah, I wanted to teach-- I could stay where I was forever, assuming I didn’t make too many enemies, which is always a challenge when you’re in a position like that, or I could go on to try to be a president somewhere, or I could try to go back into teaching. I really didn’t want to go on to be a president and I wasn’t happy just being totally in administration, I wanted to go back into research. I didn’t think that I could do that comfortably and stay at Hampton simply because…You know, when you move from a position like that and you try to go back into where you were before, it always carries some baggage with it, and it’s a little easier to make a lateral move to get back into the research side. You don’t want to have to be calling on favoritism or you don’t want people to say, “Oh well, you can’t do that anymore.” There are all kinds of idiosyncrasies there, so to me it was better just to move on. So, I actually approached my friend at Howard, and Howard was actually looking for a department chairman at the time. I told him that I would be interested in applying for that position and he encouraged me to apply. That would have been Dr. Thorpe again, who I mentioned a couple of times.
Demetrius, in terms of your research at that point, seeing this as an opportunity to unburden yourself somewhat of the administrative responsibilities, what were you looking forward to in terms of getting back to in the lab with the research?
Well, I wanted to do optics, something in optics, something related to optics, something related to what I had been doing. I did not go there with any promises to work on a particular thing. I was given startup money to use as I saw fit. What I was interested in was the Beltsville Center, which the university had. At that time, the university had a grant with NASA, a large center grant with NASA which I joined in on, and that grant was Center for the Study of Terrestrial and Extraterrestrial Atmospheres. CSTEA is what they called it, and it was multifaceted. It must have had a dozen faculty members on it, and I joined that. As a part of that, I took on the development of a LiDAR system for monitoring atmospheric properties. The physics department had a DOE funded facility, run by Walter Lowe, in Beltsville, Maryland, and that was primarily a synchrotron radiation facility, but it was 50 acres of land and the synchrotron people were just using one half of it. This had been surplus property that was handed over, I don’t know, from the Navy or the Army, back from the World War II era. The history of it is convoluted, but I guess it would ultimately end up as surplus property that the university acquired through USGS. That was in Beltsville, Maryland, which is not too far from you guys in AIP. So, I took on the task of developing a LiDAR system or LiDAR systems there as sort of the first measurements in the atmospheric science area that we did out there. I guess that’s where I started. The funding came through this already existing program. Ultimately, I became director of that program and continued to grow and expand that and put in lots of other research avenues to fund the work being done out there. The synchrotron radiation—that project ultimately ended, and the atmospheric monitoring work expanded. So, we built several different generations of a LiDAR facility. We were involved primarily with the people from NASA Goddard, so I just continued my relationship with NASA, but instead of doing remote sensing in the marine environment, we were doing remote sensing in the atmosphere. What I was specifically doing was looking at constituents, primarily temporal and special distribution of water vapor, to try to look at long-term trend changes in water vapor to be able to correlate them with climate changes. Ultimately, the Center had a full monitoring system out there that looked at many different aspects of atmospheric measurements. Mine was just the LiDAR.
Demetrius, I’m curious with regard to the component of extraterrestrial atmospheres, if this research was relevant for NASA’s astrobiology program in detecting possible biosignatures of life elsewhere.
Most of the extraterrestrial work that was a part of that program focused in on the atmosphere of Titan and on some solar physics. I was not personally involved with either one of those, but there was no…I’m not aware of any effort to look at bio aspects of it, so I’m not really sure. Well, I’m quite sure that there was no real effort to look for evidence of life in the actual experiments that we were doing. We were looking at solar aspects, solar physics, and we had a couple of people doing some detailed studies of the atmosphere.
I wonder if you can explain some of the science that connects this research with the overall mission to better understand climate change.
Well, my focus…You know, NASA and NOAA—because we had a significant amount of funding from NOAA. Although most of my funding was NASA’s, a lot of members of the group had significant funding from NOAA. We were primarily working with satellite systems, the Earth-observing aspect of NASA and NOAA science where one puts satellite systems up and looks back at the Earth. When you look back at the Earth, you monitor all kinds of things: temperature; you monitor humidity; you monitor ozone, etc. So, whatever one actually happens to be monitoring, one has to be sure that the satellite system’s data are being properly interpreted, and that’s when we get into validation. So, we were working on ground-based validation techniques to validate the measurements that one would receive from the satellite system. This would also—I don’t know if it would calibrate, but it would also give you the scientific basis for a proper interpretation of those data as well. So, if you had a satellite system and the satellite was looking back at water vapor, trying to measure water vapor content globally, you had to have ground-based measurements at a particular location on the Earth that would say, “Yes, this is what the actual water vapor number is, and this is what the satellite should be measuring when it looks at this spot on Earth.” So, it was overall validation. Now as to why the climate was increasing or not, I was not directly involved in answering that question. We obviously need to study a lot of the basic physics in developing the models for these operations that we were doing, but also what we were doing was validation.
Demetrius, on the teaching side, what were some of the differences being a professor at Howard versus being a professor at Hampton?
Differences in teaching? Howard probably had a much broader department. At Hampton the department was fairly narrowly focused into the two disciplines that I talked about. Howard was a much broader department. I grew up with Hampton; Hampton grew up with me, whichever way you want to look at it. Howard was an established program that I came into, so from my perspective, they were very different. I had a hand in hiring, everybody at Hampton, except for Donald Whitney and Kwang Han, so I knew them and they knew me and there was that type of relationship there. Howard was different in the sense that you had well-established senior faculty members who had been there for a long time who understood what they were doing and why they were doing it and had their own goals and objectives. So, from the standpoint of teaching, there was a wider variety of things that needed to be taught. I didn’t personally have to teach them. Initially, I still taught primarily optics and undergraduate courses, and the graduate work I did was some sort of spectroscopy or remote sensing or something that was very closely related to the research that I was doing. I didn’t have to teach core graduate courses like classical mechanics or quantum mechanics. You know, at Hampton, from time to time you’d have to teach those because you didn’t have as many faculty members, so you’d have to teach what was necessary. But at Howard, those courses were covered. I spent my time at Howard teaching primarily experimental laboratory classes, helping to revamp those. I got a couple of grants, Department of Education, NSF grants to enhance the laboratories. I took that on as part of my faculty duties very early on there, both the intermediate lab as well as the modern physics lab. So, I spent a lot of time and effort with that. As I said, I primarily taught optics and some quantum physics in my early days there. Toward the end of my career, I taught general astronomy. But the department was a well-established department. It would have been… I don’t know where you would have gone to school, but it would have been…Howard is very much like any other major physics program that one would attend as opposed to Hampton, which was just trying to get started and developed. It was totally different.
Demetrius, I suppose it was only a matter of time before administrative responsibilities came beckoning for you at Howard, first as chair of the department and then as interim associate provost. What were some of the challenges you encountered and some of your accomplishments in both of those roles?
Well, I went to Howard as the department chair. The condition under which they hired me was to serve as the chairman of the department. I’ll come back to that, but the interim associate provost for research was more of an emergency situation. I’m continuing to get a notice here that my internet connection is unstable, so I don’t know how much I’m breaking up with you or not, but I’ll just continue to go on. Someone left the university under very unusual circumstances—I don’t remember the circumstances—which left the research position open. A situation where this position is all of a sudden vacant and we need it filled quickly. The provost at Howard was someone I knew from the time that I was a provost. Because he knew me and he knew what my abilities and my past experiences [were], he said, “Can you do this for us on an interim basis?” and I agreed that I would do it. But I only was doing it on a short-term basis; it wasn’t something that I had agreed to take on permanently. I said, “I left Hampton because I was interested in getting out of administration,” and he understood that, so I only did that for about six months. I continued to serve as department chair during that period of time as well, so I didn’t give that up. I put that on my resume because that’s something I had to do, and I did. I went in and… It was probably, to be honest with you, more of a caretaker’s role. I didn’t try to present new challenges or anything like that, goals or objectives. I took it on as an interim caretaker’s role just to keep that office functional at that time and trying to bring in…increase research funding. They just thought that was a critical role that needed to be well-managed. So that’s how I got to that one. Department chairman was a little different. I did come in as department chairman with very specific goals and objectives to enhance productivity. One of my criticisms of Howard, something that I held even back in my undergraduate days was that graduate students stayed in programs too long. I thought that there needed to be more of an effort to move PhD students through the system in a more timely manner, so I tried to develop some goals and objectives toward doing that. Because of my old days at IBM, I learned that you have some people who do a lot of work and some people who don’t do as much work and the whole place keeps moving forward, but it’s always better to share, particularly the ones who do as much of their share as you possibly can. So, I tried to get all the faculty to come up at a certain level, have certain targets with respect to production of research activities and production of graduate students. You obviously always have measured research productivity in terms of publication, but we also measured it in terms of grant funding in the sense that the big grant funding was almost a direct correlation with the ability to support your students. You had a certain number of teaching assistantships that the department could offer, but one would hope that those would only go to first-year students, or at most second-year students, and that students would be supported through their dissertation advisors’ research labs for the remainder of their career. So, we made a big effort to try to get more faculty to provide support for graduate students as opposed to relying so much on the teaching assistants to conduct research for them. And we put some targets on how many students. We said, “Ideally we’d like you to produce one PhD student every two years,” and things of that nature so people would have targets and goals.
Demetrius, tell me what it was like when you won NASA’s Distinguished Public Service Medal. This must have felt like a tremendous honor for you.
It was. It was. This was back when I was at Hampton, and it was. We had developed an extremely positive working relationship with NASA Langley, and I think I tried to make sure early on that an outgrowth of that we were able to develop would be a successful PhD program. I think NASA could also look and say, “Look. Because of what NASA has done for Hampton, Hampton has been able to develop a PhD program,” so in that sense, I think it was a source of pride because we would not, could not have done it otherwise. It would not have been done if not for the support of NASA and JLab, but NASA played a critical role in one of the two disciplines. So, I was very proud of that. I think that came out of the initiative of the people who I worked with at NASA. They felt that Hampton had done an excellent job in providing these educational opportunities and I think they were very proud of the role that they played in helping Hampton to get to where it was with respect to developing a PhD program.
Demetrius, when did you get involved with the National Society of Black Physicists? Has the mission of the NSBP changed over the years, or do you see that it’s been more or less stable?
There are guys who can tell you a lot more about the history of NSBP than I can. It started in the ’70s. I got involved with it after I finished graduate school, probably about the time I went to St. Paul’s College. I’m trying to remember; I don’t remember the dates. Let’s see. There was a program called the Day of Scientific Lectures, I believe is the correct terminology, and as you talk to other black physicists of my age group, they might be a little more accurate. But I believe it was called the Day of Scientific Lectures in which African American physicists got together for a day of lectures. I believe a group that came out of that became the National Society of Black Physicists. I remember attending some meetings at Howard…long before I got to Howard. I think it was probably the ’70s. I don’t believe it was as early as the ’60s, but it may have been in the vicinity. Certainly, in the ’70s. I don’t think the overall mission has changed. I think that it has moved from more of just an opportunity to present research to more of a proactive organization particularly trying to promote the research and an organization trying to encourage young people, students, young faculty, particularly undergraduate students, to be involved in the discipline. So, I think that the mission has probably expanded slightly over time. I don’t keep up with it on a day-to-day basis, but I think that the mission has always been a positive one. I think that the annual programs, meetings, have always been an excellent opportunity for people to interact. I served on the board, I guess, when Jim Stith was president. Jim and I go way back, so I knew him for a long time. He also graduated from Virginia State a little bit before me, but I knew him because of that. So it, in my opinion, has been a positive organization for the promotion of African American scientists, and it’s been a very positive organization for trying to encourage African Americans to get into physics and to stay in physics and to provide advice on how young people can be successful in physics. It’s been a nice showcase. It’s been a good showcase. There are a lot of very successful physicists, much more successful than I am with respect to their research, who have had an opportunity to interact with people through that organization. And probably now it’s a bit more political than it was when I was there, when I was involved with it. Politics are so crucial in everything you do today, particularly when you try to argue and fight for funds. I guess that could be the case, or maybe I’m just older and I see things differently. I don’t know, but I think it’s probably a little more political now than it used to be.
Demetrius, to bring that conversation right up to the present, of course this past year plus has been quite painful with the murder of George Floyd, so many other awful events that have happened in our country. There has been, as you well know, a response in STEM to become more inclusive and diverse. To what extent do you see these recent events as opportunities, and to what extent might you be suspicious that these responses are not long-term, that things might not change to the extent that they need to?
You know, I can remember from the ’60s and the ’70s when we talked about the need to have more diversity in STEM, the need to have more underrepresented minorities in physics. I remember a conversation in Physics Today about whether there was such a thing as black physics, or when someone was arguing that there needed to be more of an effort to encourage African Americans in physics, to be in physics. So, it’s never been a simple thing. It’s always been a difficult thing, and I certainly can recall from the ’80s in my time when I was most involved in trying to grow and develop myself professionally as well as those programs around me the argument about “Why do you need to be arguing so much about diversity? The bottom line is to get physics done.” I said to you earlier that I strongly believe that all science benefits from diverse thought. If all we do is follow the same straight line of reasoning, it gets us somewhere, but it doesn’t always get us to where we need to be, and sometimes some diversity in thought is extremely helpful in helping to develop and bring out new ideas. And you add to that the fact that you have the manpower issue, that if you don’t involve more minorities, you run out of individuals to help you, to work with you, to work for you in STEM disciplines. The events of the day, in my opinion, are not very different from the events in the past. I mean, George Floyd, it’s a terrible thing. The difference in George Floyd is the fact that people have cameras in their hands. The difference with George Floyd is the camera, I mean the fact that this is now recorded. Police have murdered black people in horrible ways for long times. We just don’t usually get it on video, and I think what you’re seeing today, so much of what you see today is just the fact that we now have the internet and video. So, some good things come out of it; bad things will come out of this as well. It’s sort of like you talk about science. You know, you develop something in science, and there are some good things that are going to come out of it and there are some bad things that can potentially come out of it as well. So, you do it and then it’s going to be up to society and the world as to how best to use it. You don’t stop doing science just because there is the potential that someone may use it in a negative way, but we carry forward. So, I think that with respect to the events that are going on today, I think it’s good that people are looking at these events and saying that they’re horrible and that they are terrible and that we need to do something to correct these, to make the world a better place. I think that as far as STEM is concerned, those of us in STEM should do everything we possibly can, as well as those of us in social sciences and whatever other disciplines there are out there, do as much as we can to improve the world and make the world a better place for everyone to live in. I don’t know that these solutions will be long-term. I do know that it is important to hold people accountable for wrongdoing, and if we as a society realize that more people are being held accountable for wrongdoing—although I don’t know if the amount of wrongdoing has changed, but if we just realize that more people are being held accountable, I think that’s going to be a positive thing. We’re never going to solve the problem of people’s prejudices. That’s not going to go away. I mean, it may take generations for that to happen, but I can pretty much guess that by the time we solve the problem of people’s prejudices, we’ll have other problems that pop up over those generations that will need to be solved and that will be just as critical to be solved as well. So, I can be hopeful, but the problems of humanity are not all going to be solved by STEM people alone.
Demetrius, I know you have a longstanding interest in physics education. I wonder in what ways this interest is integrated with your interest in making STEM more inclusive and more available to underrepresented groups.
Hmm. I’m a big lover of learning. I think that knowledge is an important thing, no matter how one obtains that. In all honesty, I don’t get overly concerned about what one is going to do with that. I think it’s first of all just important to be knowledgeable about things, and that’s true whether one is a minority or not. I think that education--I mean, I grew up in a society where we were told that the way out of the life that we lived, the constraints that we were under, was to become educated. As a kid, we were taught that education is your key to success, and that has not gone away for me. I still strongly believe that education is important for a successful life in our society and probably in any society. STEM education, because I have a personal interest in it, I think that technology will continue to grow. I think the more responsible people we have involved with the technology, the better the decisions will be made as to how to use that technology. It’s not going to go away; we just have to decide how to appropriately use it. So, I just believe in education. I believe in education. I believe in education for all. I don’t believe it should be restricted from anyone, so if you’re a minority person, you should have the same opportunities and privileges to an education as anyone else. In all honesty, it does not have to be STEM. I’ve told students plenty of times it’s better to be an A student in the humanities than a C student in engineering, and I truly believe that, although I have nothing against C students in engineering. I’m not trying to say that; I’m simply saying that one should be the best at what it is you do, as good as you can be at it. That’s what is important to me. Now if I see a person with a great potential to go into finance as well as a great potential to go into physics, I will try to convince them to go into physics, but in the final analysis, the choice is hers. She should do whatever she feels most comfortable with. I would certainly try to let her be aware of the opportunities in physics as I see them, and I would encourage her to talk to people who know more about finance to learn about those opportunities as well.
Demetrius, for the last part of our talk, I’d like to ask a broadly retrospective question about your career, and then we’ll end looking to the future. So my first question is because you have accomplished so much, both on the science side and the sociology side—in other words, lifting people up through the sciences—what are you most proud of in terms of your science and your discovery, and what are you most proud of in terms of the opportunities you’ve created for younger generations of scientists out there?
Well, I guess the thing I’m most proud of in terms of opportunities is that I think I put some programs in place that have opened opportunities, opened doors for young people. I think the PhD program in physics is one of the best accomplishments of mine from an education standpoint. I think just creating physics opportunities for students to me is important, but if you had to rank things, the PhD in physics and the work I did in helping with the interdisciplinary atmospheric science program at Howard—those to me are probably the best accomplishments from an education standpoint. As far as research is concerned, I’ve had a half dozen PhD students who I feel very good about. I didn’t always strive to work with only the most accomplished student. I strived to work with students who I saw potential in, who in my opinion could do the work but needed some guidance. I always spent lots and lots of time with my PhD students so that I could try to make sure they had whatever opportunities that they could qualify for; they would be ready to step into those when the opportunity came. I felt strongly that I tried to develop a working relationship with my PhD students that would allow them to be successful. I’m not saying that they couldn’t have been successful elsewhere, but I wanted to make sure that they had the opportunity to be ready when the next step came along. As far as research is concerned, my research has probably not been as focused on one area as you would find for people who have accomplished really significant work and get awards for that work. My research has been a bit more diversified, but I would say that the thing that I’m probably proudest of is some of the work I’ve done with validation in LiDAR systems and some of the more recent stuff I’ve done in applying optics modeling to try to understand direct calibration for water vapor Raman LiDAR systems. I’ve done some papers on direct calibration for measuring water vapor using LiDAR.
Finally, Demetrius, looking to the future for my last question, it’s so exciting to look at all of the laboratories and initiatives you’ve been involved with in expanding Howard’s scientific reach. So, with regard to the Beltsville research campus and others, what are you most optimistic about regarding Howard’s capacity to be at the forefront of cutting-edge science in any number of areas?
Well, Howard has a good, strong physics program. There’s no question about that. When I went into Howard, it was sort of a generational thing. Most of us were fairly older and more senior in status. Howard now has a cadre of young people who are associate professors just moving into the professor level who are going to do great things, so I’m extremely optimistic, not just with the atmospheric work being done at Beltsville, but with work throughout the department. The chairman is a very dynamic individual. They are expanding their areas of research. They are bringing back a lot of work in solid state, doing a lot of work in nano, doing a lot of work in materials, so they are expanding and just doing a lot more now than when I was there. I think when I first went to Howard, we were sort of in a generational shift timeframe where we needed to get…Some of the older people who had been around for a long time and were well-established were probably beginning to think about retirement and moving out and were emphasizing trying to bring on new people. So, I think that the department has a great future ahead, and I think it has the leadership in place to make sure that happens.
Well, Demetrius, it’s been a great pleasure spending this time with you. I’m so happy we were able to engage and get your perspective on all of your accomplishments and work in the field, so I’d like to thank you so much for this.
It’s been my pleasure.