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Interview of Lynwood Randolph by David Zierler on September 9, 2020,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
Interview with Lynwood Randolph, physicist and former space program administrator at NASA. Randolph recounts his childhood in a segregated Richmond and remembers his love for music as well as his introduction to physics in high school. He explains his decision to attend Virginia State University, where he participated in the ROTC program and served in the military upon graduation. After his service, Randolph decided to pursue graduate school and received a National Defense Education Act fellowship to attend Howard University. He explains his focus on experimental work during his graduate studies, pertaining to radiation effects and optical properties of materials. Randolph began a summer job at Harry Diamond Laboratories in DC, where he went on to work for 10 years. Randolph discusses the limitations in the types of jobs available to African Americans at the time, and explains the opportunity at NASA that led him to spend 23 years there. He served in many roles such as Manager for Advanced Concepts in the office of Aeronautics and Space Technology, Chief of the Management Programs Branch, and, later, Information Technology Standards Manager. Randolph reflects on the diversity within NASA over the years and how technology innovations impacted the workplace landscape. He discusses his work with HBCUs and his creation of LES Associates, a consulting company that works in a variety of educational and technological areas. Randolph concludes the interview with reflections on the importance of mentorship and diversity within the field.
Okay. This is David Zierler, Oral History for the American Institute of Physics. It is September 9th, 2020. I’m so glad to be here with Lynwood P. Randolph. Lynwood, thank you so much for joining me today.
I’m certainly glad to be here today, and to join you and others who have participated in this process.
Wonderful. Okay. Lynwood, so, to start, would you please tell me your most recent title and institutional affiliation?
My most recent title and institution. Uh, let me think back now, because I’ve actually started my own consulting company back in ’98. And I’m still president and CEO, although I’m not very active in that particular role. I guess as far as institutions were concerned probably back in the 2005 year or about’s. I was an associate at Texas Southern University here in Houston, Texas. And I served in that capacity for, I think, it was four or five years. And that was the last official, I guess, job that I had. I have and been doing consulting work since 1998.
Okay, Lynwood. Let’s now take it back all the way to the beginning. Let’s start first with your parents. I’d love to hear about them, starting with where they are from.
Both of my parents were from Richmond, Virginia. My dad grew up in Richmond, Virginia. He was the first college graduate in his family. He went to Virginia Union University. And then from there, he taught for a year. And then he actually went to work for his brother who had assisted him in going to school. And my dad’s family did not have very much money at the time. And his brother, who was in the restaurant business, helped to support him in school. So, after teaching for a year, my dad decided to go to work for his brother to help him out with his business. And that’s what he ended up doing for the rest of his life. My mother, who was educated in Richmond also, went to high school; she didn’t have an opportunity to go to college. But she raised me and my brother and sister in Richmond—on the south side of Richmond, Virginia.
And that’s where you grew up? You spent your childhood in Richmond?
Yes, I did. In Southside, Richmond, Virginia, back in the ’40s and 1950s.
Lynwood, can you talk about how segregated, or not, Ridgewood…uh, Richmond was in your childhood?
Certainly, I will. Richmond was extremely segregated during that time. When I was in school, in order to go from elementary to high school, we had to go across town. And, unfortunately, my parents did not have money for a vehicle. So, we had to ride public transportation. Public transportation at Richmond, at that time, required African Americans, or Blacks as we were called, to ride in the back of the bus. You could not ride in the front of the bus. There were segregations throughout. Only certain restaurants would allow you into the restaurant. And most of them would require you to go to the back of the restaurant. There were places that you could go to shop, but you could only go to certain areas. And there were bathrooms that were segregated. There were movie theaters that were segregated. So, there was extreme segregation in Richmond during the time that I was raised.
Lynwood, I’d like to hear a little bit about what advice you might have gotten from your parents in terms of navigating that very delicate line between, you know, standing up for yourself and fighting for your dignity, but also not rocking the boat so much that you would actually, you know, endanger yourself.
Well, my mom and dad warned me. They said, “You’ve got to be careful of what you do, and what you say, and to whom you say it. And if you are ever approached by a police officer, do what they tell you to do. Do not resist. Do not cause havoc.” And, so, those were the kinds of advice that I took very seriously. And, as such, I did that. I never had a real incident with police, but once again, I was very cautious in terms of, if I ever were approached, and I don’t recall being approached, I did what I was asked to do.
Were you raised to understand, or did you come to understand on your own pretty quickly that segregation was just intrinsically wrong, or was it just, sort of, the way things were?
Well, I just felt that it was wrong, okay. And my parents explained to me, a lot of the problems that they had had in growing up. And, many of the issues that they had were wrong for African Americans or Blacks at that time. But there was nothing that we could physically do about it. There were [??] demonstrations and such [??] for the time, but as a group, as members of our family, we were not very active in that kind of activity. And, so, we basically did the kinds of things that we could do in order for us to move forward. And one of the things my parents taught all three of us specifically was the fact that, you do the best that you can, particularly in schools. And they had high expectations for my brother, my sister, and I. They said, “We are not very financially well off, but we are going to help to support you. And we would like for you to go to college. Whatever college is available.” And, so,—[Laughs]—having my father being the only college graduate in his family and my mother having no college graduations in her family, my brother, my sister, and I all finished college with the aid of my parents. And that was something that really stuck with us in terms of, making sure that, we could give the right kind of expectations for our children. And to move forward throughout the years, my brother, my sister, and I have attempted to do the same thing for our families. To make a long story short, I have had a successful family. I have had actually four children. Unfortunately, two have passed away. But through the efforts of my working and my wife’s working, we were able to support and have graduated four college graduates from [??] members of our family.
Wow. Congratulations for that.
Well, thank you for that. As we move forward now, my youngest son, okay, has just graduated his first of three children from college, okay. Their second of three children is in his second year of college. And the third of three children is unfortunately, not able to start college this year because of the COVID-19. But she is taking the required courses until the college opens up. So, we have sort of passed it down throughout the ages, and we think that it is very important, particularly to have high expectations for your children as you move forward.
Lynwood, I’d like to go back to your middle school and high school years. And I wonder if you can talk a little bit about what advantages and disadvantages you might see looking back and having grown up in a segregated educational environment.
Well, in the segregated educational environment in Richmond, Virginia, at the time, we had, of course, a segregated elementary school and only African Americans were able to go to that school. The teachers were African Americans, the principal was African American. And we participated in activities that were available then. As I was growing up, I had an interest in a variety of things and my parents were always wanting to support me with whatever I was interested in. And one of those activities happened to have been music. And they had had musical training in my elementary school. And, so, my parents were able to purchase for me a trumpet at that particular time. I was learning to play a trumpet in elementary school. And I really benefitted from that experience, because I loved music. I ended up playing the trumpet all through elementary school.
When I went to high school, I entered the marching band as well as the concert band and I played for the four years that I was in high school. And one of the things that sort of stimulated me to move forward as I did, was the fact that one of the colleges in Petersburg, Virginia. It was an in-state college. [??] Virginia State University would come to our high school and give a band concert annually. And I was extremely impressed with that music and hearing that band. To make a long story short, eventually, I went to Virginia State because of, not only physics but because of the band. And, so, that was one of the experiences that I thought was extremely beneficial to me as I moved through the educational system in Virginia.
Now, of course, there were other schools. There were private white schools. There were public white schools, but these were not available to African Americans. And, so, because of the limitations in terms of what was available at that time, African Americans did not have the opportunities that a lot of other students did. Now, one of the incidents that occurred to me, particularly in Virginia at that time, was in my high school. My high school was a very nice school; good high school. And it had a lot of students. And a number of my classmates, okay, who wanted to go to different schools to, for instance even considering majoring in engineering, okay. Back in that time, engineering was not available for African Americans in the state of Virginia. At no schools that they were admitted to. And, so, what the state would allow you to do, they would provide you with some money for you to go out of state if you wanted to, to schools that would accept African Americans. Shortly thereafter things changed. But during that time, these were some of the circumstances that affected all of us, particularly African Americans, who lived in the state of Virginia.
I’ve heard, Lynwood, from some of your contemporaries that one of the advantages of going to a segregated school was that the teachers were generally very well qualified. In other words, many of them had advanced degrees of their own, and they were teaching in high school simply because that was the job that was available to them. I’m curious if that was your experience at all as well?
Yes, I believe it was. I thought that we had, you know, very, very good teachers who stimulated us, you know, to do the best that we could. And that that was an advantage. To be able to get not only their direction but their attention and their focus in the students to make sure that they gave them the kind of right advice with respect to their capabilities, and where they should be going, and what they should be doing. And I think that was extremely important during that time.
I wanna hear a little bit about how you developed your interest and expertise in science. Were you a standout student in math and science in middle school and high school?
I was an outstanding student in math, okay. In elementary school and in high school I did extremely well in mathematics. But at that time the only potential jobs or things that I could think of doing or being advised to do, was to teach. And I didn’t, at that time, have any real emphasis other than teaching, and I didn’t necessarily want to teach. So, one day, I went to the counselor in high school and told the counselor, I said, “You know, I’m doing very well in mathematics, but I don’t want to necessarily teach. And that seems to be one of the few things, other than, you know, than being a medical doctor, that African Americans can be doing.” And I said, “What advice would you give me with respect to thinking about a career?” And the teacher said, “Well, you know, we have something here at Armstrong High School (where I went to) called physics.” I said, “Physics? How do you spell that?” I had never heard the word before. [Laughs]
She said, “P-h-y-s-i-c-s.” I said, “Really?” She said, “Yes.” I said, “Oh. Hmmm. That sounds interesting.” So, she said, you know, “There is a very good teacher that’s there. And they have science fairs related to that kind of activity. And that would be something that I think you would be very, very interested in doing.” I said, “Yes. That sounds like it may be. Let me try that.” So, that’s how I started physics. [Laughs] I took the physics course there. Got an A in it. Took the Science Fair Program at the end of that. Got a first prize winner in that. And that’s how I started physics. And then having finished the physics course, and then all of the math that I could possible take, she recommended my going to Virginia State University. Because she was educated at Virginia State University under Dr. Hunter. They have a physics department there. And she advised me to consider going there and majoring in physics. And that’s what I did.
Lynwood, what was the talent that you had discovered in yourself when you had this amazing moment where physics clicked for you? Is it that you had a mathematical mind? That you had a way of visualizing things? What was it about your personality or your intellect that worked so well for you in physics?
Well, I guess by my emphasis on math and my emphasis on concentration and doing the best that I can in whatever I attempted to do. And, so, I tried as best as I could always to do the best that I could. To be the top of the class if I possibly could. And I remember one particular incident in high school when I was talking with my dad. We had had an examination and I got a—I think I made a 98% on the exam. And I showed my dad. I said, “Look. I made a 98% on this exam.” He said, “Listen. You could make a 100%. Make sure you concentrate on doing the best that you can every time. Not just on little things, but everything.” And that sort of resonated with me throughout my career, to always focus. To be concentrated on what you’re trying to do. To do the best that you possibly can. And really be focused on whatever you do. And, so, that was one of the things that really resonated with me throughout my career. Always focusing. And, as I said, physics was just something that enticed me. Because, one, there were so many things going on in the subject area that I enjoyed it, okay. And I enjoyed the challenge of understanding what this was all about and being able to accomplish what I did.
What year did you enter college?
What year? It was 1955.
1955. And looking back, what were some of the major issues in physics that were most exciting for you to learn about as an undergraduate?
I don’t remember specifically any specific things in physics at that time. I was just interested in physics in general. And, so, I took all of the courses that were possibly able to take in physics. And I took all of the math courses and science courses. And I also participated in the ROTC program at that particular time. And I ended up, once I had finished college and received my undergraduate degree, I also became a Second Lieutenant in the Army through the ROTC program. And one of the things that I thought about doing was to really—physics was okay, you know, I enjoyed that. But I thought, maybe, you know, I wanted to spend my career in the military.
And, so, I didn’t think about graduate school once I finished undergraduate school. Having then gone into the military service, I spent some time there, and I eventually had gotten married a year after I was in the service. But I’d started to see that this is not something that I would like to do for a career. I think that one of the things that I needed to do was to go on to graduate school. And, so, being in the service, I ended up contacting the head of my department, Dr. Hunter at that time, and to let him know that this is my interest now. I was in the service and I wanted to go to graduate school. And he said, “Well, I will give you whatever assistance I could.” So, eventually, working through Dr Hunter, I was able to get a National Defense Education Act (NDEA) Fellowship to go to graduate school at Howard University. And that’s what pursued me to leave service.
However, I was extremely fortunate because during that particular time there was the “Cuban Missile Crisis.” And I was in service. Was scheduled to be in service for a period of two years. So, once I had received all of the information and the acceptance of the Fellowship, I was told when I was leaving for Ft. Campbell, Kentucky, driving through the Washington, D.C. area that if I did not arrive in Washington D.C. before the Cuban Missile Crisis was initiated, then I was going to be pulled back into service, okay. And if I—once I arrived there, then I would be officially out of service. So, it took about a day and a half for the drive, and I was very excited about that about arriving. And finally said, okay, I am now out of service and in graduate school. And that has been an interesting experience for me because I wasn’t sure whether things were going to work out as I wanted to. But it turns out they did.
That’s incredible. What have you learned from that experience?
I learned that you sometimes you gotta be extremely lucky. You gotta focus on what you want to do. And you gotta think positive about things as they move forward. And that’s what I did. And, unfortunately, when I arrived in the Washington D.C. area for graduate school, I couldn’t find any housing at the time. And, fortunately, I had a former classmate of mine who was also in graduate school ahead of me. And that classmate allowed me to stay in his apartment, sleeping on his couch for about a month. [Laughs] Until I could find a place for my wife and I to live. My wife had had our first child in our family in the western part of Virginia. I finally found a place to live and moved into it, and then moved my family to the Washington D.C. area. And later I had two other children. So, I had a number of children and a lot of support to be able to continue to study in graduate school. But, also, I was told, and continued to be told, you’ve got to focus. You’ve got to focus. And, fortunately, during that period-of-time, I had what I considered as mentors. And that’s one of the things that has stuck with me throughout my career. It is extremely important to have a mentor.
And that’s one of the things that I have been involved in, particularly with the American Physical Society, for a very, very long time. And I’m an advocate of a mentorship. I’ve worked over the years with science fairs, I’ve been head of judges, and a lot of that has to do work with young people, okay. No matter what the race is. And giving them encouragement to move forward. And giving them advice of the kinds of things that you should think about with your career, with what you’re trying to do, and how you’re trying to be successful. And those are the things that have stuck with me, and still stick with me, as I move forward.
I’d like to ask, Lynwood, by the end of your undergraduate degree at Virginia State University, what kind of physics did you want to pursue for graduate school? In other words, were you thinking specifically about theory or experimentation or applied physics? What were the kinds of physics that you saw yourself pursuing as a career?
I was thinking more about a career which involved experimentation, okay. And, so, as I moved through the graduate programs, I just became a lot more interested in theoretical activities than—I’m sorry, in experimental kinds of activities. Because I seemed to be able to focus a lot, you know, by working in the laboratory. And I enjoyed that. And that’s one of the things that has resonated with me as I moved forward with my career. Experimentation was just something that I could focus on. I could work by myself or with a small group. But I could get the focus on it that I needed, okay. I enjoyed theoretical work, but I was more interested in experimental work and seeing the results. And working in the lab and with lab equipment than I was strictly, you know, working with theoretical considerations.
Did you think that you would go to graduate school right away? Or, did you want to spend some time, you know, doing lab work or working in industry?
Well, one of the things that I had thought about as I was working, first of all, on my Bachelor’s degree, was the fact that having a large family, two or three children, I needed financial support. And, so, I decided, okay, well, in order for me to continue in graduate school I need to be able to find a job, okay, where I could continue to go to school. And, so, I was fortunate being in the Washington D.C. area at that time to find a summer job at a place called the Harry Diamond Laboratories. That place no longer exists by that name, but it was an Army Materials Laboratory located up on Connecticut Avenue near the National Bureau of Standards. And, there I got a summer job working in the laboratory. And after spending the summer there working in the laboratory, I was able to continue to work in the laboratory there. And, so, I was working—started to work and continued to work in the laboratory, and took, you know, one or two courses as I moved forward. And I decided, okay, this is probably going to be the best way that I can possibly continue my graduate work. But my work provided financial support that was needed for my family. So, that’s what I ended up doing. And ultimately that’s the reason I was able to finish my doctorate and to work in the laboratory, and then to work at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
How widely did you apply to graduate school? In other words, did you consider other programs beyond Howard?
No, I did not. Primarily because I was, as I said, in the military at the time. I was the commander of an ammunitions supply company at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky. And, I did not have a lot of time for, you know, considerations for other graduate schools. So, Howard University was the principle school that I applied for at that time.
And did you think specifically about who you wanted to work with at Howard? Or, you developed an advisor relationship after you got there?
Uh, no. I did not know specifically any particular person that I wanted to work with. But once I got there, I decided to, particularly, to, you know, that based on the people that were there, there was one professor that I wanted to work with for my Master’s degree. And that’s what took place. Particularly for working on the Master’s degree. The doctorate was another situation that was, in my opinion, quite unique. Once I had started to work during the summers at the Harry Diamond Labs, and then continued to work starting in the fall and started to take graduate courses, there was a young man from the University of Michigan. He was Dr. Robert Oswald who had come to the Harry Diamond Laboratories to work, and he turned out to be my supervisor, okay, there. And, so, as I was working with Bob during that time, and doing experimentations, and we were doing a lot of lab work primarily in the group that I was in. They were doing the so-called underground testing of the radiation effects on materials. And my specialty was looking at the optical properties of materials. And, so, I didn’t do a lot of work on radiation effects, but I was doing a lot of work on optical properties of materials.
And, I started to work very closely with Bob on a number of projects, and then continued to do graduate work. Well, as I was continuing to do graduate work, I started to enter the doctoral program, you know, still taking courses but still working. And one of the issues that came up with respect to my wanting to continue to my doctoral work, particularly at Howard University, was the fact that, because I needed to work and earn money, I needed to be able to do the work at the laboratory. And, the laboratory wanted to be able to sponsor my work. But the university had a consideration. They had never had a graduate student who was able to complete his graduate thesis work off of campus. And they said, “Well, we will consider what you want to do. But the one thing that you have to do, first of all, we have never had this happen before, but we’re going to have to have you to defend your thesis proposal. Not your thesis. The thesis proposal.” I said, “Okay.”
That sounds okay with me. I will be able to do that. They said, “Well, okay. This is what we’re going to do. We’re going to bring together a group of people, you know, to listen to your proposal. And then give you advice as to whether or not we will be able to accept that [??].” Well, as it turns out, during that particular time, Bob Oswald, who I worked for, was one of the people who was going to be on that committee. And Bob’s thesis advisor from the University of Michigan, Dr. C. Kikuchi, okay, was actually had been a previous friend of Dr. Hunter. They went to graduate school together at the University of Cincinnati. And, so, Bob invited his thesis advisor from the University of Michigan to come to Howard University to sit on this panel that was going to be evaluating my thesis proposal.
So, here I am, you know, a young man. I was standing up before seven or eight, you know, Ph.D.s, you know. And I was giving a presentation on my thesis proposal. Everything went well, okay. And everybody said, “Okay. That’s great. You can do it.” [Laughs] And, so, that was what allowed me to be able to move forward to, continue to work, to be my thesis, the experimental work that I was doing in the laboratory, and to eventually to get my doctorate degree. And, so, one of my key mentors during that whole process happened to be Dr. Bob Oswald. Unfortunately, Bob passed away several years ago. He used to work at the Harry Diamond Labs, and then he went to another laboratory. And I went to work for NASA. And he retired and went to Florida. But I was in contact with his family over the period of time. But he passed away. But he was a very, very outstanding mentor for me. And having to guide me through the situations that I was in. But I was fortunate, and as I said, because I had what I considered a mentor I think it’s so important for young people to be mentored. Wherever they are. Whether it’s in elementary school, whether it’s working. Wherever you are. Mentors are extremely important.
Lynwood, I’d like to hear a little bit more about your relationship with Professor Oswald in the sense that I want to hear about how closely related your dissertation research was to the kind of research he was doing. In other words, did he include you in his research and he handed you a problem that was relevant for him? Or, did you more come up with your dissertation topic on your own?
No. He had done some work at the University of Michigan and Bob was not in physics. I think Bob was in mechanical engineering at the time. And his work was principally with radiation effects on materials. And one of the things that he, sort of, brought to the laboratory, Harry Diamond Labs, was using optical properties and looking specifically at radiation effects. And as it turns out, because the laboratory was a materials laboratory, they needed to have the indications of the possible effects of radiation on materials that would be used for various things that the services would have. And, so, that’s how he got started there.
Well, one of the things that Bob had worked on at the laboratory was the optical properties of the materials. And, so, he was able to be able to help set up a laboratory at the Harry Diamond Laboratories which had a lot of semiconductors and all kinds of optical materials and devices for looking at optical properties. And that’s what I’d learned to do. And, so, that’s what I ended up doing using those kinds of materials, okay. And looking specifically at some of the materials that he had eventually started to look at when he was at the University of Michigan which happened to be a substance called cadmium sulfide. When we finally got to doing the thesis work, I was specifically working on cadmium sulfide. Particularly at the optical properties of cadmium sulfide under radiation effects at cryogenic temperatures. And, so, that was my specialty that I got to use and that I eventually was able to do experimental work for my thesis around the country. I did some experimental work at the University of Michigan using their radiation facilities. At the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee at the time, as well as at the National Bureau of Standards, okay, which was located in the Washington D.C. area. So, all of those things sort of came together with respect to what I ended up doing and why I ended up doing it. Basically because of the people and the kind of activity that I was involved in.
Lynwood, did you ever think about pursuing an academic career? Becoming a professor of physics?
No, I did not, because as I said, initially I was not so enthused about teaching. Um, you know, in fact, one of the things that sort of resonated with me during that time was that, you know, the kinds of jobs that African Americans were engaged in, and could find numbers of jobs in, were teaching as well as in the medical fields. I was not particularly interested in the medical field. And teaching itself did not resonate with me initially as being something that I wanted to do. And, so, I eventually wanted to do work in the laboratory. So, in fact, what I ended up doing at the Harry Diamond Laboratories, I ended spending almost 10 years, okay, working in the laboratory there. But, however, in working in the laboratory, I became, you know, a little more conscious about some of the things that you could do in teaching. And, so, I eventually started doing little part-time teaching. And over a period-of-time, I have taught a number of things, both at the graduate and the undergraduate levels. Because the interest, and, you know, the idea that yes, I can work in the laboratory, but I have some things that I can say to students that would be helpful. So, although I did not initially want to teach, I ended up, as I said, teaching in a number of occasions for a number of institutions.
Lynwood, you were at the Army Materials Command in Adelphi, you know, right in the middle of the, you know, the height of so many social and cultural and political upheavals in the United States in the 1960s and the 1970s. I wonder if you can talk about any dualities or tensions you might have felt, you know, working in a military environment knowing all of these problems that were going on and convulsing the country at the time?
Well, yes, I can. Because back at that time, as I said, the Army Material Command was a laboratory, okay, that did work primarily in helping the U.S. Army, okay, continue to do its job and to move forward. And, as I said, the Harry Diamond Labs, was primarily interested in radiation effects on materials, okay. And, so, what I had to do was to be able to do some defense-related work, okay. I ended up having a “[??] secret clearance” at the time, and of course, I could not explain to my children and my parents exactly some of the things that I was doing.
And as I said, a number of other people that I worked with, okay, in our situation, had to go out to the Midwest where there was “the underground testing procedures” taking place. But I never had to do that. I was not that involved in the testing. The section on my lab was, and they were people like Oswald and others who did that. But I didn’t have to do that. I was satisfied in doing what I did, okay. But I did have a secret clearance to do that. Yes, there was a lot of activity in the Washington D.C. area. There was a lot of concern about what things would and would not happen. But I simply wanted to be able to support my family and to move forward.
And, so, I, as I said, I didn’t have any intentions of going back into the military having finished graduate school, which I did. And I never thought anymore about it. I felt I spent my time in the ROTC and the military and gave my services. But what I wanted to do was to do work in physics. And having then worked for such a long time in the laboratory, I eventually reached the point of saying, okay, I’ve worked a long time in the laboratory. I’d like to look at another aspect of working in physics. And that’s when, after having worked at the Harry Diamond Laboratories, I thought about seeing—to find other kinds of jobs in physics.
And, quite frankly, there were not a number of jobs that African Americans could get. But I eventually thought about, well, let me think about an organization like NASA—National Aeronautics and Space Administration. So, I spoke with a number of people about, you know, the potential for working for NASA. And the fact that they had very few African American doctoral workers at NASA Headquarters. And that was something that I wanted to do. But eventually NASA hired me to work there. And I ended up spending about 23 years—[Laughs]—the latter part of my career at NASA doing a variety of experimental work. But, yes, there was a lot of activity throughout the Washington D.C. area. A lot of military activity. And I was close to a lot of this activity but did not have to spend any real active time in the military in that respect.
Lynwood, in what ways was your academic training relevant to your time as a Harry Diamond researcher?
My academic training was; I had felt that I had received very adequate training in terms of physics, the physics courses that were taught, the ability of doing laboratory work, and that would all help me as I moved into the laboratory. First, you know, as a freshman, you know, having not done any laboratory work in graduate school. But in actually working and then working with scientists who had. And, so, I learned a lot from, not only my work but from working with [??]. And, so, I was fortunate that—that kind of experience helped me to become better at what I was doing. And to learn more about how to conduct things in a very efficient manner. And I have benefitted from that experience, you know, throughout my lifetime.
How did the opportunity for NASA come available to you in 1975?
Well, as I said, having spent a lot of time in the laboratory, I kind of became bored—[Laughs]—you know, working in the laboratory both on the weekends, at night oftentimes. And I felt that I wanted to do something different, okay. And, uh, having—
Lynwood, to interject there, I wonder also if you were aware of the concern that getting promoted would put you in management and it would get you farther away from the science?
Well, I was aware that having spent [??] of time, you know, working in science. And I wanted to do something slightly different, okay. To use my scientific background, and to see how I could move forward. And, of course, looking for promotions. And, so, that was one of the considerations. And, as I said, I was fortunate. When I worked for NASA, I was, you know, brought in at the entry level. And I had to work hard. I was competitive. Up against all kinds of students who had similar backgrounds and a lot more concentration on the academic end than I did. But I learned what I had to do. And, so, I have enjoyed my experience at NASA Headquarters because it gave me a variety of experiences working, uh, in the science and in science education, and in working with institutions around the country. I ended up having been responsible for a lot of research work that NASA was funding. And I was involved in evaluation of that kind of research work. And, so, I did a lot of traveling around the country. And, of course, a lot of my time was spent here in the Houston area, because I was given special projects primarily on professionalism, okay. Excellence. Professional development. Those kinds of things came about due to the number of experiences I had at NASA.
And, also, from the experience that NASA gave me, principally enabling me to spend at least five months at the Harvard Business School program for educational development. I was selected to go there and learn all about educational development; professional management. And, coming back from that program to NASA, I was able to then spearhead professional development programs throughout a number of NASA centers. So, I was able to utilize that kind of experience and be able to move forward and to move up at NASA over a period of time.
Can you talk a little bit about what you were doing at NASA in the lab day to day? What was the science like there?
Okay. I never worked in science at NASA Headquarters. I worked at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Oh, so it was always—it was never a basic science environment for you?
No. It never was.
I see. I see.
No. I worked at NASA Headquarters. And, so, when I left the Harry Diamond Labs that was my last work in the laboratory.
What did you see as some opportunity now that you were moving into administration and policy?
What do I see as opportunity for what?
In terms of, you know, when you’re talking about, you know, reaching a broad audience, making sure that the good work of NASA is getting out there, what do you see in terms of your own skills and experiences that were helpful for this work?
What was helpful was my ability to-to meet and talk with scientists who were doing this similar work around the country. And to see, specifically, the kinds of things that they were doing in the laboratories, the needs from NASA’s point of view of this kind of work. And, specifically how this could help NASA as NASA wanted to look forward with respect to the kinds of activities they wanted to do for space adventure.
One of the things, however, that has happened over a period of time is that, based on what I did when I worked at NASA, currently NASA is not even thinking about or have some money now to do any of that work, okay. All of that work now what used to be called research, okay, is no longer done at NASA or the NASA centers. It is done at research facilities around the country. And it is done with NASA money, okay. And there are a few people, you know, with NASA experience who oversee that. But none of the work itself is. All of NASA’s work now has to do with the spacecraft. The upgrading of the spacecraft moving into deep space. And the things that are needed for that kind of activity are being done outside of NASA. This is kind of disappointing for me because I enjoyed, you know, the research work that we oversaw at NASA. And a lot of that work was at the NASA centers around the country. But NASA had a decision to make, okay. Either we’re going to be able to—we’re going to have to do one thing or the other. We can’t do both. We don’t have the money to do that. And as a result, the experimental work and the such, is no longer done at NASA. I, you know, and people who are still interested in going to work for NASA, I’ve got to let them know, specifically from my experiences, if you want to get into research work, NASA not the place to necessarily do that now, okay. You’ve got to go to research institutions around the country. You can get NASA funding for it. But NASA itself is not going to be doing the research work because they don’t have the money to do that.
But you were involved in budgetary considerations in terms of supporting basic research at universities and labs.
Yes, we were [??]. And, in fact, one of the things that I ended up doing, particularly at NASA, I was involved specifically in the NASA programs for supporting historical HBCUs—Historical Black Colleges and Universities. NASA had a grant program that it provided funding for institutions, in general, that competed. But, also, they had special funding to provide support for the Historical Black Colleges and Universities. And I ended up heading up that particular program. And, so, we had a certain amount of money that was provided for these institutions to allow them to do research work, okay, and to compete for grants. And, so, I was in charge of that program at NASA.
Did you cut out there?
Did I cut it out? Well, I’m not sure how much of that program currently exists now. I don’t have the kind of contact that I once had with NASA. So, I really don’t know.
I’m pretty sure that [??] though.
Lynwood, I’d like to ask you to talk a little bit about, you know, this idea that NASA can support basic science. Can you talk about where there is overlap and where NASA is uniquely positioned to support basic science, vis-à-vis, the NSF, DOE, DOD, you know, within the larger Federal funding bureaucracy, where do you see NASA fitting in specifically?
Well, I think that NASA is now not on the same level as the major laboratories around the country. They no longer have the scientists or the money for that kind of activity. They are there primarily to look specifically at mission-related activities, okay. The kinds of things that are needed to support the work in space, okay. Not necessarily the research work, but the work that must be done with respect to living in space, okay. Taking care of spacecraft. Traveling in space. And, so, those are the kinds of things that they’re interested in, okay. And so far as what needs to be done there, they’ve got to be able to oversee that intelligently and in the right direction. But once again, because of the costs of these kinds of things, they cannot do both the research and the work itself. And, so, a decision had to be made with respect to which direction is NASA going? Oftentimes there were many people who were criticized [??] okay NASA can’t do this. NASA [??] turn it over to someone else. Well, that’s a political decision, okay. And, oftentimes those decisions have to be made, okay. And, so, people who are supporting those stay with the agency. Those that don’t support it have to move on.
And, so, I think over a period of time, this has happened within NASA. NASA could not continue to do both of those. As I said, I regret that because I enjoyed the scientifically related work that I used to do there. But as I said, now this kind of thing does not exist, okay. There are outstanding professional and research organizations around the country. And they are supported through grants and [??] contracts. So, what NASA has to do is have a keen eye on what’s being done where, okay. And what, if anything, they can do to tweak those kinds of efforts with a little money. But not with the major research money that they used to have.
Lynwood, I’d like to ask you about your next job when you were manager for Advanced Concepts in the office of Aeronautics and Space Technology. My first question there is, in the late 1970s, you know, there’s a lot of concern about energy and the energy crisis. And I know you worked in the field of energy in an intensive way. I’m curious to what extent the research and these issues that were being studied and worked on at NASA were related to those broader national concerns.
Well, there were relationships primarily because, particularly from a NASA point of view, energy is such as the battery power, for instance, or solar power, were extremely important for NASA. Primarily because of the long times that it would take for many [??] that were going to be taken into space. And the fact that there was so much solar energy that [??]. The idea was, okay, you know, given that situation, how can we best utilize the kinds of energy that we have? And how can we move forward? And one of the things that I was interested in primarily was, was solar cells. Because silicon was an outstanding material for solar cells and it still is. And, of course, it’s now being used for a lot of things such as power for homes. But, you know, we were particularly interested in what are, if possible, more efficient solar cells than we currently have. So, a lot of the work that we were focusing on was efficiency of solar cells. What can be more efficient solar cells that can be reduced? That’s the kind of work that I was interested in managing.
Now I haven’t kept up with that kind of work for years, so I don’t know what the status is. But I do know that cadmium sulfide that I used to work on many years ago never reached the stage of efficiency as a silicon such that it would be viable to be considered for commercial use. And, so, what we’re looking at is all kinds of materials, now, and I’m not sure of, you know, what the key materials besides silicon that people are looking at particularly for solar cells. As far as batteries are concerned, that was a key consideration because you do need to look specifically at battery life but did the regeneration of the battery life through the energy that’s absorbed from space. And, so, those kinds of things are, as I said, very basic with respect to deep-space flight. Where we’re talking about years, not a few months, into traveling into space. And, so, those kinds of things, I think, are extremely important. And are of interest. And I’m sure that there are some NASA people that are still, you know, having a focus on that. But, as I said, the major money is, okay, on producing the kind of vehicles and things that are necessary to be able to take you into deep space. Not necessarily the intricate parts that are more efficient and be able to do a better job than current parts are.
Lynwood, I’m curious to hear more about when you were chairman of the interagency task force that included DOD and DOE on civilian space power applications. What were some of the goals of that task force? What was it looking to achieve?
Well, what that was looking to achieve was to be able to pull together these organizations, okay. And, to make sure that everything that was being done was being done in an efficient, both monetarily as well as active, way. And, so, efficiency; productivity was of key importance. And, the fact that during that period of time there were efficiency-established positions around the country for laboratories, not only at NASA but all of the major laboratories in the country, and to be able to do efficiency, to manage the things that you’re doing, and efficient in a monetary manner, and to be able to continue to do that and to improve that. And there were specific ways of examining the efficiencies. And, in fact, I ended up working with different organizations around the country, and they’re still doing that now. And being able to provide advice not only to NASA but to organizations around the country as to how to better manage your business. How to be more efficient both in terms of money, in terms of the use of people, and so, this was a key initiative during that period of time.
And this was where I spent a lot of time traveling around talking with different organizations as to what they’re doing. And what they’re even doing now, they have national competitions, okay, of organizations that can come together, present their proposal about their company, and to seek to get some of these national awards. This is something that I served on the Board for, for a couple of years. And this is still being done. And I think that it’s very important, okay. Not only to [??] do what you do, but do it in the most efficient manner, okay. Both from a financial point of view as well as from a physical point of view. And to have the best people who are knowledgeable about the processes, and to be able to carry those out within your organization. And to be able to transmit that not only from the top of the organization, but down through the organization. What are the kinds of principles that should be utilized? How often should they be applied? And what kind of evaluations are necessary for you to be able to do that? And this is what was a nationwide effort and is something that’s continuing. And I think that it’s very important, that we as a country look forward to being able to do the best that we can, in any manner that we can, and to continue to do that.
Can you talk a little bit about the importance of your work developing the first direct solar-pumped gas laser as the efforts for the space station Freedom were getting underway?
Well, as I said, my effort was primarily [??] during that time looking at components. And the key components were batteries and/or space cells, er, solar cells. And, so, that was extremely important because these are the items that keep the energy, rejuvenate the energy, and transfer the energy. And without those continuing to work in an efficient manner, you’re not able to do all of the things that you would like to do unless you were able to be on the top of the field with respect to the efficiencies and things that need to be done. And, so, experimentation was done to see how efficient can you really be? Can you continue to be more efficient, okay? Are there things that you can do not only from a physical point of view, but from a materials point of view? Are there materials that we don’t know about, okay, now that perhaps can be, should be, considered? To be able to do [??].
And, so, some people starting to look at all kinds of materials, okay. And that, I think, is extremely important. They’re even doing this today because we still don’t know whether we are at the most efficient system that we are ever, okay. We will never know that. And we will never know that until we continue to improve, okay. So, improvement is extremely important no matter how far we’ve gone in any given direction. To be able to minimize “the costs” and the time with respect to traveling in space. So, all of these considerations are something that NASA has to do, but also people are starting to look at.
Now, in the terms of space, quite frankly now a lot of the emphasis is on the private sector. And [??] the private sector is about there are lots of people who want to “go into space.” There are lot of people who’ve been into space. They’re able to spend the $100,000 and $1,000,000 for a space trip. A lot of people can’t do that, but a lot of people want to do that. And, so, what is happening now with the space programs is that commercial development is taking place to be able to hopefully reduce the cost for going into space, okay. So that more and more people can be able to do that. I won’t be able to do that in my timeframe but there will be others who will be. And I think this is an important effort from a commercial point of view. To be able to continue to do the best that you can in terms of reducing cost and efficiency for traveling in space.
Lynwood, I think this is a good place to ask this question because we’ll return to it, I think, as we continue talking about your career at NASA. But at this stage, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as you had already, you know, moved up into a leadership position. And, of course, you had a very bright future ahead of you, I wonder if you can reflect at this point about your impressions at the time, the extent to which NASA celebrated diversity. If it was a place where you felt that you were supported, that you were respected, that you felt like you were on equal footing with your colleagues. Can you talk generally about, you know, race relations at NASA during these years?
Yes. NASA has been an organization that has, for a number of years, put an emphasis on race relationship, equality among races, promotions of those who deserve to be promoted. And the comparison of those who are moving up and those who have not moved up. There are, and have been, situations during my career at NASA where, over a period of time, during the promotional process there have been, in my own personal opinion, situations whereby, I have not been given the kind of evaluations that I thought I should have been given, okay. Based on my experience and the experiences of those who have moved on higher than I have, okay. I have on a number of occasions raised such concerns with respect to people that I have worked with. And I have been told, basically, that considerations of race with respect to promotions, is not a major consideration within NASA. Although NASA hopes to and continues to take leadership with respect to promotions.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, of course, started out as a very small organization and eventually grew to a major organization with different elements around the country. Different installations of 12 or 14 around the country. And one headquarters which is in the Washington D.C. area. These locations have all had their own way of managing their particular situations. And, so, at each of these installations there is a, what we used to call, a center director. And that center director, in effect, is the director of the people who work at that particular center, okay. But then, on top of all of that, there is the NASA Headquarters, and there is the position of NASA Administrator. This is the person who has a political appointment to be the administrator for the agency, okay. Over the period of time I had worked under a variety of NASA administrators working at NASA Headquarters. And NASA, as I said, having a—and I don’t remember the exact number. I think it’s about 12. Twelve or thirteen administrators that have taken place at NASA. Over that period of time, since the initiation of NASA, there has been one African American administrator, Charles Bolden.
Charles Bolden, who I in fact I met many, many years ago when he left the military and joined the—well, after he became an astronaut. He served as an astronaut for a number of years, but he was also in the military. And for a while in the military, he worked at NASA Headquarters. And that’s where I ended up meeting Charlie. We’ve become friends over the years. And I have actually talked with and known Charlie for a long time. And I have worked with him with respect to a variety of kinds of activities. But he’s the only NASA African American Administrator. Whether there will ever be another NASA African American Administrator, I don’t know. It’s a political appointment. Whether there will ever be a female NASA Administrator, I do not know. But these are considerations of things that people are looking at. Because the agency itself is a Federal organization. And it is managed, and it is under the scrutiny of the nation, okay. Although I did not receive all of the promotions that I thought I should have over the period of time, I enjoyed my experience. I’ve had an outstanding experience at NASA. I’ve known a number of people there.
One of the most exciting experiences that I’ve ever had at NASA was, as an example, I was at Orlando, Florida, for a meeting. And I didn’t realize it at the time, but there was going to be a—the launch of a spacecraft in the Orlando area. And I happened to have been there for a meeting. And I happened to have known the center director there, but that director was not in his office at the time. So, while I was visiting through his office, one of the secretaries asked me, she said, “You know, Dr. Randolph, we’re having a space launch tomorrow here in Orlando. Would you like to come and watch it here in the Administrator’s office?” I said, “What?” She said, “He’s not here. Would you want to do that?” I said, “I surely would. I will be there.” [Laughs]
[Laughs] Lynwood, what was so attractive about this?
The fact that I was seeing in person a space launch. I had never seen a space launch before in person, okay. Never. I’d seen it on TV but never in person. So, here I was, in Orlando up in the center director’s office, and we’re looking right out the window. You could see the launch of the spacecraft out of the window, okay. Turning to the right, on TV, here’s the television rendition of the launch. So, that morning everything went fine, okay. It wasn’t cancelled. And there I am, watching the space launch both in person and on TV on the right-hand side. And it was just fantastic just to sit there and watch it and see it go up, up, up, up, up. And I said, “Wow. This is amazing. This is amazing. This was something that I had the opportunity to see.” That in itself was an exciting experience that I’ve enjoyed. And I think other experiences like that, it’s so rare to be able to—for that kind of thing to happen. But I was fortunate. I enjoyed my experiences at NASA. I benefitted from a lot of the contacts and things that I’ve made over a period of time. And I thought NASA was a great place to work. It still has a way to go with respect to looking very closely at promotions. How the people are promoted. Who you put your attention on and who you’re not. But I think NASA as well as other organizations have a long-ways to go to continue to do the kinds of things that are necessary to have equality throughout the organization. And I would promote NASA continues to do that as it moves forward in the future.
Lynwood, I wanna return to the importance and the value that you place on mentorship. And I wonder, as you were rising up in the ranks at NASA, who were some of the people that you considered a mentor, and particularly for the generation younger than you, who might’ve been some under-represented young colleagues who looked to you as a mentor over the years?
Well, quite frankly, at NASA I did not have a mentor that I really was able to look up to in any of the organizations that I worked for. For some reason, that just did not happen during my career at NASA. However, I was able to, over a period of time, provide mentorship for a number of young people. Oftentimes, the young people would be brought to NASA center, you know, for observation, for meeting people there, and I was introduced to a number of African American young people who were visiting NASA. And I was able to sit with them at my desk, to talk with them about what they’re doing. What they would like to do in the future. What kinds of things they should be studying? How they should be approaching their career and their life. And that’s the kind of relationship I thought was very important for young people. For someone to who was able to just sit and talk with them about the issues that they may have, what they should be doing with respect to looking for a mentor who may or may not be in the same area that you’re in. But who could provide you with advice in terms of what you should be looking for with respect to the job that you have, the kinds of things that happen for promotions, what you should and should not be doing with respect to wanting to move forward. And what you should do if you [??] on moving as you’d like to move forward. What are some of the options of things that you should do? That, I think, is extremely important. Unfortunately for me, I did not have a real mentor at NASA. And, uh, unfortunately that happened, but I enjoyed my [??] working there, but I did not have a mentor at NASA.
What about on the other side, Lynwood? Was there anybody who would look at you as a mentor over your career at NASA?
I think that there were perhaps some of the people that I worked with who have looked at me as a mentor. In fact, a couple people that are still working there now that I basically served as a mentor for perhaps are still working there now. And I enjoyed working with them in terms of the kinds of things that I was able to inspire them to do, and the kinds of things they’re currently doing now. And I think that was a great experience for me. To be able to provide mentorship, you know, to those people at NASA. Most of my mentorship has been quite frankly, through the American Physical Society. And particularly for the programs that we had that started providing scholarships to African Americans who wanted to go to graduate school. And then, in not only providing the scholarships but then providing mentorship for those students who are in school with respect to where they are in school, what they should be doing, what they should attempt to do for mentors on campus, but also for looking for mentors off of campus. Those that are not physically with you but that can provide you with directions based on the things they know about you, about the things that you’re trying to do, and how you move forward.
A good example of that was during one of the programs, I’m sorry this is at NASA now, but this is what the American Physical Society—we had provided some grants to some students that were going to Stanford. And I ended up mentoring a young lady who’s was at Stanford, and she was having difficulty with respect to what she felt was identification of the fact that she came from the Washington D.C. area and she was at Stanford. And she felt a little demeaning with, perhaps, with how some of the students were treating her. And I told her, I said, “Young lady, listen. You don’t let people around you determine exactly what you are or what you’re doing. You focus on being positive.” And I said, “Particularly, you’re at Stanford,” I said. “One of my sons is a Stanford graduate. And, in fact, I’m going to get him to call you to let him let you know what you have to do to be successful at Stanford.” And he ended up eventually calling her and talking with her about what she had to do. So, I see mentorship around the country. You know, it’s not only where you are, it’s who you’re talking with and what you’re talking with them about. Of how they can improve and being approved. And how they can, in fact, help others. But, as I said, in my experience with NASA, I think I would be able to provide mentorship to some who are perhaps still there now.
Lynwood, would you talk a little bit about President Reagan’s Reform ’88 initiative and what impact this had on your career?
I don’t remember the details of it specifically, what you’re referring to. No.
This is when you became deputy to the director, and you were responsible to the NASA Administrator for the agency’s productivity.
Okay. Well, what that meant primarily was the Federal government is looking very closely at all organizations with respect to what they do, how they do it, how efficient they are, and to whom they should be reporting, and how they should move forward. And, as I said, at NASA, at the time the concern was, okay, we have a NASA organization that is involved with taking men and women into space and researching of the planets and beyond. What should be done, and has to be done is-is to do it in the most efficient manner because of, not only you are going to do a better job and being more efficient, but you also are going to be able to do it, perhaps, at a lower cost. Because you’re focusing on those kinds of things that need to be done, how they need to be done, how they need to be improved. And, so, that, in effect, to me, was a big effort for the Federal government and the fact that-this was being taken seriously by all organizations. Everyone in the Federal government had to do that. And everyone was held accountable. And, in fact, you had to give reports, you know, based on your organization’s effort at doing this. What improvements had been made. What improvements you think can be made better. And how you propose to move forward. And, so, I thought that that was an outstanding effort by the administration. I continued to look forward to the such emphasis on efficiency and productivity. And I think we as a country can continue to do better if we continue to focus on doing the best that we can.
Of course, the project of creating more efficiency within a massive Federal bureaucracy is an uphill battle from the beginning. And, so, I wonder what do you see as some of your accomplishments given the very difficult task that you were faced with?
Well, one of the accomplishments is not only do you want to continue to do the best that you can, but you want to continue to be able to provide the support that you can for those organizations and those individuals that have not had, you know, that kind of support in the past. And, the fact that NASA as well as other organizations are continuing to provide support to historically black colleges and universities to help them to improve the activities that they undertake for their students, to provide financial resources for those that are unable to provide those resources, and to do the best job and be as competitive as they can in all situations. And, so, I can think that the fact that we are continuing to have these kinds of organizations receive financial support from the Federal government. And to continue for that to be a part of the agenda. Not just here a dime, here a dime there. But the kinds of funding that is needed to make these institutions do the best kind of job that they can do and be as competitive as they can possibly be in this world of competition.
In what ways did this job give you a, sort of, a bird’s-eye-view of what was happening at NASA? Because, of course, the efficiency issue was not, you know, located to any one particular bureau or department.
Well, it taught me the whole idea that if you’re gonna talk about efficiency you’ve gotta start at the top, okay. And you gotta start at the headquarters, you know, with respect to the headquarters of the organization. And working there, with respect to how you wanted this to “drop down” throughout the organization. You also had to look forward to the follow through of what you do, and then how it’s being done, and how it’s being evaluated, okay. And those kinds of things have to be continuous, okay. Because if you start doing something and drop it off after a period of time, things will then turn around again, and those kinds of efficiencies and things that you eventually develop, will not continue, okay. Because you don’t have the same people there, you don’t have the same emphasis. So, continuous improvement, okay, is extremely important. And the ability to evaluate that improvement must be on an annual basis. Now, I didn’t really, don’t know now over the period of years now whether we have these “annual evaluations.” I’m assuming we’re having something similar to that. I really don’t know. But you need to be able to continue to do that. And you need to be able to compare not only the Federal government, but private sector organizations also compare within themselves, you know. How things are changing from day to day, and whether they are continuing to improve, and if not, what can be done to improve those. This is all important with respect to organizations. Both learning those kinds of skills that you need to learn. Learning from other organizations what they have done in order to improve. And seeing whether not some of those kinds of things can be transferred to your organization. So, sharing these experiences is also an extremely important activity both for the Federal government as well as the private sector.
What were you looking to accomplish after this, Lynwood?
Well, as I said, having studied that kind of thing and would—basically I had the Harvard Business School experience. I was basically looking to be able to transfer that kind of activity and knowledge to people that I was working with and to people who work with others that I’d worked with. To make sure that all of this information and activity can be processed through an organization. No matter how large it is. What you have to do is to put together a plan, okay. And that plan needs to have some kind of evaluation and have people who are responsible for these kinds of activities. And then it needs to have a follow through. And that’s the kind of thing that I was looking forward to making sure that there was follow through. Not just starting. But follow through on the kinds of things that were needed to be done in order to improve the operations of the organization.
Lynwood, when you became Chief of the Management Programs Branch, I wonder if you can talk about, at this level, if you could give a sense of, sort of, where you fit within the larger policy process? In other words, who would come to you, and with what information, and then who would be the people that you would present that information as you were working this, you know, up the chain of command at NASA?
Well, basically back in that period of time, there were a variety of NASA organizations. There was, of course, the [??] administrative officer, the so-called vice-administrative officer that was on staff. And under the staff there was a variety of functions. And there was an office called the Office of Equal Opportunity Employment. And I reported directly to the Office of Equal Opportunity Employment. So that-that’s where my reporting, in effect, went. And in terms of well, what was being done within the organizations. How things were being conducted. And what were the kinds of results that people had been generating. And, so, over a period of time that’s to whom I reported. Now that kind of report then went up through to/two [?] other levels to the Administrator. So, ultimately at the time information got to the top of the organization. What it meant in terms of reports, I don’t know. In terms of a final report. In terms of whether that part of the final report went to Congress or not. I do not recall. But that was generally the process by which this information went up the chain.
When you became Information Technology Standards Manager, this, of course, is happening at a time when computers and email are really becoming part of the workplace environment. I wonder if you could talk about the way, at this time, computers and technology were really changing the workplace landscape at NASA?
Well, quite frankly, it was a big change at NASA because you—of course, everybody used to have, at one time, you know, had to have a typewriter. But computers were becoming a part of the organization. Nothing like they are now, of course. And a lot of the work was done on larger computers. Nothing like the kinds of things that we have now. So, what we were doing, we were trying to be as efficient as possible then. But now, I mean, the size of computers is just amazing as compared to the way it was many years ago. I mean, just as an example, I was thinking back on many, many years ago when I had to do some research work and had to put together a program. And computers, at that time, were extremely large. I had to end up typing out, you know, the instructions, you know, for this project, you know. And then running it through each card to make sure everything was okay. At the agency, you know, during my time there, everything was digitized, okay. But nothing as it is now. So, things have changed significantly. You know, computers are much more efficient. But then again there’s a lot more concern now over security, hacking, etc. None of this is going to be here forever as we see it now. All of these things are going to have to be upgraded. But computers have been, and are now, very effective in helping the organization. In sharing information not only among the members of the organization but with those within and outside the organization. And, I think this will continue to be a process by which computers are going to be very beneficial to all of us as we move forward to be more efficient in all of the things that we do.
Lynwood, in what ways as you were working at this level were you assuming, you know, a greater responsibility in terms of the larger policy process? In other words, were you working on Capitol Hill at all? Were you working with people, you know, in the legislative branch and working to see in which ways they might be helpful for these endeavors?
No. No. No. This was strictly within NASA, okay. My concerns in terms of working outside of NASA, that was at the Congressional level. But, no, my work was strictly within NASA. Working with NASA centers, NASA’s organization people, and organizations around the country that did work for NASA. Not outside.
Of course, improving technology standards is a double-edged sword because as NASA is adopting all of these new technologies, it’s creating opportunities, but it’s also creating risk. I wonder if you can talk about those risks in particular?
Well, yes. They were including risk. And that’s something that we’re looking at in terms of how best to proceed with doing the kinds of things that were necessary. Working with organizations that we had to work with, but also making sure that the kinds of information and things that were being shared were kept within the agency. And, so, there was a security concern throughout the organization in terms of how communications were being taken care of. We did not have, however, as much concern at the levels that I was working in with respect to you know, moving this kind of information outside of the organization. But in [??] administration, people higher up in administration were looking at NASA as such, you know, being an organization, a national organization and NASA working with companies and organizations around the country and how we, working together, make sure that the kinds of things that we were sharing, okay, was to be shared. And that the information that was not supposed to go out, did not go out. But then I had no say-so over exactly how that protection was being handled. I did not.
Lynwood, in terms of that relationship between NASA and private industry, would you say it was generally a 50/50 relationship in terms of what each offered the other?
I’m not sure it was 50/50. What I would say is that in order for NASA to function as NASA, okay, it needed private sector organizations for certain elements. And, so, NASA in effect became a “funding” for certain organizations to do work to help NASA, okay. And, so, NASA, as I said, we relied on organizations for doing certain types of work. And they were compensated for that. So, in effect, NASA provided some money. So, I wouldn’t say it was 50/50 with respect to private sector organizations. I would say that basically, in terms of, 70/—well, 70/25. NASA in charge of—versus 25 coming from private sector organization. And in my opinion, that’s the kind of relationship we primarily had.
Now, in April 1995, when you were Scientific and Technical Information Manager and you were a member of STI, the Scientific and Technical Information team, I’m curious, this was obviously a very short tenure for you. This was only from late spring through the summer and was that because you were coming up on retirement? Were you thinking about leaving NASA at this point?
Once again, what’s the timeframe?
This would have been the summer of 1995. This is before you become the Director of the Quality Institute in October of 1995.
Okay, so it’s ’95. Hold on a minute. I’m tryin’ to think back that far. Hold on. So, okay, consultant for [??]. I see, okay. [long pause] Okay, that was a short period of time there. Yeah. Basically, what I was doing was working with organizations in general, and trying to make certain that the information that we gathered from working outside the agency was shared within the agency among the various organizations. And to make certain that we moved forward—any questions of things that may have come up were then taken up to the appropriate people who can answer those kinds of questions. But, basically, it was an administrative kind of job that I had then.
So, the question there is, this was a short tenure because you were planning to retire from NASA?
Well, yes. I was planning to retire. My retirement in 1998. So, as I said, I had spent a number of good times there. I had moved from one organization to the next. And, yes, retirement was on my mind [??] at the end of 1998.
So, just so that I have the chronology right, when you were Director of the Quality Institute from ’95 to ’97 at Clark Atlanta, you were on a leave of absence from NASA?
Yes, I was.
I see. I see. Did you—you got support from your superiors to do this? This was something that they encouraged you to do?
Yes. Yes, they did. I got support. I was compensated for the work that I did there. I spent the time in Atlanta working with Clark Atlanta University as well other institutions in the area. Specifically, about productivity initiatives. And it was an exciting time being away from the agency, but also working specifically with people in the academic area. So, yes, I enjoyed that. As I said, it was a little over a year and a half that I did that.
I’m curious to learn more about the Quality Institute. What was it all about? What were some of your goals in joining as Director?
The Quality Institute idea was to looking specifically at the institution itself to provide in an organization which could help the organization look specifically at the way it was conducting its business with respect to academia. And particularly in preparation for students who were going from undergraduate on to graduate schools to be doing the best that they possibly can in whatever areas they could. To utilizing all of the kinds of technology that were being available with institutions. To share with that organization and other organizations who had similar plans, okay, how, you know, they are operating. And what information could be shared among these organizations. And then to document that with respect to meetings of some of the senior people, including the administrator and heads of faculty. Such as that the entire organization could be more effective with respect to its own operations and to be responsible for those that were responsible for carrying on the activity. And, so, it was something that I was utilizing based on the experiences that I had had at NASA as well at the Harvard Business School.
Lynwood, I wonder how closely you had the opportunity to work with students directly as Director of the Quality Institute?
Not a very close relationship with students. No. It was primarily with the faculty. I met some students, but, no, not a lot of students. It was primarily with faculty.
Now, in February, ’97, you came back to Headquarters to become Minority University Education Manager. I’m curious if that’s something that you had been inspired to take on as a result of your tenure at the Quality Institute? Or, this was a trajectory you were on even if you had stayed at NASA through the mid-1990s?
It was based on having the opportunity to return to NASA. And having prior to going there, having worked up through this rank. And it was a position that was available with respect to the kinds of activities that NASA was conducting. And the kinds of things that I had experienced doing in general. And, so, it was basically a step back into a position that I had previously had similar to this but returning to the Headquarters having spent the other time at Clark Atlanta University.
Now, how well developed was NASA’s HBCU program prior to you taking over as director?
You say how well was it?
Yeah. How well developed was it prior to your tenure as director of the program?
Well, it was a program that they had had for some time with respect to providing resources to HBCUs. My job was to make sure that that program was running as effectively as possible. That the institutions that were selected were doing the kinds of things that we had asked them to do, as efficiently as possible. And, also, to provide reports to the NASA Headquarters for the results that were coming out of those institutions. So, it was under operation at the time. As I returned to that my job was to make sure that they continued to do the job that they were supposed to be doing and doing it in an efficient manner. And, as I recall, I think I did a good job in keeping the program moving as it should be moving.
I think, Lynwood, you might be being a bit humble here. Because you were able to achieve funding at record levels for HBCUs. Something—a level that had not been seen prior to your tenure.
Well, well, I kinda worked hard just to make sure that money was available. That money that could possibly go to HBCUs, and with support, I was able to wrap that up. And I have been proud of being able to do that.
Now, Lynwood, I know for myself, it’s obvious to me what the answer is. But I want to hear in your own words, why support HBCUs specifically? What’s so important, you know, to you as an individual but also for NASA institutionally to provide this level of support for Historically Black Colleges and Universities? What’s your perspective on that?
Well, HBCUs have been active for a very long time. Many of them have small programs. Many of them have large programs. Many of them are working with funding that is not the type of funding that can provide the kind of technology activities that many institutions would like to have. But many of them have the capabilities of doing so. It’s simply that they have not had the resources. And NASA has been an organization which has we need to provide funding for these organizations in order to continue for them to provide the kind of students and leadership in fields such as physics that is necessary. And, so the idea of funding these organizations and keeping the funding going has been extremely important. Because many of these organizations have been able to provide the students and the kinds of programs that have been able to make graduates successful in what they have been doing.
One of the problems, however, has been in—is that many of the HBCUs because of the lack of students, are not being able to then continue the kinds of programs that once existed. As an example, I was at Virginia State University. And now I’m not sure whether Virginia State University has, or can have, physics. Simply because the number of graduates are not sufficient. They don’t have the resources for getting the number of graduates. And, so, that is a major, major issue. One of the things that we were working with through the American Physical Society is-is it possible for one to get the funding back to so many of these institutions that I finished and many others have finished, okay, that once was available? Such that these institutions can then have students who want to major and can major in physics. This is an issue that is a nationwide issue, okay, it’s not only true for my former university. It’s true for institutions here in Texas and other places. And I think it’s still an issue that has to be addressed. What can be done to keep the funding going at these institutions? To provide them the resources for stimulating students who want to major in things such as physic, to be able to continue to do that. That’s an issue now, and I think it’s going to continue to be an issue. And I think NASA is, and has been, continuous in its support for doing so.
Lynwood, of course, it goes both ways. It’s not just a matter of NASA’s supporting historically black colleges and universities, the larger story here is that historically, and you’re a great example of this, physics is good for African Americans but African Americans are good for physics.
Yes, it is. And, okay, people have to learn that story, okay. There are not that many places that you learn that story. American Physical Society is one of the few places that you can, okay. So…
Meaning that, just to interject, it’s important, you know, it’s really important to lay down this maker. It’s not like NASA is supporting HBCUs just because it’s a nice thing to do, and it’s a way to help heal some historic injustices. It’s that, in addition to that, it’s good for NASA. It is good for physics because good things happen as a result of this support.
That’s true. It really does. And I thoroughly believe and I dearly hope that this kind of activity will continue, okay. That people will say, “Okay. Let’s continue. Let’s do the kinds of things that are necessary for us.” Because NASA needs African American physicists. They need Black African American physicists. And they can do that simply with support. But then we need more than just NASA’s support. We need national support.
That’s right. I wonder, Lynwood, if there’s any specific examples that could put a human face to your efforts and what they represented in terms of NASA’s support of HBCUs? Is there a program or is there a lab or a professor or even a student that sticks out in your memory as somebody that, or something that, brought you tremendous personal satisfaction that you were really able to make a difference in this regard?
I can’t think of one right off hand in terms of my NASA experience.
In other words, you know, lots of these programs, you know, Howard is a great program but there are so many other HBCU physics programs that are, have been, or are teetering on the edge of being viable. Are there any programs or labs that you recall, you know, that NASA support really made a difference and it kept things floating along?
Well, one good example has to be the Texas Southern University program that I was involved in back in 2005 or so. That program has struggled with respect to support, and I was able to successfully help them secure a NASA grant and move forward. I don’t know exactly what that status of that program is today ’cause I haven’t had contact with them for several years. But that was an example having to work with the program, work with students in the program, and specifically we had a lot of effort in running the program and providing the research money. I had actually a Board of Directors that I was in charge of. And I had, actually, the former NASA Administrator, Charles Bolden, serving on that Board for the program at Texas Southern University. That program, we feel, was successful and it should be a continued success, and I’m hoping it is. But once again I just haven’t had direct contact with it for several years.
Although it stands to reason that, as universities and colleges across the board are struggling now, during the pandemic, I assume HBCUs are hurting because these are issues that they’ve been dealing with for a long time.
Oh, that’s true. And, unfortunately, now the issue is they’re not [??] HBCUs but specifically with being able to get enrollments started again. I mean, one good example, of course, is my granddaughter. She was graduated from high school. And she was accepted at Howard University. But, unfortunately, she is taking Howard University first-year courses at home now, okay. College students, okay, taking first-year courses at home simply because of the virus. That is one of many functions that have HBCUs and many other institutions are experiencing now. How to move forward given our current situation. But we are where we are. And, so, she’s got to stay at home until when we can get control of the virus. It’s not a pleasant situation.
Lynwood, how did your work with the United Negro College Fund come about?
I had been a member of several organizations over a long period of time, and that work really started back when I was in the Washington D.C. area. I lived in the Washington D.C. area for many years. Actually, as I said, I moved there in 1961—[Laughs]—and lived there until 2001 when we moved here to the Houston, Texas, area. So, I got involved back in the Washington D.C. area and have continued to do that. I’ve not been as active recently as possible here in the Houston area. But it really started, as I said, in the Washington D.C. area.
What was your role as Principal Investigator for the United Negro College fund? What were you looking to accomplish in that work?
What I was attempting to do with that kind of job is to provide the direction and guidance for improving the kinds of courses that the organizations would help to support. The membership in the organization focused on helping students who were interested in the varied sciences to be able to get the kind of information that they needed. And to then to find the support to go to the colleges and universities that they wanted to. So, I simply acted to try and help the young people with respect to whatever I could do to provide leadership, mentorship, and financial support to that organization.
This organization was, of course, very different. But obviously it had several goals that were shared in terms of your previous jobs.
I’m curious if you can talk about some of the unique challenges and opportunities you saw in this role?
Well, one of the, of course, challenges had been given the fact that we’ve got students who are interested in the sciences and engineering. Being able to get the message out, in terms of what are the advantages with respect to students who want to major in science, physics, and other areas. Not only what are the advantages what are the opportunities that are currently available for those who don’t know about those kinds opportunities? And being able to share that information with students to be able to provide them with guidance in terms of what they may need to do in order to not only prepare themselves, but to continue to do as well as they possibly can. And, so, it was really guidance with respect to the membership of the organization and what needed to be done to keep the organization moving forward and upward.
Lynwood, I’m very interested in your work as Managing Director, after your tenure at the United Negro College Fund, as Managing Director of the Interdisciplinary Center for Earth and Space Science Application at Morgan State University. And I’m interested specifically because this is now an opportunity where you’re not, you know, working at 35,000 feet from the broad institutional level supporting other institutions. You’re, sort of, right there specifically at one organization. And, so, I’m curious what that transition was like for you?
It was an interesting transition. As I said, I lived in the Washington D.C. area and I traveled to Morgan several times a week to work with the people within that school. Primarily for looking specifically at the kinds of programs and activities that they were interested in putting together to give them advice with respect to the kinds of things they were documenting and the kinds of things they wanted to do. And also to help to solicit the best work that I saw coming forward from these people. And, so, I was serving basically as an evaluator of the kinds of proposals and things that were being put forward. And giving my personal opinion with respect to what should or should not be supported. And, so, I enjoyed that. It was for a short period of time, but it was interesting working with students and to be able to get them and the organization to be productive with respect to what they were doing.
And in what case—and in what ways were you able to increase and enhance that productivity?
Well, as I said, I was basically able to look specifically at proposals that were being drafted and to give my opinion with respect to what kinds of improvements and things that could be done. And then, once I was done, then the staff, of course, would have the responsibility, you know, accepting or not. But it was basically to give my opinion and that’s what I did.
Now, you were in this role for a little under two years. Was this something that was, sort of, designed out of the box to be, sort of, a shorter appointment? Or, were you looking for your next opportunity at that point?
Well, I knew it was going to be a shorter appointment because we were anticipating you know, eventually leaving the area. The Washington D.C. area. So, that would be, as I said, a shorter appointment. And once I was there for that short period of time things moved on and we were also able to move on.
How did your work at Texas Southern University come about?
The work at Texas Southern started basically many years ago when one of the faculty members from the Texas Southern had visited me when I was at NASA in Washington D.C. concerning the HBCU programs and the kinds of activities and things that were being done. And I provided information to that organization with respect to what NASA had been funding. And then when I came to the Houston, Texas, area I was asked specifically whether or not I would be interested in helping to pull together a program that Texas Southern was interested in applying for. And I agreed to do that. And then I was hired by the university to move forward and so I assisted with the preparation for the grant application. And that’s how I became involved with that.
This was yet another opportunity to work with Major General Charles Bolden.
Yes, it was. He, at the time, was living in the area. And I knew he was in the area at the time. And once things got to be set up, I asked him, “Will you not assist with the Board?” And he agreed to do that. Yes.
Now, part of your title on your appointment was you were a visiting research professor. Were you able to take the opportunity to do any teaching in that capacity?
No, I did not. No. My job was primarily administrative.
And this, of course, is what caused you to move down to Texas?
Well, as I said, I had retired from NASA and my wife had retired as a school teacher. And we at the time had two of our sons living in the Houston, Texas area. And we decided under consideration to consider moving to Texas to be closer to family. We were told, however, that’s not something to do. You never know what the family is going to do. But we decided to do that. [Laughs] We came to the Texas area. Decided to have a home built here. And once we had the home built, we were going to move. Well, one month before we had the home completed, my youngest son at the time, who was living in Texas called and told me, “Dad.” I said, “What?” “I’ve got something, some news for you,” he said. “I’ve got a business opportunity that came up.” I said, “Really.” He said, “Yes.” He said, “I’m here in Texas now but I have this job opportunity in California.” And I said, “Well, son, you do what you have to do.” So, one month after we moved, he moves his family, with two of our grandchildren, to California. [Laughs]
Oh, no. [Laughs]
He said, “Eventually we’ll be coming back to Texas.” But he said, “We’re going to move to California.” And sure enough, we move here, he’s moving to California. But eventually, five years later, he did move to the northern part of Texas. And he is still here in Texas now, but he’s up in Arlington, Texas now. Directing parks and recreation there. And then my other son, who was in California had moved here to Texas. He is here in Houston, Texas so we’re near one here in Texas. And near the other who is also in Texas now.
Being in driving range is always better than having to take a flight.
That’s true. It really is. And, unfortunately, my two older children have passed away.
I’m very sorry to hear that. Lynwood, can you talk a little bit about—I don’t know how to pronounce it. Is it L-E-S ASSOCIATES? Or, is it LES ASSOCIATES?
Now this is something you had started, you know, right after you had retired. I’m curious, this is probably something that you didn’t dream up right out of the box upon retirement. You must’ve been thinking about, you know, starting this venture for some time?
Yes, I did. As I said, this is a consulting company that I thought about putting together for some time. Thought about it primarily because my daughter’s name was Leslie. And I said, okay, let’s name this LES ASSOCIATES. And let’s set it up as a consulting company where I can do consulting work in a variety of areas and proceed. And, so in Maryland [?], as I said, I had drafted and set up and established for the first time, LES ASSOCIATES to do consulting work in the variety of educational and technology areas. And so that’s what I have done since 1998. As I said, it’s still an organization. It’s still something that I do occasionally. I haven’t done work on this is quite some time. But it’s something I’d thought just to be a consultant. And, so, that’s what I currently am. [Laughs]
What have been some of the major achievements of LES ASSOCIATES? Both the things that have brought you, sort of, personal satisfaction and some, you know, business achievements in terms of, you know, remaining active and bringing in income even in retirement?
Yes, as I said, I have been able to do consulting work for a variety of organizations around the country for some period of time based on the kinds of experiences that I’ve had. And this has helped me. Could you excuse me just for a moment? I have to go to the restroom. I’ll be right back.
Certainly. Certainly [PAUSE]
I’m sorry. I’m back now.
Welcome back. So, my question, my question there was, if we could talk a little bit about some of those achievements that you’ve had in retirement with LES ASSOCIATES that had given you both personal satisfaction in terms of continuing on with the kinds of programs that are important to you. And, also, those achievements that are, you know, demonstrate that this is a financially viable enterprise. And it has been able to bring in income even in retirement.
Well, in terms of achievements of LES ASSOCIATES. I’ve had such a variety of small jobs over a period of time working to help income as well as to help, you know, with respect to the things that I have been involved with previously at NASA and other places. One of the activities, I’m trying to remember, was right after I retired also. Um, I don’t remember the name of the organization that I worked with—hold on. Let’s see. Oh, the United Negro College Fund Special Programs Corporation. This was back in August 2000 to September of 2001. This was an organization that NASA had supported, and it was located in Northern, Virginia. And it was, the organization used to help to manage and support NASA funding for a variety of programs. And I was selected to head up that organization, and I think I had about three or four people who were working for me during that period of time. And we provided the [??] establishment and program staff. And serving the minority institutions. Proposals focused not only on evaluating the university research centers but also on awards and things that were given out. We were research associates for a 10-month period in evaluating 7 institutions in the group of NASA research centers. That is, we had to provide evaluations for NASA in helping to support the various organizations. That’s one of the things that I did right after retiring from NASA.
Since I have been here in Texas, a lot of my focus has been on working with science fairs. One of the things that I have done for a very long period of time. And this started in Maryland many, many years ago. I’ve been asked to serve in various capacities as a judge for various science fairs. And to the extent that my experience has been very successful in helping to judge these fairs for young people in schools. When I came to this area, I was asked for my advice in science fairs for one of the larger school districts in the northern Texas area. Conroe Independent School District. They had a program for a science fair, and they needed some help with the judging for that. Well, so I volunteered for that and became Chairman of the Judges. And, so, for about six or seven years I was the Chair Judge for an extremely large science fair that lasted anywhere from two to three days over a period of time. And I had to help select judges. Help them judge. And to give the awards to students who had submitted applications for science fairs. And this was something that I enjoyed doing and continue to do. Although I haven’t done much of it here lately. Being a science fair judge is one thing about judging the quality of the science fair, but also to serving as basically mentors for students. And particularly African American students, potentially in science entries that had very few African American students. To be a mentor to those students who were interested in the science fair. But also interested in science in general. And, so, I have done that for a very long period of time. And gave that up, oh, about four or five years ago.
In addition to that I was very active in the Rotary Club up in the area called, known as The Woodlands. This is a club, group of people who get together once a week for bringing together speakers from around the area. And having joined that club I became the Program Chairman for that. And, so, as the Program Chairman I was responsible for a group of about 10 people who oversee the idea of when bringing in a speaker every week—[Laughs]—for the Rotary Club to hear presentations around the area. And, so, I have done that for almost six years. I no longer do it now. But that was an effort of making lots of contact with all kinds of speakers to come and talk to the Rotary Club members about the various activities that are being conducted in the area. And, so, this is something that I have done.
I have been Board member for the Harvard Business School Alumni, as well as Board Member for the Harvard Business School club here in the Houston area. Um, [??] got involved in, you know, back and forth a variety of activities. I’ve been a member of a fraternity. I’ve been doing a number of different things. And I’ve enjoyed it principally for the interaction with young people. I just stepped down from some activities with the American Physical Society that have taken place over a long period of time. And Ted Hodapp and I have known each other for quite some time. When I joined the American Physical Society program for minority education, I eventually served as chairman of that program. And we are the ones who actually started the mentoring program many, many years ago. And I have followed through on that program and attended many conferences around the country in terms of helping to establish mentoring activities. Support those activities. Attend the meeting here in Houston, at Stanford, and many other places around the country in terms of American Physical Society. I’ve served in addition to the education board, other boards for the Physical Society. This has involved [??] a number of activities which have kept me quite busy over a period of time.
Now, I’m not quite as active as I once was primarily because back pains that I’m currently having. I’m getting older. I’m 82 years old. I’m not able to get around as much as I used to. And then over the last two and a half months, my wife and I have moved from our previous location which we moved to in 2001 to a location now here in Houston, Texas, where we have had to downsize simply because our previous house was much too large for us. And, now that we’re settling into our home, we are getting used to being closer to a lot of activities here in the Houston area. But enjoying our activities. But when we—I read the article about Dr Branson that just resonated with me because I hadn’t seen his name in quite a long time.
And that’s how I got in contact with you through my response to that.
Lynwood, that’s the perfect segue now that we’re up to, sort of, the present day and assessing all that you’ve accomplished in retirement. And, so, I want to ask, you know, given this emphasis on mentoring, I want to ask you for my last question, a very broad question that’s going to ask you to reflect on your own experiences and to give your perspective on where we are now as a society particularly because the issues of inclusivity and diversity remain very much a challenge in the sciences. And, so, I’d like to ask you, looking back over the course of your early career in graduate school and then your first work in the lab and then as you came up the ranks at NASA, in what ways do you see the opportunities and challenges that you faced as an African American in the sciences, in what ways do you see those challenges and opportunities as unique to the time and place where you found yourself? And in what ways are they the same as those young people, African Americans, who are looking to begin their career in science today?
Well, as I said, growing up I did not have any idea of majoring in college in physics. The subject had never even been brought to me. And when I spoke with my counselor and she referenced me to physics and the physics program at my high school, that set me in the right direction. Because it focused on something that I was interested in. Something that I did very well in. And something that has lasted throughout my entire career. However, the idea that not only doing such a thing, but of having a mentor, okay. Not in effect often times being called a mentor, but being someone who looks out for me, okay. Trying to do the best thing for me. And gives me advice about doing the right thing at a given time. And, so, for me, mentorship simply has meant—it’s a matter of having a person, okay. Not necessarily a person that you work with every day. Not necessarily a person that you see every week. But a person who can look out for you as being in your pocket for their consideration, has your fortune, or looking out for you, and can give you advice on things to do and not to do. Of how to move forward. How not to do. What kinds of friends to have? What would be best for you to do for your situation. And, so, that was, for me. And has been a powerful thing. To say, okay, I’m—or, you are a mentor, okay. And, so, I just looked for mentorship.
Now, one of the things that I have not had a lot of opportunity of doing is providing regular mentorship for students that I’m teaching. Because I have not done very much teaching. Very little teaching, okay. And, so, I don’t have the daily contact with students whereby I would provide much more mentoring by being in contact with them. And even with the American Physical Society I have not had that opportunity simply because I don’t want to teach. I no longer have that many interactions with students, but I volunteer to do mentoring, you know, whenever and wherever I can. So, that, for me has been one of the emphasis of my career. To be available to do mentoring for students. I can either do it in person or phone. Whichever way is most beneficial. For me, as I said, that is very important to continue to do. And, also, for me as a parent to, provide and hope for and give instructions for children, okay. My children and grandchildren. Particularly aspirations for them of things that they should think about. What they should be doing. And what they should not be doing. As they look forward to being able to move forward in their lives. These things are very important. We in our current society are facing a variety of issues with respect to African Americans and the pursuit of African Americans to get the things that they should with respect to their jobs, their support, their rights. And to be able then give advice for those who are trying and to give advice for those who are not. To be able to involve yourself in discussions with people of all races.
And I have on many occasions talked about race with respect to groups. I’ve belonged to a variety of different groups. Multi-racial groups in which race has been a subject of discussion. And I have had to lead discussions on race. And this has been a very, very instrumental time in my life to be able to lead a discussion on race with respect to being honest, and straightforward with people who have had different experiences. Whether they are African Americans or Caucasians or any race. Of what their experiences have been. What my experiences have been. What our expectations are. And where we should be as a nation. And, so, I continue to support the business effort. Politically we have [??] issues now with respect to where we are as a nation now. And I’m just hoping that people will go out to vote for the coming election.
But I have been beneficial by having had a variety of people who have provided me with the right mentorship. My high school teacher, Ms. Williams, okay. She was the one who got me stuck on physics. My head of department at Virginia State, Dr. Hunter, who gave me the advice that I had that I also had another faculty member, Dr. Adkins at Virginia State gave me [??] advice. In fact, he ended up being the President of Tennessee State University and wanted to hire me to be a professor for him as I returned from one of my assignments at Clark Atlanta. But he passed away several years ago. But these people have been mentors. And, of course, Bob Oswald, who I admire for his leadership, his condolence, his working with me as a student, as a worker with respect to developing my thesis, defending my thesis, co-authoring papers, and working closely with he and his family as we both moved forward. These people have been instrumental in my life and in helping me to achieve the things that I have. And I look forward to continuing to do this kind of work with whomever that I meet with respect whether they need mentorship or not. And to give advice to people in terms of what has been beneficial to me. What I have experienced. How I have moved on past a lot the things that stopped in my way in terms of being as successful as I think I could have been. But, also, in looking forward to being who I am. What I am. And being able to help others as I move forward.
Well, Lynwood, I want to close on just an editorial comment on my part. On my own, and that is, one of the really special things about mentoring, good mentoring, is that it’s self-replicating. In other words, all of the wisdom and insight that you’ve been able to share with people and younger generations, as time progresses, those people, they move up in their own seniority and they recognize the value of your mentorship, and in turn hopefully they can become mentors in their own right. And, so, today, as we continue in such an upsetting way to continue to deal with all of these problems in our society, broadly and even in science specifically, you know, to state the obvious, but it’s important for the historical record, your efforts over the course of your career are very much appreciated and they’re very important. And it’s been an honor and a pleasure and pleasure to speak with you. And I wish you ongoing success in your endeavors.
Well, David, thank you so very much for agreeing to take part in this conversation. I have enjoyed it. I wish you the best of luck as you move forward. And it was great to talk with you. And perhaps we will be able to have other conversations.
I hope so.