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From Florida to Fukushima

16 October 2014
Physicist Brian Beckford sets the bar high for himself, and he's helping students from underrepresented minorities do the same.

One day in middle school, Brian Beckford overheard his art teacher encouraging another boy to apply to a magnet high school that focused on design and architecture. He got angry. "Why was she telling him and not me? And not everyone?" he says. "I took it personal, and I went home and told my mom that I am going to this school." The 13-year-old Beckford spent the weekend putting together a portfolio. "I just sat for 48 hours and drew and drew and drew," he says. He auditioned at the school, and he was accepted. (The other boy did not get in.)

Following a sometimes zigzagging path, Beckford eventually earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in physics at Florida International University (FIU) in Miami. For his PhD in experimental nuclear physics, he moved to Tohoku University in Sendai, Japan. He was there during the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster.

Beckford (left) with his mentor, Jörg Reinhold of Florida International University. CREDIT: Brian Beckford

Beckford (left) with his mentor, Jörg Reinhold of Florida International University. CREDIT: Brian Beckford

His next move was to College Park, Maryland, to the American Physical Society. Since April 2013 he has managed the APS Bridge Program, which aims to increase the numbers of underrepresented minorities who attain a physics PhD (see Physics Today, September 2014, page 24).

We chatted by phone with Beckford earlier this fall.

PT: Why did you major in physics?

BECKFORD: There were three things. I had a deep love of philosophy. And in a philosophy of religion course, there were some proofs and references to physics that I just didn't understand. I tried to speak to my professor, and he said I should go and speak to a physics professor. When I did, I understood that if I wanted to grasp the "how" questions of the universe, then I needed to understand physics. I didn't want to fall into traps of trying to figure out why by using incorrect hows. That was one reason.

Also, way back before philosophy, when I was leaving art school, people said, "You are good at math and science, and you are good at design. Maybe engineering is the way for you."

The third reason was that when I was taking physics courses, I met who turned out to be my future adviser, Professor Jörg Reinhold. He said, "Come work in my lab, and I'll teach you stuff." He gave me the opportunity. I liked working in the lab. And talking with him, he sold me on the opportunities physics could give you, and also on the funding available compared to philosophy.

PT: This was during your second stint at FIU. You had earlier spent one semester there and then quit. Why did you quit? And what did you do when you were not in school?

BECKFORD: My close friends from the magnet school all went to the military. And most of my friends from the neighborhood did not go on to college. They were hanging out and having fun. I had a full scholarship at FIU, which I threw away after one semester. The bottom line was that I was young and angry and wanted to have some fun. I decided to take a break from school. That turned into an extended time because I started to work full time.

I ended up moving up into management at a hotel in South Beach, Miami. I was having a good time, but I got a little older, and most of my friends were still doing the same thing, which was not much. I kind of plateaued at the hotel, simply because I didn't have any formal education. I was doing most of the work of my boss, at probably one-fifth of his salary. I decided to go back to school.

PT: Did you keep working full-time while you were studying?

BECKFORD: Yes. It's a regular life for most people from struggling socioeconomic backgrounds. But once I decided to do physics, I quit working full time. I started saving and cutting back. I sold my car, and I got a bike. I simplified my life so I could focus on school.

PT: How did you decide to continue on to a graduate degree?

BECKFORD: Grad school became a stronger idea because of my developing relationship with Professor Reinhold. This is where mentoring was important. He knew many things that were going on in my life, and still he was willing to give me opportunities. He liked me, and he saw my potential. And I saw the lifestyle he was living as a professor—traveling, going to labs—and I got to go to Jefferson Lab to help build a detector. I got hands-on research experience as an undergraduate. And I made close friends at FIU. All this made me decide yes, I want to go to grad school. I want to pursue this.

During all of this I had a very close friend, Alejandro de la Puente. We had almost every class together, and we went through the McNair program together. [The Ronald E. McNair Post Baccalaureate Achievement Program helps underrepresented minority students prepare for graduate school.] Finding someone to fight through the struggle with definitely helped.

PT: Did you go straight from undergraduate to graduate school?

BECKFORD: Yes. I was working with Reinhold, and we were working at Jefferson Lab. But your experiment could be three years down the line. So in the meantime he sent me to Tohoku, where they have a small accelerator. It solidified my love for Japan.

I did some research and found that often people didn't complete all their degrees at the same university. Alejandro and I spoke about this intensely. He was also in the PhD program at FIU. We decided between us, yes, we are going to challenge ourselves, and we are going to try to go somewhere else.

I was doing well in my classes, I was teaching labs. I had a great adviser. The weather is great. But we were just too comfortable at FIU.

We both met our challenge. Alejandro ended up graduating from Notre Dame [and is now a postdoctoral research associate in theoretical physics at TRIUMF in Vancouver, Canada]. And I switched to the master's program at FIU and then went to Tohoku for my PhD. I applied to many schools, of course.

PT: So it wasn't just about going to Japan? It was about broadening your experience?

BECKFORD: Right. What spurred the idea was Japan, and that's what I wanted to do. But having switched officially from a PhD to a master's program at FIU, I didn't want to burn my chances.

PT: What was your thesis topic?

BECKFORD: Strangeness physics was my area. We were focusing on measuring the cross sections for production of kaons or lambdas off of a neutron. I was working in the group of Osamu Hashimoto, who I'd met when I visited as an undergrad. Kaons have a very low cross section, so you need a lot of data to pull the kaon data out of the background. That was my focus.

PT: Were you successful?

BECKFORD: I actually ended up having to change my focus from the kaon to the lambda. That was because of the [2011 Tohoku] earthquake. I had the last dataset at the lab before the earthquake, which damaged the accelerator. The lambda has a higher cross section, so statistics-wise, I could actually make some conclusions.

PT: How did you hear about the earthquake?

BECKFORD: How did I hear about it? I felt it! The building was singing and dancing, doing salsa!

When you live in that part of Japan, you get used to earthquakes. Everyone has an app on their phone that tells you when an earthquake is coming. I had mine set for level 4 or higher [on the Richter scale], because it would go off all the time with level 1 or 2.

At that time in Sendai, we were having an earthquake once a week. That day, when it started, I was in my office by myself. I didn't think anything of it until things started falling down. I was like, wait a minute, this is pretty big. I grabbed my laptop, threw it in my backpack, grabbed my coat, and tried to walk out of my office. When I opened the door, I could see a professor running to get out of the building. He was falling over the floor.

It started snowing very heavily. Most people didn't grab their coat, didn't grab their hat, their gloves. It stuck in my mind, how everyone just looked cold and resolved—"shoganai," which means "it can't be helped, so endure it." That was the look on everyone's face.

PT: When did you find out about the tsunami and just how bad things were?

BECKFORD: Everyone's cell phones were dead, and no one had power to charge their stuff. We only knew about the earthquake damage, not about the tsunami damage. The power plant problems were not known until a few days later.

I spent the first night at a community center. The next day, I got on my bike and I went riding to see what was happening. I saw signs on people's doors like, "If your bathroom isn't working, come here and use the bathroom." As soon as I got closer to the coast, I saw how bad it was. This was like a 20-mile ride. I started running into a different scene. I saw images of death. I decided not to go any further.

PT: How did life as a student resume?

BECKFORD: It didn't resume for three months. It was an interesting time. I tried to volunteer. I did leave Sendai for a while. I went and stayed with a family in another part of Japan. I did a lot of reading and reflecting and soul searching.

This was March 2011. Before the earthquake, I had finally gotten some data. When you are doing experiments, not everything goes right. Our detector didn't work at first, and by the time we figured out the problem and put the detectors back in, some wires broke. We took the detector back out to fix the wires. Finally, we got the experiment working, took some data, and a couple of months later the earthquake happened. I continued trudging along, pulling my hair out, and cursing physics to Hell. That's what happens when you do a PhD in physics. It's a love–hate relationship.

PT: What attracted you to APS?

BECKFORD: Basically, it was how [the job] was presented: Providing underrepresented students a chance at graduate school. I liked living in Japan, but I also have the burden of student loans. With a postdoc I'd have to start looking for my next job soon. This was an opportunity to do something that would be meaningful.

PT: As head of the Bridge program, how do you spend your time?

BECKFORD: I spend a lot of my time on documents. I spend a lot of my time organizing the annual meeting and brainstorming the conference theme. And I spend a great deal of my time doing quantitative analysis of our applicants pool and then presenting to the other people in the management group ideas that we could possibly work on next. Because, if we are not reaching a certain group—we are trying to reach Hispanics, African Americans, and Native Americans—then we need to think of ideas of how to reach them. It may be my hard-research background, but I particularly don't like anecdotal stories as a way to decide what to do. I prefer data to guide decisions.

PT: Where do you see yourself in 5 or 10 years?

BECKFORD: My dream is still to be a professor. I like the exchange of ideas. I like the firing synapses, I like the fresh approach to life. I think there is an exchange of raw ideas that can be found in a university, and I find engaging with young minds stimulating.

It may take years to complete, but my goal is to be a sensei, or professor, or instructor, in four different things: philosophy, physics, kendo, and iaido. Kendo and iaido are forms of Japanese martial arts.

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