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Black voices in physics: Sekazi Mtingwa

22 October 2020

“I think physics is pulling up the rear compared with other STEM fields,” the award-winning accelerator physicist says of progress in welcoming Black scientists.

This interview is part of PT’s “Black voices in physics” series of Q&As with Black physicists.

Sekazi Mtingwa was born in Atlanta, Georgia, and earned his PhD at Princeton University in 1976. He worked first in theoretical high-energy physics and later as a research scientist at Fermilab in accelerator physics. He was an early and key contributor to developing intrabeam scattering and wakefield acceleration. In 1977 he was a cofounder of the National Society of Black Physicists. He shared the 2017 Robert R. Wilson Prize for Achievement in the Physics of Particle Accelerators; he was the first African American to be awarded a research prize by the American Physical Society.

Sekazi Mtingwa.
Credit: NSF

In 1991, after a combined decade at Fermilab and Argonne National Laboratory, Mtingwa joined the faculty of North Carolina A&T State University. Since he retired in 2012, he has been involved in initiatives in developing countries, including planning for an African Light Source. (See Physics Today, January 2016, page 31.) Quoting the late civil rights leader and congressman John Lewis, Mtingwa says, “You have to do ‘good trouble, necessary trouble’ ” to achieve change.

PT: What barriers did you face as a Black physicist?

MTINGWA: There was a lack of role models, and I never became close to my professors, not even my thesis adviser. There was one African American physicist, James Young, on the faculty at MIT, and I spoke to him as an undergraduate. That was invaluable.

Sometimes you don’t get respect. Once we had a visiting professor and he had four copies of a paper and five postdocs and students listening to him. He took my copy out of my hand to give it to one of the others. It was horrible. Then I had a colleague at Fermilab who would ask questions in big meetings to try to humiliate me. He would say, “Do you know what a Gaussian distribution is?” I was a young staff scientist, but to ask a physicist that is like asking a car mechanic if they know what a transmission is. The humiliation takes its toll. It became difficult for me to sleep.

In many cases the people I have reported to were cruel. But balanced against the opportunities I’ve had, I came out ahead. Overall, the micro- and macro-aggressions I sustained were minor compared with the good things.

PT: You spent time abroad; how would you compare the situation?

MTINGWA: I was in the Soviet Union for six months starting in December 1988. They treated me like a physicist, and I slept like a baby.

PT: How has the situation changed over time for Black people in physics?

MTINGWA: Not a lot has changed. Take MIT: They just tenured a Black physicist, and that’s the first time in 50 years. Some people are trying, but I think physics is pulling up the rear compared with other STEM fields. Physicists are told they are the smartest in the world, and people have prejudices—they don’t view Black people as intelligent.

PT: What would help?

MTINGWA: Give people an opportunity. Give Black physicists interviews. Hire them. It’s not deep. You just have to do it.

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