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Black voices in physics: Quinton Williams

22 October 2020

The Howard University physics chair advocates admitting cohorts to graduate schools and supporting students facing financial barriers.

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

Quinton Williams.
Credit: Aisiriuwa Archield/Howard University College of Arts and Sciences

“My father used to say to get a job where you could work inside, where it would be cooler and you could earn more money than working outdoors,” says Quinton Williams, chair of the physics department at Howard University. Williams grew up in the Mississippi Delta. His father had a third-grade education and worked as a baker, and his mother attended school through 10th grade. Later, past age 50 and after having 11 children, she got her GED and earned an associate’s degree so she could work as a teacher’s aide at Head Start. “That was inspiring, and I knew if she could do it, so could I,” Williams says. He went to Jackson State University as an undergraduate, and in 1996 he earned a PhD in physics at Georgia Tech, where he focused on photonics and laser dynamics. He worked in industry for four years before moving into academia in 2003.

PT: What drew you to physics?

WILLIAMS: I initially wanted to be an engineer, but Jackson State, where most of my family went to college, didn’t have an engineering program at the time. During my freshman year, I attended the National Conference of Black Physics Students at MIT, and once I got into that and got a taste of physics, I decided to stick with it. For five summers I did internships with Corning Glass Works in upstate New York. I was exposed to different scientists and engineers, and that made a mark. Later, Corning sponsored me for a Graduate Education for Minorities PhD fellowship, which covered my graduate school costs.

PT: Did you encounter barriers in graduate school because of being Black?

WILLIAMS: Yes, of course, but I try not to dwell on the bad. For example, in the beginning, when we were trying to establish study groups for graduate courses, I was made to feel not welcome, and the white students didn’t want to share information or work together on problems. What sustained me was a group of friends, five African American physics students. We got together ourselves, and the department chair found space for us to call our own. Having a cohort made all the difference in the world.

One pivotal thing at Georgia Tech was that I did another summer internship, this time at AT&T Bell Labs in Georgia. That opened the door to starting my career at AT&T/Lucent Technologies.

PT: What did you do at Lucent?

WILLIAMS: I started working on lightguide measurements and ultimately worked on a new gigabit Ethernet optical fiber product we were developing. That is where I cut my teeth in terms of learning about managing.

You have to work twice as hard when you are Black to make advances. Peers sometimes get promotions before you, even when you are showing them what to do.

Those experiences were mild and not in-your-face. I’ve seen racism up close and raw. While growing up in Mississippi, I was called the N-word. I was called stupid. At Lucent, one woman at the facility in Georgia was reportedly the wife of a Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard. She would bake cookies and bring them to work to offer to everyone; I didn’t eat them. However, looking back, I would say that my experience of discrimination at Lucent was minimal.

After a few years at Lucent, I got together with some friends and one of my brothers. We all left our jobs and raised venture capital to start our own high-tech company based on the concept of a new all-optical switch.

PT: What barriers did you face as a Black tech entrepreneur?

WILLIAMS: That environment is money based. You are dealing with rich and typically old white men—multimillionaires and even billionaires. They feel that they can say and do anything. One said he didn’t want to write us a check because “it’s like getting stuck to a tar baby.” I asked him, “What do we need to get a term sheet? Do we need a Nobel laureate?” He said that would help. It turned out that we were able to deliver. Jerome Friedman of MIT agreed to serve on our board of advisers. It was not easy to get venture capital money, and I know that there were extra hurdles due to the color of my skin.

The tech bubble burst in 2001, and the venture capitalists were not opening their wallets anymore. After winding down the company, I had to make a decision about what to do next. Someone told me that the physics department at Jackson State was looking for a new chair. I was 32 years old when I entered academia in 2003, and I have loved it ever since.

PT: Both Jackson State and Howard, where you are now, are historically Black universities. What’s the environment like?

WILLIAMS: Students at an HBCU may not have to deal with the microaggressions they would often get at a PWI [primarily white institution]—for instance, comments like “You should switch majors out of physics.” However, at HBCUs the barriers to achieve the highest levels of excellence are many. For example, most HBCUs don’t have subscriptions to journals; they often only have Physics Today. Not having adequate resources creates barriers. It’s time consuming and embarrassing. You also get the feeling that it’s harder to publish or get proposals funded when your return address is an HBCU rather than one of the larger PWIs. I believe that the disadvantages are rooted in systemic racism. I would feel so liberated if those issues were not there.

PT: What do you think needs to be done to improve the situation for Black physicists and increase their numbers?

WILLIAMS: I am a big proponent of graduate schools admitting cohorts. I don’t think I would have survived grad school if I’d been alone. But if we are going to move the needle, we really need to get away from bringing in a few students at a time. We need to develop a new paradigm that can impact hundreds of students at a time, while we try to encourage more students of color to choose physics as a major in college.

And the recommendations in the new AIP TEAM-UP report are important; for example, financial resources are needed. Sometimes a student will just need $2000 to get over the finish line. TEAM-UP’s proposed endowment fund would eliminate that type of financial barrier.

PT: Do you think the intensified interest in Black Lives Matter will help?

WILLIAMS: I am optimistic that it will. The environment is leading to conversations about how to do things differently. It’s at a feverish pitch. Working together in earnest, the physics community can solve its issue of diversity.

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