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Black physicists and astronomers: The interviews

27 March 2015
Two students, two research astronomers, and a retired nuclear physicist talk about their professional achievements and aspirations and their love for science.

Last month, after a three-year hiatus, the National Society of Black Physicists (NSBP) held their annual scientific conference in Baltimore, Maryland. The NSBP’s mission is primarily to “develop and support efforts to increase opportunities for African Americans in physics and to increase their numbers and visibility of their scientific work.”

After attending the conference, I contacted and interviewed the five attendees below. Each is at a different stage in his or her career—an undergraduate student, a graduate student, a recently tenured professor, a midcareer researcher, and a retired academic who now works as a consultant.

Bria Andrews. Photo credit: Miles Jenkins.

Bria Andrews. Photo credit: Miles Jenkins.

Bria Andrews is a sophomore majoring in physics at Hampton University in Virginia.

Shawn Muslim. Photo credit: North Carolina Central University.

Shawn Muslim. Photo credit: North Carolina Central University.

Shawn Muslim is graduating this year with her master’s degree in Earth science from North Carolina Central University; she plans to pursue her PhD this fall in the joint school of nanoscience and nanoengineering at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and North Carolina A&T State University.

John Johnson. Photo credit: Jim Harrison Photography.

John Johnson. Photo credit: Jim Harrison Photography.

John Johnson is a professor of astronomy at Harvard University and a member of the Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA).

Dara Norman. Photo credit: American Astronomical Society, copyright 2014 Joson Images.

Dara Norman. Photo credit: American Astronomical Society, copyright 2014 Joson Images.

Dara Norman is an associate scientist at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) in Tucson, Arizona and visiting faculty fellow at Howard University in Washington, DC.

Sekazi Mtingwa. Photo Credit: Makazi Mtingwa.

Sekazi Mtingwa. Photo Credit: Makazi Mtingwa.

Sekazi Mtingwa is a former visiting professor of physics and senior lecturer at MIT, former chair of physics at North Carolina A&T State University, and a former president of NSBP. He is currently a principal partner at the North Carolina-based Triangle Science, Education, and Economic Development, LLC.

I asked each of them the following four questions:

Besides some shared cultural experiences, each gave unique and intriguing responses to what attracted them to physics or astronomy and why NSBP is important to them.

What’s your area of research?

Andrews is currently working on a project characterizing such materials as praseodymium-doped potassium lead chloride and cerium-doped potassium lead chloride for scintillator detectors and eye-safe lasers. “My research group is still in the initial stages of research,” she says, “but we have discovered that some of our materials are suitable for eye-safe laser applications.”

Muslim’s master’s thesis work focused on nanotechnology, specifically water remediation using titanium dioxide (TiO2) and carbon nanotube (CNT) hybrid materials. “Our study indicates that TiO2/CNT nanocomposite materials may degrade harmful pollutants in harsh, [real-world] conditions of varying pH ranges,” she says. “Promising degradation results as high as 96% have been achieved through our low-temperature, environmentally safe, synthesis technique.”

Discovering exoplanets and characterizing them is the focus of Johnson’s research team at Harvard. “My group uses many methods to detect new planets, and once we know they are there, we use a wide variety of tools to study the physical characteristics of planets, as well as the statistical distributions of their physical properties as an ensemble,” he says. “This ‘demographics’ study allows us to place boundary conditions on the proposed mechanisms of planet formation and orbital evolution that theorists are developing.”

In March 2014, Johnson’s most notable research discovery— of three planets orbiting a red dwarf star—was featured in an article he wrote for Physics Today. “The star is about one-fifth the size of the Sun; all three planets are smaller than the Earth and orbit with periods less than two days,” he says. “It's a miniature solar system in almost every respect, almost as if someone fired a shrink ray at the Sun and the inner solar system.”

Norman’s research interest centers on the formation and evolution of active galactic nuclei (AGN), a phenomenon that occurs as gas and stars are accreted by supermassive black holes at the center of some galaxies. “[The AGN] can be brighter than an entire galaxy of stars,” she says. “I am particularly interested in what triggers these active galaxies, why some galaxies are luminous while others are not. And does the galaxy’s environment play a role?”

Mtingwa has made a number of contributions to the understanding of accelerator beam dynamics—in particular, intrabeam scattering (IBS). He says IBS limits the luminosity of electron–positron colliders and the performance of most modern accelerators, including the luminosity lifetime of hadron–hadron colliders, including the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, the former Tevatron collider at Fermilab, and the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven National Laboratory.

Says Mtingwa, “Our understanding of intrabeam scattering has empowered the construction of ultrabright synchrotron light sources, which are revolutionizing many fields, including the understanding of protein structure and infectious diseases, materials science, chemistry, and even art cultural history and paleontology.”

What attracted you to physics or astronomy?

Chemistry was the subject that first attracted Andrews to science; she took physics in high school because it was required and because her chemistry teacher insisted that she take the course with him. But then she discovered that “physics came easier to me and also had a close relation with chemistry.” She credits her teacher for playing a critical role in her decision to study physics: “His encouragement and personal interest in my learning experience are what sparked my interest.”

Strong support from her family and religious community has played a role in Muslim’s pursuit of her scientific goals. Her mother, Elvira Shaw-Williams, is one of the first African American women to earn a physics PhD in the US. “Achieving an advanced degree barely a decade after desegregation, my mother taught me how to set goals, make a plan, and do whatever it takes to achieve those goals in spite of hardship and adversity,” says Muslim.

She also credits the Muslim community she’s lived in for teaching her “how to accomplish goals not in spite of hardship, but because of it.” On top of that, Muslim says she receives incredible support from her husband, 10 children, and 3 stepchildren. With that kind of support, she adds, “a PhD in physics or engineering is simply a matter of well-earned scholarships, fellowships, timing, and planning—all by the will of Allah.”

Johnson says he started out as an engineering major at the University of Missouri–Rolla (now known as the Missouri University of Science and Technology). But after a while, he began to feel like “the questions in engineering were too limited in scope.” Reading Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time (Bantam, 1988) “got me very excited about cosmology,” says Johnson. It also got him to switch majors to physics with a minor in mathematics. In graduate school—he did his PhD at the University of California, Berkeley—he ended up studying astrophysics, “the other extreme end of the [cosmological] size scale.”

Norman credits her mother, the space program, and “an amazing mentor” for her attraction to astronomy. “Like many third and fourth graders, I wanted to be an astronaut,” she says. “My mother was very interested in science fiction and the space program, and that rubbed off on me.” But it wasn’t until her second year as an undergraduate at MIT that Norman says she looked through a telescope for the first time. “It was aimed at Jupiter and the cool thing was that the planet looked like the pictures I’d seen—giant red spot and all. I was hooked!” She counts it “a bonus” to have been mentored by MIT professor James Elliot (now deceased), known for leading the science team that discovered the rings around Uranus and for mentoring other women astronomers.

Born Michael Von Sawyer, Mtingwa says his elementary school classmates used to tease him by calling him “von Sawyer, the mad German scientist.” He says, “I guess that got me to thinking about becoming a scientist, although I did not know which discipline.” By high school, he says he was reading “at least part of an article in Scientific American every day before doing my homework.”

Mtingwa says he “got hooked on physics” after reading “paperbacks for the layperson…on Einstein’s theories of special and general relativity.” As for the meaning of his new, self-selected Tanzanian name: Sekazi means hard worker, Kauze (his middle name) means inquisitive, and Mtingwa means one who is confronted by many problems and yet overcomes them. “My name provides goals for me,” he says.

What are your noteworthy achievements and career goals?

At the NSBP conference, Andrews and her undergraduate research partner, Hampton junior Amber Simmons, won the Poster of the Year award sponsored by the Harvard University department of physics. “We worked diligently and were thrilled and extremely humbled that it paid off,” says Andrews, who plans to attend law school, become a patent attorney, and concentrate on intellectual property law.

Muslim won the Brookhaven National Laboratory poster competition at the NSBP conference. “It felt nice to be recognized,” she says. “Awards like that are most inspirational and do much to encourage the continuation of academic research, journal publication, and the securing of patents.” Muslim says she plans to be involved in global sustainability projects addressing the use and reuse of water through advances in water science, water resources, and membrane technology. “I plan to live and work abroad in a community of researchers who use physics to develop sustainable water infrastructures that could support any country’s growing commerce and population.”

Besides his accomplishments so far in exoplanet research, Johnson says that he is proud of his recent work guiding young minority astronomers as they navigate academia. “I'm proud that my hard work over the past year has resulted in a slight uptick in the number of black astronomers. For example, at the CfA, we went from having only one black astronomer and one black undergraduate before I arrived, to a total of 7 black PhDs and students today. My goal is to see this number increase to 10 by this time next year and double again over the next five years… . We have an opportunity to make huge relative gains in the years to come.”

“Unfortunately, scientists often conduct business as if race is a real feature of humans that predicts human ability to do physics and astronomy research,” says Johnson. “This belief system has led to a sociology of science that benefits a few to the exclusion of others.” Johnson says he wants to expand on his leadership role in astronomy to fix that “fundamentally unjust and unethical” belief system, which “leads to a lack of diversity in physics and astronomy and hinders progress on the toughest problems in our scientific field.”

Norman shares similar goals and aspirations as Johnson, her fellow astronomer. At NOAO, Norman is a diversity advocate, working on the organization’s workforce recruitment and retention initiatives. “This advocate role has made me very aware of the significant amount of work that needs to be done to improve career outcomes for minorities and women in the field of astronomy and physics,” she says.

“My most proud career accomplishments come from the work that I do to give back to my community by engaging in public outreach programs,” says Norman. She points to her engagement with elementary and middle school students and teachers through Project ASTRO, a national program managed by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific that links professional and amateur astronomers with local educators. Norman says she’s also mentored and advised students through NSF’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates program and informally mentored students through her work with NSBP.

Aside from his work on intrabeam scattering, Mtingwa says he is proud to have participated “in the first proof-of-principal experiments of plasma and dielectric wakefield acceleration at Argonne National Laboratory and [to have played] an important role in the design and construction of the magnet and stochastic beam cooling systems of Fermilab’s Antiproton Source, which were crucial systems used to discover the top quark.”

In addition to putting the legal nonprofit structure in place while serving as NSBP president, Mtingwa says he’s also proud of the many other groups that he helped get their start. They include the National Society of Hispanic Physicists; the African Laser Centre, a network of more than 30 African institutions; the African Institute of Mathematical Sciences in Ghana; the African Physical Society; and the African Review of Physics. He is also involved in proposals for the Julius K. Nyerere University of Science, Technology and Innovation in Tanzania and for an African synchrotron light source.

Currently, Mtingwa is president of the Interdisciplinary Consortium for Research and Educational Access in Science and Engineering (INCREASE), an organization that seeks to increase the numbers of faculty and students from minority-serving institutions who use the national user facilities at the national laboratories.

What does NSBP participation mean for you?

This being her first NSBP conference, Andrews saw it as an opportunity to network. “Participating in organizations like NSBP means developing new connections and strengthening existing ones,” she says. “These organizations and conferences provide exposure. They introduce me to new people, concepts, and perspectives.”

For Muslim, NSBP was also primarily a prime networking opportunity. “My father, a retired New York City public schools guidance counselor, taught me the value of networking and careful positioning to receive opportunities,” she says. By presenting options for research and internships, “the NSBP conference brings incredible opportunities for advancement at your fingertips. NSBP is changing the way the next generation [of physicists and engineers] looks. Competence comes in many colors. Good science knows no boundaries.”

Says Johnson, “I'm coming off of my trip to Baltimore and the NSBP meeting reenergized, excited, and encouraged. It means a great deal to be around brilliant people who look like you and share your life experiences as a black American.” He adds, “Seeing and interacting with all of those young physicists and astronomers reminded me at once of how much black people have contributed to physics and astronomy in the past, and how our increasing numbers will start helping our science advance in ways that haven't previously been possible or even previously imaginable.”

As cochair of the Astronomy and Astrophysics (ASTRO) section of the NSBP, Norman says her goal is to help “make the NSBP conferences a success and strengthening the experience for students and faculty who attend, and who often find themselves feeling isolated in their scientific experience.” She also finds the conference “uplifting and rejuvenating for my own scientific research interests.”

The ASTRO sections have become increasingly popular at the NSBP conferences. Part of the reason for that, says Norman, is that the larger astronomy and astrophysics communities are aware that broadening participation in the field “is crucial to maintaining the high level of scientific progress.”

“Participating in organizations like NSBP is extremely important for me,” says Mtingwa. “I have had many exceptional opportunities, and I want to provide more for younger scholars. Thus, I attend every NSBP conference.”

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