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Q&A: Willie Rockward, physicist, athlete, minister, mentor

31 January 2020

“A more inclusive physics community could change the world,” says the Morgan State University physics chair.

Willie Rockward went into physics as a ploy to play college football for the coach he most admired. He stayed with the subject after sustaining a mild concussion and realizing physics was a lot safer. It was also paying his tuition.

He was the only African American male student in his high school physics class in Houma, Louisiana, a small city about 90 km southwest of New Orleans. “When someone said I couldn’t do something, I said, ‘Yes I can,’ and I set out to prove them wrong,” he says.

Willie Rockward.
Credit: Progressive Images Photography

Rockward earned his physics PhD in 1997 at Georgia Tech for research on diffractive optics. For 20 years he was on the faculty at Morehouse College in Atlanta. In 2018 he moved to Morgan State University in Baltimore, where he chairs the physics department. He is currently completing a two-year term as president of the National Society of Black Physicists (NSBP).

“Not much has changed” in recent decades as far as the barriers facing African Americans in physics, Rockward says. “That’s a sad situation. The physics community fights against change tooth and nail, but we have to change if we want to survive,” he continues. “We are losing the young generation from both minority and majority populations.”

Groundwork for such change is laid out in a report released in January by TEAM-UP, a national task force to elevate African American representation in undergraduate physics and astronomy, which was convened by the American Institute of Physics (AIP, publisher of Physics Today). Attracting and retaining more African Americans requires a cultural shift in the physics and astronomy communities; the TEAM-UP findings and recommendations are accordingly broad (see Physics Today, February 2020, page 20). Two major barriers to studying physics for African Americans are the lack of a supportive environment in many departments and the financial challenges that many of those students face.

Effort and commitment on the parts of individual faculty members, physics departments, and professional societies are required, the report finds. As examples, individual faculty members should foster an environment that welcomes the whole person and discourages intentionally or unintentionally hurtful comments like “You should switch majors”; department chairs should identify resources to cover emergency expenses. Rockward supports the TEAM-UP recommendations. As a role model and a mentor, “I’ve been implementing many of them already,” he says.

Alongside football and physics, Rockward is an ordained Baptist minister. He is married to mathematician Michelle Rockward, who is also at Morgan State, and has seven children.

PT: How did football lead you into physics?

ROCKWARD: I really loved to play football when I was in high school. And I was pretty good. Good enough to get recruited by Louisiana State University, Duke University, the University of Houston, and a couple other Division I schools. They offered me a full athletic ride. But I wanted to play for Eddie Robinson at Grambling State University in Louisiana. He was the winningest collegiate coach at the time.

All Grambling offered me was a physics scholarship. I turned down the athletic scholarships and went to Grambling. My intention was to walk on and make the team, and then drop the physics and do the football thing. I could have made it to the pros if I hadn’t gotten all banged up.

PT: You are still in physics, so what happened?

ROCKWARD: I made the team in the second semester of my freshman year. I was a wingback. There were six scholarship guys ahead of me, so I was expendable. As a member of the scrimmage team, I played against the number-one defense during practice. That’s when I caught a pass across the middle. That linebacker hit me so hard, he rang my bell. I came to the realization that I could not keep taking this pounding and expect not to get badly hurt. I made the decision to give up football. I was like, “I’m going to stick with physics.”

But I did reach my goal to play for Coach Robinson. I played for him in practice for just about two weeks.

PT: Tell us about your academic path.

ROCKWARD: After I got my bachelor’s, my intent was to go to graduate school. I was recruited by Stanford, MIT, Georgia Tech, and others, but I didn’t think my physics was strong enough to go to a high-powered graduate school. In hindsight I realize I was wrong.

I went to SUNY Albany. They had a young program in lasers, and I thought I’d either transition after a master’s degree or stay there. But upstate New York was just too cold for a Louisiana boy. I weathered about two winters, and then I moved to Georgia Tech for my PhD.

By the time I was done I was married. I had kids. And I had a commitment to work for the Air Force, which had paid for part of graduate school. I worked for them as a civilian scientist in Florida for a few years before I joined Morehouse.

PT: How did you also happen to become a minister? And did your interests in physics and religion cause any conflict for you?

ROCKWARD: I’m the son of a Baptist minister. Both my natural father and my stepfather in Louisiana were ministers. So I was raised in that dynamic. I had bought into the belief that science and religion don’t mix. To a certain degree it’s true. But I came to the realization that actually, if I believe that God is the supreme ruler, creator of the heavens and the Earth, then guess what, he is also a scientist. And we, as scientists, are trying to figure out what he already created. That jarred me into thinking that physics and spirituality can coexist.

After finishing my master’s at Albany, I was planning to leave the PhD program in physics and enter seminary school. But I was spiritually led to not do so. In the summer of 1995, when I was called to serve as a pastor, I was still in my PhD program at Georgia Tech. I did both simultaneously. I served as a pastor until 2006.

PT: How do you juggle everything—physics, family, church?

ROCKWARD: It keeps me balanced. And I think many people in physics would agree that many times you get really good insights when you take your mind off a problem you are working on and start working on something else in the forefront of your mind. Things feed off each other. It helps me be more effective in all areas without as much downtime.

PT: What is your area of physics research?

ROCKWARD: I stayed in lasers and diffractive optics and related things. I will never forget how my high school physics teacher, Paul Johnson, showed us a simple experiment: He shined a laser beam and reflected it around the room with mirrors. Then we clapped erasers and watched the laser beam propagate through the chalk dust. That got me interested in lasers and optics. I was, like, “Oooh, I want to do that!”

These days I don’t have much time for research. I came to Morgan State and have been focusing on getting the department back on track with recruitment and retention. But I am trying to get back into more teaching and more research. I focus on nanolithography of optical elements for various wavelengths ranging from extreme UV through terahertz.

PT: What about mentoring?

ROCKWARD: I always believe in mentoring as many students as I can. I encourage them to do their best in all their areas of giftedness. I mentor a lot of African American men and women, but also others. We in physics can’t afford to lose anybody.

At Morehouse, colleagues and I started NuMaSS in 2009—it stands for nuclear, materials, and space sciences—because we had children, including one of my younger daughters, who had an interest in science and we didn’t want them to lose it. The program evolved into a summer program where high school kids—mostly local, but some from around the country—take intensive courses in college-level math, English, and science. Two Morehouse colleagues whom I mentored when they were undergraduate students now run the program. Mentoring is something that evolves over a lifetime, and when it’s done right, it establishes strong friendships.

PT: What are your goals as president of the NSBP?

ROCKWARD: I will be stepping down in two months and will be stepping up as past president. My focus was on rebuilding after the organization had a $2 million-plus lawsuit from its 2009 conference hotel, which led to a series of financial problems. I refer to this event as the Big Bang of NSBP. Following the payment of a settlement last year, our organization is now on better fiscal footing.

The mission of the society is to focus on African Americans in physics and to raise awareness of their achievements, their involvement, and their engagement with the whole physics community. We are a mentoring and nurturing home for African American students and other students of color. A main focus is the NSBP annual conference—our next one is at Brookhaven National Laboratory in November. Mentors stay in touch with students at their schools and jobs around the country year-round. We also mentor jointly with other organizations, and we want to strengthen those partnerships in ways that are mutually beneficial.

PT: What do you think is most needed to attract and keep African Americans in physics and other sciences?

ROCKWARD: African Americans don’t have access in high school and earlier. They are not being advised and encouraged to take physics and math. Also, around middle school, many students are interested in other, social activities. I understand that. When I was in high school, my football buddies would laugh at me and say, “You got to do all this science-y stuff while we are hanging out.” But my mother told me I’d better do well in my physics class, and I was more afraid of my mother than I was of my friends. And many times, those who stay the course in physics realize they are giving up something temporarily, but later they may get a better reward and a lot of opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise get.

The second thing is that the culture of physics is not very inclusive. I know several students who could easily have been physics majors, but because of the noninclusiveness of the community, they went into engineering or a nontechnical field. We can turn this around. It won’t happen overnight, but we need to pay more attention at the primary and secondary school levels. The professional societies need to be more engaged. One thing individuals can do is be a positive influence for inclusiveness. For example, conference and hiring committees should expand the number of people of color to, say, 30%, rather than just having a single, token underrepresented minority. We can achieve major change.

We have to stop feeling that the pie has a fixed size. We have too many problems to solve—technical problems, space travel, and other problems. We should pull talent from every available human resource. If we as physicists do this, I think we can change the world. We set the pace on a lot of things. We create new economies from our ideas, and sometimes even from our actions. I believe that the physics community is coming to realize that we have to become more inclusive.

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