Dr. Sylvester James Gates Jr. is known to be enthusiastic about superstring theory and supersymmetry, but another passion has him speaking out — his commitment to education.By Robin V. Smiles
You have to be a brave person to persevere in a field like theoretical physics. It requires a command of both science and mathematics. The work is often faddish and fast-paced, and the prospects of getting a job are few. But you also have to be a brave person to step in as the primary parent and take precocious 8-year-old twins along with you on a yearlong sabbatical to do research at one of the top research institutions in the United States. Or maybe it is not courage that you need, but a defined self-assuredness, a keen sense of humility, and a pronounced dedication to the principles of family and community. Then again, perhaps, you just have to be Dr. Sylvester James Gates Jr., the first John S. Toll professor of physics at the University of Maryland College Park.Jim Gates (his preferred moniker) is one of a handful of Black physicists in the United States. His groundbreaking work in the areas of superstring theory, supersymmetry and supergravity has made him a leading expert on the topic. In 1977, he received his doctorate in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, completing the first doctoral thesis at MIT on the topic of supersymmetry. He went on to complete postdoctoral fellowships at Harvard and California Institute of Technology and then returned to MIT as an assistant professor of applied mathematics. In 1983, he authored, along with three others, the book Superspace or 1001 Lessons in Supersymmetry, which almost two decades later still remains the standard in the field. And today, at the University of Maryland, he is the first African American to hold an endowed chair in physics at a major research institution in the United States.While others might shy from the intricacies of mathematics, Gates’ foray into the field was natural. And the way he sees it, he was “born to be a mathematician.” Part of that insight is hereditary. There is some evidence, he says, that mathematics runs in his family. His father was a military man, and his grandfather, although he could not read or write, he could “cipher, as they say.” The other part is purely a penchant for creativity. “For me, mathematics is like music. It always has been,” he says. It was in high school, however, that Gates became aware of the synergy between mathematics and physics, realizing that through physics, mathematics could be applied to everyday life. That is when he decided that was what he wanted to do.Gates’ research in superstring theory is viewed as an extension of Einstein’s theory of relativity. Whereas even prior to the advent of superstring theory, scientists could describe mathematically at the microscopic level electromagnetic and nuclear forces, they could not do the same for gravity. Superstring theory is an effort to bring the gravitational field to the same status as the other phenomena. As for the impact of his research on our present-day existence, Gates says that it will be a century before his research becomes relevant to anyone’s life. It is similar to the way in which the discoveries that have led to cellular technology were actually made in 1876. The future possibilities for his research then are endless. The equations that Einstein gave us say that we cannot build starships, Gates says. Yet, perhaps, a century from today, someone using Gates’ equations will be able to build starships and make what we know as science fiction in 2001 an everyday reality.Interestingly, Gates attributes much of his success to his early classroom instruction. He recalls an atmosphere of nurturing and dedicated African American teachers in a racially segregated Orlando, Fla., in the late 60s. It was partly due to segregation, Gates says, that the Black teachers put their all into their jobs. And therefore provided him with an environment filled with role models in addition to those found at home — a lesson that today’s teachers could undoubtedly emulate.“The reason so many African American students are turned off from math and science is because of the people teaching them,” says Gates. Speaking to a group of teachers in Lansing, Mich., last year, Gates admonished: “Unless you love your young people and see yourself in them — see them as yours, then I don’t see how you can be an effective teacher.”Gates speaks passionately on the topic of educating Black youth and preparing them in the areas of science, mathematics and technology. Earlier this year, he participated in a conference on the subject sponsored by the National Science Foundation and Black Issues In Higher Education. “I was really disappointed in the conference because we did not try to think outside of the box in terms of this whole issue,” he says. “What we need to be talking about is what can we do to get the families involved, the church involved, the community involved.” According to Gates, that type of collective approach to education is what he experienced as a child and is also what his own kids are experiencing today.Gates’ own kids, 8-year-old twins Delilah and Sylvester III, started adding at 2 ½ years old, and by the first grade, had learned how to divide. Yet, Gates says, he and his wife, Dr. Dianna Abney, a pediatrician, don’t push their kids. “We give them positive feedback,” he says. And instead of putting a set of pre-existing expectations on them, they help them develop their interest and “let them blossom like flowers.”Commitment to EducationGates’ commitment to education is one of the main reasons he shed his anonymity five years ago and agreed to participate in the PBS series “Breakthrough: The Changing Face of Science in America.” After initially turning down the network’s request, it was only at the producer’s final urging — “think of all the young people that you will be able to reach that would never have a chance to see you” — that he finally conceded and agreed to participate. The experience led to his participation in another PBS special in 1998 and another television appearance that same year as scientific commentator for a White House/C-SPAN/BBC Internet broadcast with noted British physicist Stephen Hawking. Since that first PBS appearance, Gates has been even more conscious of the need to show his face in a public arena. He believes that just by letting people see that there are Black folks in the world working to extend the contributions of Albert Einstein sends the message that “we (African Americans) can do this just like everyone else.”Dr. Vincent Rodgers, a close friend and colleague, commends Gates’ ability to inspire young children. “He lets them know that it is OK to be bright-eyed and to have a dream or two,” says Rodgers. Rodgers, an assistant professor of physics at the University of Iowa, is also one of the few Black physicists in the nation. He first met Gates in 1985 at a conference. Rodgers was still in graduate school at the time, but was both familiar with Gates’ work and even more impressed with his delivery. “He presents his material in a way that makes people go into wonderment. He makes people aware of the fact that science is good for two cases — first, it makes you wonder what is going on, but it also helps you survive in a real world context.” Gates’ ability to convey his passion and enthusiasm about physics to not just young students but graduate students as well is what led Dr. Jim Carr to Gates. Carr was a graduate student at the University of Maryland College Park when Gates first came to the school in 1984. He was impressed by Gates’ enthusiasm and ability to engage with the students. And even though Gates was a young faculty member and did not yet have the reputation of some of the older faculty, Carr chose Gates to be his adviser. “Even if you were a graduate student, you were very important to him. That was attractive to many students. Consequently, he was very popular among the graduate students,” says Carr, who now owns an aerospace engineering and software company based in Washington, D.C. Years later, Gates’ popularity with graduate students has not waned. That same enthusiasm and respect for students is what prompted two of his current doctoral students, William D. Linch and Joseph Phillips, to seek his advisement. Not to mention the fact that today, Gates’ reputation rivals any in the department. Yet, according to Linch and Phillips, even with the huge reputation and international stature, Gates still makes time for his students.
More to doAlthough Gates’ early classroom instruction occurred in a racially segregated environment, he has not been immune to the racism that most African Americans in higher education are faced with at some point in their career. And pioneering in a field where few Blacks have trod, Gates has garnered his share of challenges and obstacles.Gates speaks candidly about his experiences at MIT from undergraduate student, to graduate student to assistant professor, in a new book by Dr. Clarence G. Williams, Technology and the Dream: Reflections on the Black Experience at MIT, 1941-1999. He vividly remembers his introduction to Boston the summer before his first year as an undergraduate at MIT, when he and a group of Black students were literally chased out of South Boston. He also remembers that it was the support of other Black students that he relied on when things became particularly stressful.Although MIT was the place where he intellectually came of age and a place of great challenges, Gates says, it was also a place of missed opportunity. When he returned to MIT in 1982 as an assistant professor of applied mathematics, he became more aware of the school’s institutional failings. He had seen up close the plight of other African American scholars in technical disciplines and the challenges they faced at the institution. And in 1984 when he left MIT, he was rather disillusioned. Such experiences have led Gates to write and publish on issues of diversity and affirmative action. And he has often appeared before groups of minority scholars in the sciences to share his experiences. That type of commitment is unique, says Williams, special assistant to the president and adjunct professor at MIT. He describes Gates’ narrative as the “true story of a young Black man who comes from the South and never forgets where he came from through his work with other Black students and kids.” Williams also recalls that Gates came to MIT as a student in a special minority program. The program required that the students come to MIT the summer before their freshman year. “After that program, no matter where he was in the world, he would come back every summer to work with the students,” says Williams. “Now, that is a commitment.”Gates has also had a chance to work with a number of physics departments at historically Black colleges and universities. He served as physics department chair at Howard University from 1991-1993, set in motion a host of new programs and helped raised in excess of $12 million dollars. He also had a hand in developing the physics programs at Hampton and Florida A&M universities as a member of the examining boards for both institutions.Serving as chair at Howard was an opportunity to realize a dream he had back as a graduate student at MIT, Gates says. And even though he returned to Maryland deciding that he had to do more in his research, the possibility of higher education administration is not out of the question, including, perhaps, the chance to follow in the footsteps of Morehouse President Walter Massey and Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, both of whom are Black physicists.But for right now, Gates still has more research to do as a leading expert in the area of superstring theory and much more parenting to do as a father, particularly as his children Delilah and Sylvester III accompany him to Caltech this fall where he will spend the year as a visiting professor mostly doing research. Which of the two present endeavors is most important? His family, for sure.“Our connections with people are the most valuable things in life, and those start with family and grow into larger circles,” he says. “So at the end of the day, we ought to feel committed to our entire species.”
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