Leaving a Legacy and Opening Doors

The Honorable Prof. Dr. Sekazi K. Mtingwa Shares His Inspiring Physics Journey, What Mentoring Means to Him, and How He is Giving Back to the Next Generation of Young Physicists Around the World

MIT and Prince­ton grad­u­ate. Stints at Fer­mi­lab and Argonne Nation­al Lab­o­ra­to­ry. Mul­ti-award-win­ning physi­cist who stud­ied and worked under the tute­lage of too many oth­er award-win­ning sci­en­tists to name. The Hon­or­able Prof. Dr. Sekazi K. Mting­wa has a resume that any­one would envy, yet no one would ever know it from his hum­ble, unas­sum­ing nature. The high-ener­gy and nuclear physi­cist is cur­rent­ly a tech­ni­cal judge for the Unit­ed States Nuclear Reg­u­la­to­ry Com­mis­sion and prin­ci­pal con­sul­tant of Tri­an­gle Sci­ence, Edu­ca­tion, and Eco­nom­ic Devel­op­ment (TriSEED Con­sul­tants) in North Car­oli­na (Unit­ed States). A man wear­ing many hats, Prof. Dr. Mting­wa is also involved in sev­er­al oth­er physics endeav­ors, not only at home in the Unit­ed States, but also in Africa and oth­er parts of the world. Among these is his role as a men­tor for Glob­al Tal­ent Mentoring.
Engage­ment spe­cial­ist Christin Graml had the plea­sure of chat­ting with Prof. Dr. Mting­wa about his ground­break­ing physics research, the impor­tance of men­tor­ing in his life, and the work he is doing to ben­e­fit young physi­cists long after he is gone.
You are a pio­neer in physics, and Glob­al Tal­ent Men­tor­ing is hon­ored to have your sup­port, both as a men­tor and an endors­er. Would you please tell us a lit­tle bit about your area of STEMM exper­tise and high­light some of your remark­able achieve­ments in physics?
I’ve worked in sev­er­al dif­fer­ent fields in my career. I’m trained as a high-ener­gy physi­cist, so I do high-ener­gy physics and nuclear physics. Lat­er in my career, I mor­phed into accel­er­a­tor physics. Then I got involved in nuclear ener­gy pol­i­cy, and then lat­er, inter­na­tion­al STEMM devel­op­ment. As far as accel­er­a­tor physics goes, I went to Fer­mi Nation­al Accel­er­a­tor Lab­o­ra­to­ry (Fer­mi­lab) as a post-doc­tor­al researcher back in 1980. In the 1980s, I got involved in build­ing two of the accel­er­a­tor systems—the mag­net sys­tem and the sto­chas­tic cool­ing system—for the accel­er­a­tor called the Antipro­ton Source. I’m very proud of that, because those accel­er­a­tor sys­tems were used to dis­cov­er the top quark, which is a cru­cial piece of the so-called Stan­dard Mod­el of ele­men­tary par­ti­cle physics. 

While doing that work, I got involved in some the­o­ret­i­cal work with a renowned the­o­ret­i­cal physi­cist by the name of Prof. James Bjorken, who has since left Fer­mi­lab and is now at Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty. We worked on a the­o­ry of how par­ti­cles inter­act with each oth­er called intra­beam scat­ter­ing. And then there was a man named Dr. Anton Piwin­s­ki in Ger­many who worked on the prob­lem inde­pen­dent­ly of us and, for our work, Prof. Bjorken, Dr. Piwin­s­ki, and I received the 2017 Robert R. Wil­son Prize for Achieve­ment in the Physics of Par­ti­cle Accel­er­a­tors. I’m very proud of that. 

In terms of nuclear ener­gy pol­i­cy, I led a study in 2008 that looked at the work­force needs of the nuclear ener­gy indus­try in the Unit­ed States. At that time, the U.S. Depart­ment of Ener­gy was con­sid­er­ing cut­ting back on its nuclear sci­ence and engi­neer­ing fund­ing at uni­ver­si­ties. I led a study that showed how con­tin­ued fund­ing was absolute­ly nec­es­sary. The results of my study led to the U.S. Depart­ment of Ener­gy increas­ing fund­ing in this area. As a result, the Amer­i­can Nuclear Soci­ety gave me its 2015 Dis­tin­guished Ser­vice Award. I’m very hap­py about that. 

I’ve also been involved in men­tor­ing for a long time, and so I’m very hap­py that I received what’s called the U.S. Pres­i­den­tial Award for Excel­lence in Sci­ence, Math­e­mat­ics and Engi­neer­ing Men­tor­ing (PAESMEM) in 2017. 
That’s quite an impres­sive list of accom­plish­ments! As a young adult and through­out your career, did you have some­one who men­tored you on your path to excel­lence in STEMM?
Yes, actu­al­ly there have been quite a few peo­ple who men­tored me along the way. First of all, there was my moth­er. She didn’t fin­ish her first year at uni­ver­si­ty and always regret­ted that. When my broth­ers and I were born, she always preached to us about the impor­tance of get­ting a col­lege edu­ca­tion. She pushed that through­out our pri­ma­ry and sec­ondary school days. 

Then I had two absolute­ly out­stand­ing teach­ers in high school. One of them was my math­e­mat­ics teacher, Mrs. Mary Burn­side, who real­ly pushed me in math­e­mat­ics, and then Mrs. Dorothea Jack­son, who taught me physics and chem­istry. Mrs. Jack­son was also my advi­sor for my high school sci­ence project, which looked at a closed sys­tem of astro­nauts and green algae plants. One of the things I was most proud of as a tenth grad­er was to win first place in botany at the then new­ly-inte­grat­ed Geor­gia state sci­ence fair. That was so exciting. 

I then went to col­lege at the Mass­a­chu­setts Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy (MIT). When I entered MIT, there were only about five black stu­dents out of a class of about 1,000. One role mod­el I had was dur­ing my junior year (third year). MIT hired Prof. James Edward Young, one of the few African-Amer­i­can physi­cists at that time, and he became very close with all of the black stu­dents major­ing in physics. He was a tremen­dous mentor. 

I went on to do my under­grad­u­ate senior the­sis under a very famous physi­cist, Prof. Vic­tor F. Weis­skopf, who had been the Direc­tor-Gen­er­al of CERN in Gene­va, Switzer­land, which is quite a renowned lab­o­ra­to­ry. He was so helpful. 

Of course, Prof. James Bjorken has been a tremen­dous men­tor, col­league, and friend dur­ing essen­tial­ly all of my pro­fes­sion­al career. 

And then the direc­tor of Fer­mi­lab was a man by the name of Prof. Leon Led­er­man, who won the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physics. I used to have reg­u­lar meet­ings with him. He was also so help­ful to me. 

I think all of these peo­ple were extreme­ly impor­tant in launch­ing my career. 
It sounds like you had a great men­tor­ing sup­port sys­tem through­out all of these dif­fer­ent devel­op­men­tal stages of your life.
Definitely! 

I think that my men­tors’ belief in my abil­i­ty to excel and their encour­age­ment were so important.

You men­tioned sev­er­al names that have made a great impact on your life and career. Was there any­thing that real­ly stands out about their sup­port or mentorship?
Yes, absolute­ly. Grow­ing up as an African-Amer­i­can physi­cist has been extreme­ly tough. The com­mon thing, I think, with all of my men­tors is that they believed in my abil­i­ty to excel—my moth­er, my high school teach­ers, and then those names that I men­tioned dur­ing my time in col­lege and through­out my career. When there were so many oth­ers who would try to dam­age my self-esteem, these peo­ple would show me that I could do it. They also cre­at­ed oppor­tu­ni­ties for me. Anoth­er thing that I think is very impor­tant is that a num­ber of my men­tors dis­cussed their own expe­ri­ences with me. The Nobel Lau­re­ate, Prof. Led­er­man, used to tell me, “In life, you have to learn how to work around peo­ple. Some peo­ple are just not worth going through. You have to work around them.” I learned a lot from these peo­ple in terms of their own expe­ri­ences. They were also all very encour­ag­ing. So, I think that my men­tors’ belief in my abil­i­ty to excel and their encour­age­ment were so impor­tant. These indi­vid­u­als helped me a lot, not only from an edu­ca­tion­al stand­point, but also with intan­gi­ble life lessons that can’t nec­es­sar­i­ly be taught in the classroom. 
In an inter­view with MIT Tech­nol­o­gy Review, a pub­li­ca­tion of your alma mater, you said, “The most impor­tant thing I learned at MIT was the val­ue of men­tor­ing, both as a mentee and men­tor.” Why do you think men­tor­ing is such a pow­er­ful tool?
When you’re new in some­thing, a men­tor points you in the right direc­tion, which saves you infi­nite time. To me, the most impor­tant thing about a men­tor is that they’re some­one who’s been there. A men­tor has to be some­one who has already achieved it. They’ve done some­thing. They know the route to get there, and they can point you in the right direction. 
You are one of the dis­tin­guished men­tors at Glob­al Tal­ent Men­tor­ing. What do you think is the most impor­tant aspect of the Glob­al Tal­ent Men­tor­ing experience?
The most impor­tant aspect of Glob­al Tal­ent Men­tor­ing is that it con­nects pro­fes­sion­als to stu­dents in the far reach­es of the world, even stu­dents that are far from any major city or major uni­ver­si­ty. Many of these stu­dents have dreams, and Glob­al Tal­ent Men­tor­ing is extreme­ly impor­tant in con­nect­ing those stu­dents to top pro­fes­sion­als to give them hope that they, too, can become a top pro­fes­sion­al one day. 
When you’re new in some­thing, a men­tor points you in the right direc­tion, which saves you infi­nite time. To me, the most impor­tant thing about a men­tor is that they’re some­one who’s been there. A men­tor has to be some­one who has already achieved it. They’ve done some­thing. They know the route to get there, and they can point you in the right direction.
That insight shines through in the work you do for young peo­ple in physics, espe­cial­ly young African-Amer­i­can physi­cists. You men­tioned that, as an African-Amer­i­can physi­cist, you’ve faced some chal­lenges along the way. What does being an African-Amer­i­can leader in physics mean to you and what are some ways that you sup­port young African-Amer­i­can physicists?
I have a tremen­dous respon­si­bil­i­ty, and I try to ful­fill my respon­si­bil­i­ty. It’s impor­tant for me to make oppor­tu­ni­ties for oth­ers, just as my men­tors did for me. One of the things I did was a lit­tle con­tro­ver­sial at the time. I was involved in some ground­break­ing research at Argonne Nation­al Lab­o­ra­to­ry on a con­cept called the plas­ma wake­field accel­er­a­tor. This is an accel­er­a­tor of the future. I was work­ing on the the­o­ret­i­cal proof of plas­ma wake­field accel­er­a­tion in the late 1980s, and it’s only now sort of com­ing into its own. Dur­ing this time, I left the group, and peo­ple thought I had lost my mind, because I start­ed work­ing at a uni­ver­si­ty that had no grad­u­ate pro­gram in physics. It’s one thing to go from a place like Argonne to a research university—people do that all the time. But nobody leaves a ground­break­ing exper­i­ment to go to a uni­ver­si­ty that has no grad­u­ate pro­gram in their field and essen­tial­ly no research in their field being con­duct­ed. I was com­mit­ted at that time, how­ev­er, to go to North Car­oli­na A&T State Uni­ver­si­ty in Greens­boro, North Car­oli­na, which is one of the His­tor­i­cal­ly Black Col­leges and Uni­ver­si­ties (HBCUs) of the Unit­ed States. So I want­ed to go there and try to build a strong research pro­gram in physics, and I’m so hap­py that I did that. I look back and see that we were able to do some great things. Their physics depart­ment now gives PhDs as an inter­dis­ci­pli­nary-type degree. Some of the fac­ul­ty have won out­stand­ing research prizes. In fact, one fac­ul­ty mem­ber is now up for being the top research fac­ul­ty in the whole Uni­ver­si­ty of North Car­oli­na sys­tem, because he led an exper­i­ment at Thomas Jef­fer­son Nation­al Accel­er­a­tor Facil­i­ty (Jef­fer­son Lab), which gave the most pre­cise mea­sure­ment of the radius of a pro­ton. It’s just an absolute­ly fan­tas­tic exper­i­ment. I think of that as my legacy. 

And then there’s an orga­ni­za­tion called the Inter­dis­ci­pli­nary Con­sor­tium for Research and Edu­ca­tion­al Access in Sci­ence and Engi­neer­ing (InCREASE), for which I serve as pres­i­dent. At InCREASE, we try to con­nect fac­ul­ty and stu­dents from Minor­i­ty-Serv­ing Insti­tu­tions (MSIs) to the suite of nation­al lab­o­ra­to­ries in the Unit­ed States. Our nation­al lab­o­ra­to­ries have many facil­i­ties that are open for uni­ver­si­ty fac­ul­ty and stu­dents to use, and I try to make those known. We have about 300 fac­ul­ty mem­bers in our com­mu­ni­ty and about 50 MSIs. These large­ly include HBCUs, His­pan­ic-serv­ing insti­tu­tions, and Native Amer­i­can-serv­ing institutions. 
The most impor­tant aspect of Glob­al Tal­ent Men­tor­ing is that it con­nects pro­fes­sion­als to stu­dents in the far reach­es of the world, even stu­dents that are far from any major city or major uni­ver­si­ty. Many of these stu­dents have dreams, and Glob­al Tal­ent Men­tor­ing is extreme­ly impor­tant in con­nect­ing those stu­dents to top pro­fes­sion­als to give them hope that they, too, can become a top pro­fes­sion­al one day.
You’re also involved in sev­er­al physics and STEMM orga­ni­za­tions in Africa, many of which you helped start. Could you please high­light some of these initiatives?
Over the years, I’ve also got­ten involved in syn­chro­tron light sources, which are elec­tron accel­er­a­tors that gen­er­ate intense beams of X‑rays. These are rev­o­lu­tion­iz­ing physics, mate­r­i­al sci­ence, biol­o­gy, and more. It’s amaz­ing! If you want to study pro­tein struc­tures, that’s one of the hottest ways to go. You can shine these X‑rays on the pro­teins to reveal their struc­ture so that you can know how to design drugs for things such as the coro­n­avirus. So I helped to found an orga­ni­za­tion called Light­sources for Africa, the Amer­i­c­as, Asia, Mid­dle East, and the Pacif­ic (LAAAMP). We iden­ti­fy fac­ul­ty and stu­dents from those regions, send them to the light sources for two months of train­ing, and then try to send them for anoth­er two-month train­ing peri­od the fol­low­ing year. 

We also want to try to bring a light source to Africa, so I’ve been serv­ing as the deputy chair of an ini­tia­tive called the African Light Source, which tries to get African gov­ern­ments to pool their resources to build one of these elec­tron accel­er­a­tors that gen­er­ate these intense bursts of X‑rays. These devices cost around half a bil­lion U.S. dol­lars, so they’re not cheap. But we have the idea of a Pan-African facil­i­ty, and we’re work­ing with African gov­ern­ments and rep­re­sen­ta­tives to try to con­vince them to do that. The pres­i­dent of Ghana has tak­en this on as a major issue that he wants to pro­mote to his fel­low heads of state. 

About twen­ty years ago, I helped start anoth­er orga­ni­za­tion called the African Laser Cen­tre, host­ed by the Coun­cil for Sci­en­tif­ic and Indus­tri­al Research (CSIR), which is a net­work of many laser lab­o­ra­to­ries across the African con­ti­nent to try to forge col­lab­o­ra­tions. I trav­el to South Africa every year, where I help choose research grants to bestow upon research fac­ul­ty. We give stu­dent fel­low­ships, schol­ar­ships, and host physics con­fer­ences deal­ing with lasers for stu­dents. We also do tech­ni­cian train­ing, because in Africa, when equip­ment breaks, it’s very dif­fi­cult to get it repaired. Often­times, you have to wait for parts to be shipped in. We hold work­shops for tech­ni­cians so that they can local­ly repair their equip­ment. So the African Laser Cen­tre has been an extreme­ly impor­tant project to me. 

Anoth­er pro­gram that I’m involved in is anoth­er CSIR pro­gram called the Rental Pool Pro­gramme, where South Africa lends a lot of top-notch laser equip­ment to lab­o­ra­to­ries. At one point, South Africa and France had a ura­ni­um-enrich­ment pro­gram where they were using these lasers to do that. That pro­gram dis­band­ed, and South Africa was left with all of this equip­ment. So we use all of this equip­ment to lend out to researchers. All of these pro­grams are very important. 

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