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Dawn Levy, News Service (650) 725-1944; e-mail:

Black physicists share strategies for success with students

Ground yourself in the fundamentals and connect with peers and role models, black physicists advised about 250 high school, undergraduate and graduate students at the 15th annual meeting of the National Conference of Black Physics Students from March 29 through April 1 on the Stanford campus.

Held concurrently with the annual meeting of the National Society of Black Physicists, the student conference encouraged African American students to further their education in physics, informed them about career opportunities and gave them a chance to meet scientists and administrators in academia, government and industry.

"At Stanford we're committed to diversity," said solar physicist Art Walker, who chaired the conference with particle physicist Blas Cabrera. About 40 African Americans have received Stanford doctoral degrees in physics during the past three decades about twice as many as MIT, the number two producer of black physics Ph.D.s.

"Stanford is just unmatched as a place to study physics," said Provost John Etchemendy. Physics Ph.D.s have the confidence and intellectual tools to teach themselves anything, said Professor Steve Chu, chair of the Physics Department and a Nobel Prize winner. In Chu's research, which crosses the boundaries of traditional academic disciplines, he and his students have been able to learn the background literature of other disciplines in weeks to months. "A biologist just can't go into physics and do world-class research." But in fact, a number of discoveries in biology have been made by physicists.

Students toured the campus, physics labs, Stanford Linear Accelerator Center and student astronomical observatory. They attended an awards banquet at which Chu, the Theodore and Frances Geballe Professor of Physics and Applied Physics, spoke about the topic of his Nobel-winning research: holding onto atoms and biomolecules with laser beams. They visited an exhibit titled "The African American Presence in Physics," originally created for the centennial celebration of the American Physical Society and featuring biographies of prominent researchers, administrators, educators and astronauts.

Nobel Prize winner Douglas Osheroff, the J. G. Jackson and C. J. Wood Professor of Physics, gave his "Physics Is Phun" demonstration to students from Bay Area high schools and other conference attendees. Based on Osheroff's electricity and magnetism lectures to Stanford students, the demonstration featured history, hands-on experiments, theories and theatrics.

Undergraduate workshops focused on navigating the graduate school admissions process, finding graduate programs to match student interests, qualifying for fellowships and gaining research experience. Graduate students explored how to pick an adviser, stay motivated, get funding and network. Recruiters informed students about career opportunities.

But for some, the most valuable part of the conference was hearing black physicists tell their personal stories.

Astrophysicist Beth Brown of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center did her undergraduate work at historically black Howard University and completed her doctorate at the University of Michigan, where she said she often found herself "the only brown face in the crowd."

Being "the only one" forced her to cast her net wide when fishing for role models. She had had role models at Howard and found more when she attended the National Conference of Black Physics Students. But at the University of Michigan, she had to rely on those same role models to get her through grad school.

A transfer student at a small university in Florida with no black professors or counselors asked for advice in coping with isolation: "There's a difference between university and junior college, where I had no problem getting into study groups. At university, people look past me when it's time to pick a lab partner."

Charlie Harper, a professor emeritus from California State University-Hayward, said to talk to the professor: "He or she may not realize it's a problem."

Go up to the professor and ask questions, Brown suggested. "If he's looking past you, put yourself in his line of sight. Knock on his door. Sometimes I feel invisible. It's easy to say keep your head up. But you have to connect with someone."

"A little arrogance and a tough hide won't hurt either," said physicist Pete Bragg, a professor emeritus from the University of California-Berkeley. "When I was in school, I was prone to popping off. Some students would laugh at me like I were some kind of buffoon. I just toughed it out. And after a while, those same people wanted to study with me."

Bragg, 81, had a convoluted path into physics. "I didn't start out to be a physicist," he said. "I was raised by my mother's brother, who thought I shouldn't be a plumber like him. I should be a 'sanitary engineer.'"

Since mechanical engineering concerned itself with the flow through pipes, Bragg applied himself to that topic for two years in college before military service in World War II interrupted his studies. He served in the Signal Corps and became intrigued with electronics and radar.

After the war, he took assessment tests that indicated aptitudes in math, physics and chemistry. "I can do anything, so what should I do?" Bragg thought. "I had never seen a black physicist, and the only black chemist I'd heard of was Percy Julian." (Julian synthesized cortisone, hormones and other products from soybeans.)

But physics' egalitarianism appealed. "Gravity acts the same on everything," Bragg said. "On the strength of understanding that, I decided to go for broke. I could always teach high school physics. Whatever you do, enjoy what you do and do it well, and it will be reward in itself."

Deborah Jackson, a physicist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, advised graduate students to seek support outside their departments and from other graduate students. At Stanford, the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity brings together diverse student and professorial communities, said Malcolm Beasley, dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences and a professor of applied physics and electrical engineering.

As an undergraduate, Deborah Jackson studied at MIT at the same time as Shirley Jackson, the first African American woman to receive a doctorate from MIT and former chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Recalled Deborah Jackson: "I remember vividly being at a low point in my dorm room, and Shirley at the door saying: 'What's this I hear about you quitting physics?' Well, you don't tell Shirley Jackson no."

Deborah Jackson continued her graduate studies at Stanford, where she says the unconditional belief of her adviser "made all the difference in the world that I really applied myself."

Beyond the doctoral degree, the work world poses different challenges. Barriers endure, and it takes adaptability to permeate them, Brown said.

Jackson said she volunteers for projects where people can see her as an asset. At government-sponsored JPL, bureaucracy demands that scientists document their projects. "The group I'm in now is largely a theory group, and theorists don't want to be bothered. So I volunteered to do it."

But adaptability can be carried too far, said Bragg. In 1951, before lunch counter protests and bus boycotts won blacks equal access to public facilities, Bragg stood his ground during an interview for his first job. The position involved researching the properties of hydrated cement for the Portland Cement Association in suburban Chicago, which provided all the cement in the United States except that supplied by Kaiser Permanente.

"The VP didn't ask a single technical question during the interview. He just asked, 'How would you feel about having lunch in the company cafeteria?'" The company's African American employees, laborers in the power plant, never entered the cafeteria. They ate at the power plant. "If I can't eat there, I won't work here," Bragg said. "At lunch, the vice president and the directors took me to lunch in the cafeteria. They didn't have to explain a damned thing."

Conference sponsors included the Department of Energy, NASA, National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, Department of the Navy, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, The David and Lucile Packard Foundation, Agilent Technologies, Applied Materials Inc., Ford Motor Co., IBM, Lucent Technologies, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) and Stanford University's offices of the President, Provost and Dean of Research; schools of Earth Sciences, Engineering, and Humanities and Sciences; and departments of Physics, Applied Physics and Electrical Engineering.


By Dawn Levy

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