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Physicist Sekazi Mtingwa considers himself an apostle of science

by Green Zak
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Ask physicist Sekazi Mtingwa how he ended up the place he’s at the moment, and he’ll begin together with his grandmother’s deeply non secular residence. Growing up there in Atlanta, younger Mtingwa in some way obtained the concept he was the second coming of Christ.

“I believed that for years,” Mtingwa recollects with amusing. That solely modified after a Sunday college lesson as a schoolboy. It was about Jesus sacrificing himself for murderers and thieves. “I regarded across the room, and all these dangerous boys in my class, I couldn’t give my life for any of them — not to mention murderers,” he says.

That was it for the Jesus plan, Mtingwa says. But his want to serve humankind by no means waned. Today, says Mtingwa, who stays non secular, “I like to consider myself as an apostle of science.”

Apostle of science will get near the essence of Mtingwa’s profession. Over the a long time, he’s had {many professional} titles. As an accelerator and particle physicist, Mtingwa is nationally acknowledged for his work constructing accelerators and for creating the speculation of how particles scatter after they’re squeezed into high-energy beams. But he’s additionally a nuclear coverage knowledgeable, mentor, administrator, activist and founding father of dozens of organizations within the United States and overseas devoted to creating new alternatives in science for individuals who have been traditionally stored at its margins.

“People’s on a regular basis lives are impacted and improved by his efforts,” says Robbin Chapman, one in all Mtingwa’s mentees who’s now affiliate dean for variety, inclusion and belonging at Harvard Kennedy School. That affect is expansive, says Chapman, “whether or not it’s the precise analysis, whether or not it’s the instructing or whether or not it’s the networks he’s bringing collectively throughout international locations and continents.”

A brand new principle and a brand new identify

Born in 1949, Mtingwa attended segregated faculties in Georgia. Back then, he had a unique identify — Michael Von Sawyer. Other youngsters teased him for the identify, he says, calling him a “mad German scientist.” Having given up on being Jesus, Mtingwa says, “I needed to search for one other profession.” All that jeering obtained him considering it may be science.

black and white photo of Sekazi Mtingwa in his high school graduation gown and cap
Sekazi Mtingwa grew up in Atlanta, graduating from highschool in 1967. Courtesy of S. Mtingwa

Mtingwa devoured books about science on the native library and concocted a undertaking that gained him first place in botany at Georgia’s state science truthful. It was the primary yr that the competition was racially built-in. His science truthful prize included a field of science books. A couple of had been on normal relativity. And with that, his curiosity in physics ignited.

As an undergraduate at MIT, Mtingwa studied physics and arithmetic and realized to channel his ambition to serve others into activism. It was the “turbulent Sixties,” Mtingwa says, and the campus zeitgeist crackled with the vitality of the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War protests. He obtained concerned in scholar teams advocating for racial fairness, was a founding member of MIT’s Black Students’ Union, and, together with different college students, he participated in a takeover of a school lounge.

“That actually drove into me the necessity to serve,” he says. “But I at all times had this philosophy you can’t serve till you first maintain your self — higher your self, get your training, set up your profession.” After that, he believes, one can begin to attain out to assist particular person folks and, finally, construct methods that transcend people to the world.

After MIT, Mtingwa earned his Ph.D. at Princeton University engaged on high-energy particle physics. It was throughout that point that Mtingwa, a Pan-Africanist, selected his identify with the assistance of a fellow graduate scholar from Tanzania. Shortly after graduating, he joined different Black physicists to discovered the National Society of Black Physicists in 1977. He’d met a number of of his cofounders at MIT, which he describes as having been a form of hub for Black physicists.

But Mtingwa says his educational profession practically ended just some years later. After two postdocs, he struggled to discover a job whilst his white colleagues appeared to drift up the tutorial ladder. A Ford Fellowship he acquired in 1980 saved him, he says, sending him to Fermilab, a number one particle physics laboratory in Batavia, Ill., for a yr.

Leon Lederman talks to Sekazi Mtingwa in front of a chalkboard
Sekazi Mtingwa is proven right here within the Nineteen Eighties with Nobel Prize–profitable physicist Leon Lederman, then director of Fermilab.Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory

That yr snowballed into seven, throughout which he and theoretical physicist James Bjorken developed the speculation of intrabeam scattering — which describes how charged particles unfold out when packed collectively into high-energy beams. In particle accelerators, which create high-energy beams and infrequently use them to smash particles collectively or into different targets, this spreading can harm efficiency if it’s not correctly accounted for. The principle Mtingwa helped develop has been put to work within the design of particle accelerators the world over, from small synchrotrons used to generate intense gentle for chemistry and biology experiments to the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, close to Geneva.

“Any accelerator physicist is aware of in regards to the Bjorken-Mtingwa principle,” says accelerator physicist Mark Palmer of Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, N.Y. “This has had a really, very deep affect on broad parts of the scientific endeavors that rely upon accelerator efficiency with very-high-energy beams.”

Opening science to others

Mtingwa continued his work on the theoretical physics of particle accelerators. But he additionally began to construct them.

At Fermilab, he helped design methods for producing and gathering antiprotons — the antimatter counterpart to protons — in order that they may very well be accelerated into beams. Colliding streams of protons and antiprotons in Fermilab’s Tevatron accelerator finally revealed the existence of the highest quark, a basic particle. Not solely is the highest quark an important piece of the usual mannequin of particle physics, however its giant mass can also be helpful for testing the mannequin.

Aerial photo of Fermilab’s Tevatron particle collider
Sekazi Mtingwa’s work on intrabeam scattering was key to the operation of Fermilab’s Tevatron particle collider (proven right here) and lots of others.Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory

And at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, Mtingwa labored out the theoretical underpinnings of plasma wakefield accelerators — a kind of particle accelerator that hurries up particles utilizing pulsing waves of plasma, which Argonne scientists experimentally demonstrated for the primary time in 1988.

In 1991, after years working at a few of the prime nationwide laboratories, Mtingwa decided that he says baffled his colleagues: He grew to become a professor at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro, a traditionally Black college that, again then, didn’t have a graduate program in physics in any respect.

“I had at Fermilab and at Argonne labored with college students — highschool and school — for the summer season. And I had gotten fascinated about surrounding myself with the younger, African American college students to strive to have the ability to make a distinction,” Mtingwa says.

Mtingwa had taken care of himself. Now, he needed to start out taking good care of others.

At North Carolina A&T, Mtingwa established a grasp’s program in physics and laid the groundwork for brand new Ph.D. packages. Over his a few years instructing at North Carolina A&T, Morgan State University, Harvard and his alma mater MIT, he mentored numerous folks, together with Chapman — who now mentors college students herself.

“He actually captured what I noticed is the essence of supporting anybody, however notably students of coloration as they’re shifting by way of their educational careers,” she says. Rather than seeing life and work as separate issues, Mtingwa taught Chapman to see them as a part of one ecosystem of excellence. “He’s a methods thinker,” she says, with a eager eye for a way folks match into their full context and what meaning for a way they work.

Today, Mtingwa is in what he describes as “that third stage” of serving the world: constructing establishments. When he talks about this stage, his tales deal with “we” greater than “I,” to the purpose that it turns into exhausting preserve observe of which “we” he’s speaking about. Over his lengthy profession, he’s constructed, nurtured after which fastidiously entrusted to others a dozen or so packages, establishments and nonprofits.

Sekazi Mtingwa holds a plaque in front of a screen that reads "2023 AAAS Awards & Prizes honoring excellence in science"
In 2023, Sekazi Mtingwa acquired the Philip Hauge Abelson Prize for “important contributions to the scientific neighborhood.”Robb Cohen Photography and Video

Mtingwa helped discovered not solely the National Society of Black Physicists, but additionally the National Society of Hispanic Physicists and the African Physical Society, amongst a number of different skilled organizations within the United States and overseas, with a deal with locations the place scientific infrastructure and alternatives are extra restricted. He is actively main efforts in Africa, the Caribbean, the Middle East and Asia to coach scientists to make use of synchrotron gentle sources — small particle accelerators that generate intense gentle which can be very important for a lot of kinds of analysis in chemistry and biology — and construct synchrotron gentle supply amenities.

The level, Mtingwa says, is to create extra alternatives for extra folks in science. He’d wish to see a day with out discrimination, when anybody’s scientific careers may flourish — irrespective of who or the place they’re.

“I noticed I wasn’t Jesus Christ,” Mtingwa says. “But I used to be placed on Earth to serve mankind, in order that’s what I’m making an attempt to do now – to be of service.”

Sekazi Mtingwa and other researchers stand outside a building in South Africa
A gathering held in South Africa in 2007 helped launch the African Physical Society, cofounded by Sekazi Mtingwa (far proper).Courtesy of S. Mtingwa

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