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Former Obama adviser and renowned physicist Sylvester James Gates Jr. speaks about science, race in America during webinar

| Friday, October 2, 2020

The Multicultural Student Programs and Services hosted a conversation last night with renowned physicist and former adviser to President Barack Obama, Sylvester James “Jim” Gates Jr. The program highlighted the role of scientists of color in the field as well as the role of science in America.

The event was a collaboration between Notre Dame STEM departments, the Multicultural Student Programs and Services’ Building Bridges Lecture Series, the Multicultural Pre-Health Society, National Society of Black Engineers and Wabruda.

Vice president for student affairs Erin Hoffmann-Harding began the evening remotely by commending students Jeff Musema, president of Wabruda and Multicultural Pre-Health Society, and Aubourg, vice president of the Multicultural Pre-Health Society and a board member of Frontline ND, for initiating and organizing the program. 

“The expansion and growth of underrepresented students in the STEM field is one way of the many ways we are trying to make Notre Dame a better place,” Hoffmann-Harding said. 

Aubourg moderated the event from the Jordan Hall of Science, and Gates joined remotely. The conversation was also live streamed, and began with a discussion on Gates’s accompaniments in his nearly 50-year long career.

“I learned from my parents, ‘If you can help someone why wouldn’t you?’” He said, regarding his role first as an educator. “I want my students to walk through me as a doorway to their future. 

In 2009, Gates was asked to join the PCAST to advise President Obama. “What American could say no to that?” he said, although he was nervous at first. “I’d never advised a President before.”

During his time, he was the lead on four reports regarding the intersection of science and education in America. 

“Those reports were my babies,” Gates said. The first report directly contributed to the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act, an effort to provide equal opportunities for America’s students. 

Gates said the role of science in government is to fix problems before they begin. He then described in detail the work the PCAST and other government agencies did to fight against the Ebola outbreak in 2013. 

“President Obama was looking for all the possible advice everywhere in the government for how to protect our country from having the Ebola virus break out here in our nation.” he said. During the meeting, “It was the only time in the seven years that I saw a look of grave concern on the President of the United States,” he said. 

Because of his experience with Ebola, Gates started paying attention to the coronavirus even in November. By February, he knew it was going to be devastating. He joked, though with a serious tone, even physicists know biology. 

In regards to another topical subject, Aubourg said, “There’s a lack of Black perspective in the scientific and specifically physics field.” He then inquired into Gates’ own efforts to amend this problem.

Speaking to the death of George Floyd, Gates said it invoked a moral Awakening in America, and described a personal time in his young life when he had a confrontation with a police officer.

“I almost became one of those statistics,“ he said.

Currently, Gates is spearheading an effort with the American Physics Society (APS) to bring attention to and provide resources to diversify the field of science through a webinar series. 

After this summer, Gates reasoned he could focus his experience and energies on the topic of diverse and Black representation within the field of physics, leading to the creation of the series, which is a coalition of organizations called “Delta Phi,” meaning “Change Physics.”

Gates said the series is about providing concrete information and resources for scientists to address racism in America and in the sciences. Gates will be the president of the APS next year.

Aubourg noted the strategies can be applied outside of the field of physics, to which Gates agreed. 

In addition to his scientific research, Gates has written extensively on diversity and the role of scientists of color, some of which has been quoted by the Supreme Court. 

Aubourg, a environmental sciences and sustainability student, asked, “Just as you are a part of my journey and a part of my upbringing, how did your upbringing shape the way you got into the sciences?” 

Gates said his father, who served in WWII was his first mentor. Gates saw “Spaceways,” his first science fiction movie when he was four years old. “It’s the reason I was a scientist, or one of them,” he said. 

Gates said he struggled with reading when he was young, but loved mathematics. In 1969, he was admitted into MIT. “I learned how to cry over my homework at MIT.” He was mentored by a few pioneering Black physicists among others. 

“There were not people who looked like me out there… but there were people who would help me,” he said. 

Gates was the first African-American theoretical physicist to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences. “It’s because something changed in this country,” he said. “Call me naive but I actually have faith in the people in this country.”

After decades of accomplishments, Gates stressed over and over again a key to success is hard work and enjoying the work.

“You’ve got to have fun in life,” he said. “And I’m having great fun.” 

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Gates as the first African-American to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences. The Observer regrets this error. 

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