African Physics Newsletter

Sekazi Mtingwa Speaks About Mentoring and Africa

What inspired you to get involved in a lifetime of mentoring young students and researchers, and where did it all begin in the USA?

SM: I spent much of my early career at national laboratories doing research full-time. I worked at Fermilab during 1980-1988, where I was on the team that provided work crucial to the discovery of the intermediate vector bosons and Higgs particles at CERN, as well as the top quark at Fermilab. While at Fermilab, I mentored both high school and college student interns during the summers. Later, at Argonne, I continued my mentorship of students. Then, I thought to myself: after growing up in the racially segregated South (Atlanta, Georgia), managing against all odds to graduate Phi Beta Kappa from MIT earning a Ph.D. in theoretical high energy physics from Princeton University, and having such unique research opportunities that led to my receiving the highest American Physical Society research prize in my field, it was my duty, and indeed honor, to work tirelessly to provide similar opportunities for others. I decided to direct my attention especially, but not exclusively, to those emerging scholars from challenging backgrounds so that they could achieve the same or greater goals than I have. In 1991, I moved to North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro, North Carolina. From then on, I launched a full-scale effort to mentor at all levels, including students, faculty and administrators.

NC: When did you first get involved in science and technology development in Africa, and how did that come about?

SM: My introduction to science and technology development in Africa began with Nobelist Abdus Salam’s convening a meeting in 1988 at the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Trieste, Italy, of scientists, mathematicians, and technologists from the USA and Africa. We formed what was later named the Edward Bouchet – Abdus Salam Institute (EBASI) to facilitate research and training collaborations between the two groups. Edward Alexander Bouchet was the first African American to receive a Ph.D. in any field, and it happened to be in physics from Yale University in 1876. Having been at Argonne while the Advanced Photon Source was being designed and constructed, I became convinced that Africa would benefit greatly by having such a huge scientific infrastructure. I proposed that we start the process of advocating to African governments the necessity of pooling their resources to collaborate on the construction of a synchrotron light source. However, my EBASI colleagues convinced me that the way to start was with the feeder infrastructures, namely enhancing laser labs on the continent. After that EBASI meeting, I began sending emails to colleagues in Africa, one of which landed with Hardus Greyling at the National Laser Centre in Pretoria, South Africa. It turned out that South Africa had inherited a large quantity of state-of-the-art laser equipment from a terminated uranium enrichment program. Under the leadership of Philemon Mjwara, they established a loan program for university researchers to borrow the lasers and ancillary equipment. We joined forces and established the African Laser Centre (ALC) in 2003.

NC: What are the challenges facing science development in Africa, and how do you feel we can address that?

SM: I will start with the most obvious: lack of adequate funding. African governments need to look more inward to fund those initiatives that will lead to the greatest payoffs in the future. As an example, Ebola continues to pop up from time to time in various countries5. When it does, the costs are enormous. Wouldn’t it make more sense to spend money out front to defeat the virus? Thus, there is a critical need for African governments to make major investments in protein crystallography, advanced light sources, and cryo-electron microscopes. Of course, there are many non-biological areas needing critical funding.
Another challenge is the isolation felt by many researchers. Thus, we need many more Pan-African organizations similar to the ALC.

NC: How do you see the future of science development in Africa?

SM: I think the future is quite bright for science development in Africa. I look at what Philemon Mjwara and his colleagues have done in co-winning with Australia the international bid for the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). Of course, we need more SKA projects and many small well-funded projects as well. Indeed, if I were not extremely optimistic, I would not spend my time working so hard to make a difference on the African continent.

NC: What is your message to young, aspiring African scientists?

SM: To answer this question, I will simply state my mentoring philosophy that played a key role in my receiving the Presidential Mentoring Award. First, work as hard as you can to increase your own knowledge. Second, after solidifying your professional career, such as obtaining tenure or another type of permanent appointment, promote others’ careers on a one-on-one basis. Finally, work to establish and/or enhance systems and institutions that promote the science and technology careers of generations. Students have to realize that they cannot “save the world” if they are not devoting the appropriate amount of time to their own development.

Interview by Nithaya Chetty, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa

This post has first been published in the African Physics Newsletter - © American Physical Society, 2020

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