Sekazi Mtingwa

In addition to carrying out his own research in accelerator and high energy physics, serving on various committees, and dedicating himself to mentoring African American students, MIT physicist Sekazi Mtingwa travels to Africa several times a year to promote science.

Growing up in Atlanta, Mtingwa was known as Michael Von Sawyer (he later changed his name to the African name he now uses). He had always liked science, and in grade school the other kids called him “Von Sawyer the mad scientist.” He enjoyed reading popular science books during high school, and during college at MIT he settled on high energy physics as the field he would study. Studying tiny things inside atoms was exciting; it seemed to be the frontier, he says.

6th Edward Bouchet - Abdus Salam Institute's International Conference 2007
6th Edward Bouchet - Abdus Salam Institute's International Conference (EBASI-6) held at iThemba LABS in Cape Town, South Africa, January 23-26, 2007. Mtingwa (kneeling in the middle) with faculty and students.

After completing undergraduate studies at MIT, Mtingwa received his PhD in theoretical high energy physics in 1976 from Princeton University. After two postdocs at the University of Rochester and the University of Maryland - College Park, he headed to Fermilab, where he worked on a small piece of the huge accelerator complex used in the experiment that ultimately found the top quark. Also while at Fermilab Mtingwa and colleague James Bjorken developed the theory of intrabeam scattering, the work for which Mtingwa is best known. He explains that if you’re accelerating a group of protons or electrons, because they all have the same charge, they tend to repel each other, which causes the beam to spread out. The theory of intrabeam scattering deals with that effect, which essentially puts a limit on the performance of accelerators. “I was quite lucky to have been one of the developers of a theory that’s used in just about all of the modern accelerators nowadays,” he says.

He later moved to Argonne National Laboratory, where he worked on theory related to a futuristic type of accelerator, called a plasma wakefield accelerator, in which bunches of particles would ride on waves of plasma, like surfers in the ocean, he says. Such accelerators would be much more powerful than current accelerators. Though there are still technical difficulties that must be resolved before such accelerators can be built, Mtingwa’s theoretical work helped prove that the concept would work.

In 1991, Mtingwa decided he wanted to do more to help African American students succeed in physics. So he went to North Carolina A&T State University, a historically black university, where a position as the chair of the physics department had opened up. Mtingwa spent ten years there, during which time he hired several more faculty members and started a graduate program in physics, which is now doing well, he says.

After about ten years there, Mtingwa left North Carolina to spend a year at MIT as a Martin Luther King Jr. visiting professor, where he did research related to the planned International Linear Collider. He had expected to stay only a year, but his wife got a job as director of the economic development office of Cambridge, so Mtingwa stayed in Cambridge.

He now splits his time between two programs at MIT: He is a lecturer in a program for freshmen who want smaller classes and more contact with professors, and he also serves as faculty director for the Office of Minority Education’s tutoring services. These programs were originally designed for minority students, but the program has expanded to serve non-minorities as well.

Mtingwa’s recent research has been mainly focused on beam dynamics problems related to the International Linear Collider. He also he serves on several committees, including study groups focusing on nuclear waste and electricity storage.

Things have changed a lot since he was an undergraduate at MIT, Mtingwa says. When he first started as a student at MIT in 1967, there were only 5 or 6 African American students per class. That jumped to about 50 per class two years later, and it has stayed at about that level, or slightly higher, since then. “So the whole culture is different. But the culture is different for all students now. Things are just different now,” Mtingwa says. Back then there was a lot of turmoil and racial tension. “Students were demanding so much. Society was changing so rapidly. Now it seems very quiet,” he says. There isn’t so much racial polarization anymore, and students are more focused on academics, he says.

On the other hand, he points out that while the number of African American students has increased at MIT and other universities, the number of African American faculty members has actually decreased in the sciences. In fact, there isn’t a single African American physics professor at MIT (though he is physicist, Mtingwa himself is not officially in the physics department). Mtingwa tries to be a role model for students, especially minorities, but with so few so few African Americans on the faculty, it can be hard to show minority students that there are people like them with successful science careers.

He also tries to show all students that physics is exciting and relevant, often describing his own work to freshman classes. For instance, Mtingwa serves on several study groups, including co-chairing one on electricity storage. That committee, which will advise the Department of Energy, is looking at ways to store electricity, which could become important as the power grid ages. Electricity storage could keep the power on during short term power outages, potentially saving billions of dollars, says Mtingwa. He finds these topics fit naturally into his freshmen electricity and magnetism courses.

Mtingwa’s efforts to promote science reach far beyond MIT. He travels extensively in Africa, where he works with the African Laser Center, a network of laser science centers throughout Africa. The main problem for these labs, he says, is infrastructure. Even if they have the lasers and other necessary scientific equipment, a brief power outage, which happens often in these places, can ruin an experiment. And if some piece of equipment breaks, it can often take months to get it repaired or replaced. Mtingwa is therefore pushing for improved infrastructure and technical support and training. He’s also working on a more ambitious plan of convincing the South African government to build a state-of-the-art synchrotron, which could be used by scientists in a variety of disciplines.

He has also traveled throughout Ghana, giving motivational lectures and promoting science and education. Recently Mtingwa was honored by the National Council of Ghanaian Associations for his work promoting science in Africa and among African people.

Although Mtingwa is quite busy with all these activities (he admits to being “a little overcommitted” and says he often “works in crisis mode”) he makes time for some hobbies. For instance, he has a black belt in tae kwon do, and he speaks four languages – Russian, French Spanish and some Italian. He’d like to learn Zulu, especially since he travels to Africa often, but first he plans to brush up on his Japanese.