If necessity is the mother of invention, then resilience is the mother of reinvention. Hakeem Oluseyi, PhD, world-renowned cosmologist, science educator, and humanitarian, is well acquainted with both.
“I was born in the city of New Orleans,” Oluseyi recounts. “Neither of my parents had graduated from high school. My father dropped out at nine and my mother at 16.”
This set Oluseyi up for a rough start in life. His parents divorced when Oluseyi was just four and he went with his mother, attending four different schools in three southern states and moving every year until he was 13. He recalls that, with his mother working long hours, he spent much of his time fending for himself in a predatory, unforgiving environment. He described how this shaped him to TED Blog reporter Karen Eng: “My response to this was: I wanted to be bad. I wanted to outgangster the next gangster . . . . You’ve got to intimidate this next dude before he intimidates you. Otherwise you’re going to be the victim. So by the time I was a teenager I was carrying a gun, I was involved in all these crazy things” (2012).
But spending so much time alone also led him to reading a lot.
“I just always remember being interested in the natural world,” Oluseyi says. “On TV, PBS was pretty much it. There was Jacques Cousteau and Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. But my mother had purchased a set of world encyclopedias. In the sections of colored photographs there’d be pictures of snakes and whatnot. I just remember being transfixed by those.”
Journalist Melissa Pandika wrote that he “fell hard for physics when he discovered Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, which describes how gravity warps space and time, in an encyclopedia in the fifth grade.” It sent him on a quest to understand how the universe behaves (Pandika, 2014).
“Yes, I was a latch key kid, but I was also a scholarly kid,” Oluseyi says.
When he was 13, Oluseyi’s mother decided he needed to be away from the mean streets of the inner city and sent him to live with his father in rural Mississippi. There he found some positive adult influences through participating in science fairs and attending music camp in the summer.
“If it wasn’t for these interventions in my life, no question, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Things like camp and extracurricular activities made all the difference in my life,” he says.
After high school, Oluseyi attended Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi, where he continued to live his life with one foot in the academic world and one in the streets. He excelled in physics but struggled in math. He even dropped out of college for a time during his junior year, choosing instead to take a janitorial job at a hotel. But he realized he was going nowhere fast and reenrolled at Tougaloo.
Pandika wrote, “This time, he resolved to do things right. While his friends partied, he worked on solving every problem in his calculus textbook. To master math, he majored in it” (2014).
In 1986, three students from MIT and Harvard, founding members of the National Council of Black Physics Students, visited Tougaloo College. Oluseyi recalls, “Because of them, I ended up meeting recruiters from Stanford University that ended up accepting me to Stanford for grad school. In all of Stanford’s history, at that time, there were only two black professors in all of the six schools of natural sciences and mathematics. One was my PhD advisor, Art Walker, who was also the PhD advisor of [astronaut] Sally Ride. Just being in his presence showed me a different model of how I could be” (Eng, 2012).
His start at Stanford wasn’t smooth sailing either. He sensed the class differences there and still felt the pull of the streets.
“The first thing you’re going to do is run to the ghetto,” Oluseyi admits. “If you’re from the hood and you end up in a Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, you don’t want to be around those people. Those are the ‘bad’ guys where you’re from” (Eng, 2012).
He credits Walker with giving him the support he needed to focus on what was constructive in his life and achieve what he was capable of. He earned his PhD in physics and also discovered a talent for teaching.
Oluseyi laughs, “In grad school, after a year, I’m getting 15 to 20 students for observational astronomy because everyone was saying, ‘Take Hakeem’s class for an easy A.’ But the kicker was I was just running the observatory; I wasn’t giving any grades. The students were just learning the material.”
He had a similar experience teaching night classes at a college in Silicon Valley. “Students would come up to me and say, ‘I thought I was dumb until I met you. I didn’t realize I could do science. But I can be a scientist; I can be an engineer.’ They showed me I was a good teacher by telling me about my impact.”
Following graduate school, he went to work for a computer chip manufacturer in Silicon Valley, where he made a name for himself as an inventor and earned eight patents in his first year for his improvements to chip technology. However, Oluseyi found the grind of life in corporate America uninspiring and unfulfilling, so he consciously redirected himself again and took an $80,000-a-year pay cut to return to academics as a near-field cosmologist. He joined the Supernova Cosmology Project — a group of researchers credited with discovering dark energy and with whom he had worked as a researcher between his undergraduate and graduate school years — working to map the Milky Way galaxy in hopes of learning more about the makeup of our universe as a whole.
Oluseyi also found time to make a positive impact through science by participating in global outreach. From 2002 to 2013, he visited a number of countries in Africa, lecturing in African schools to get students there excited about science and the stars. In 2013, he launched the One Telescope Project with the lofty goal of equipping every country in the world with one research-caliber telescope, focusing first on Africa.
“If we put a hundred of these telescopes on Earth, we are not revolutionizing the developing world, we are revolutionizing Earth,” he told Eng. “And given my life experience, I recognize the impact of culture and identity on the choices that a person makes. If you put a telescope in a country and you create an educational outreach program around it, you’re going to get the kid here and there who says, ‘Hey, I want to be involved in this,’ and they’ll spend their entire summer doing observations and taking data and analyzing data” (Eng, 2014).
Oluseyi looks forward to saying, “I helped to create a generation of super scientists in Africa.”
Today Oluseyi is a distinguished research professor of physics and space sciences at the Florida Institute of Technology on assignment at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC, where he serves as an astrophysicist and the Space Science Education lead for NASA’s Science Missions Directorate. He wears many hats here too — helping run NASA’s many science education efforts, partnering with those who are experts in communicating science, participating in deciding how to best manage the program’s 42-million-dollar budget, voicing a number of videos for NASA, and even liaising with organizations such as National Intelligence and the National Security Agency, among other roles.
He hosts several shows on the Science Channel, including Outrageous Acts of Science and How the Universe Works, and has appeared as a scientific expert on CNN, MSNBC, NBC, HBO, and Fox News, among other programs.
This cosmologist with an ever-present thirst for knowledge is light years from where he started. So one wonders if the moniker “Gangsta Physicist,” which follows this intrepid trailblazer wherever he goes, bothers Oluseyi.
“That was a label given to me that I did not agree with initially,” he admits. “I thought, this is killing me. Then, in 2014, I got a call to speak at a TEDx conference that they were holding in a prison in Southern California. They told me I was the only speaker the offenders had requested. When I got there, it was an all-star lineup. First up was [English business magnate] Richard Branson, then [hip-hop dance crew] the Jabbawockeez, then me. I got up and defined infinity. The rest of the day I mingled, and the offenders recognized me on sight as the Gangsta Physicist. In California state prison, the recidivism rate was 89 percent, but for those who got an associate degree or higher, it was only 6 percent. So the prison was putting out stories about the Gangsta Physicist to encourage them.
“Then I gave a talk at Seminole State College. There was a long line of people who had signed up to get an autograph from me, and a 50-something, white woman came up and said, ‘My mother was a big fan of your show. She passed away, but I wanted to thank you for giving her joy at the end of her life.’
“And yet another example: A young, black woman came up to me. As soon as she started talking she was just bawling. She’d heard my story, gotten a job, and then went back to school. She said, ‘I’m not doing well, but you made it, so I know I can make it.’
“I realized that I’ve been called to inspire people. That’s what the ‘Gangsta Physicist’ has become to me.”
And to thousands of scientists and prospective scientists and enthusiasts around the world, Hakeem Oluseyi is just that — a wonderful inspiration, leaving little doubt that there are many chapters still to be written in the stars about him.
Advice to Camp Professionals about Mentoring
- “Camps can play a wonderful role in outreach through science. A key element to becoming a scientist is having exposure to that world as soon as possible. The way to think as a scientist is not intuitive; you also have to learn a skill. Camp gives you a focused time period to learn that new way of communicating. It’s a different language.
- “The thing that’s been obvious to me for a long time is the impact of giving a person a bit of attention. That goes two ways: Someone can say, ‘I think you’re special,’ or ‘You’re not cut out for this.’
- “I was told frequently, ‘You can’t do that.’ That was the quickest way to get me to do something, because I was rebellious and out to prove them wrong. Most often, though, when a person is told, ‘This is not for you,’ they’ll give up and move on to something else. You need to understand how much power you yield in influencing people’s lives. It needs to be taken seriously.”
- For camp counselors working at camps teaching science: “You have to learn yourself. You can’t teach it if you don’t know it.”
Eng, K. (2012, October 5). Rise of a gangsta nerd: Fellows Friday with Hakeem Oluseyi. TED Blog. Retrieved from https://blog.ted.com/rise-of-a-gangsta-nerd-fellows-friday-with-hakeem-…
Pandika, M. (2014, January 3). The gangsta physicist. OZY. Retrieved from ozy.com/rising-stars/the-gangsta-physicist/4176
Photo courtesy of Camp Howe, Goshen, Massachusetts.
Marcia Ellett is a professional writer and editor. She is currently the assistant editor of ACA’s Camping Magazine.