The Gangsta Physicist
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
A born rebel, Hakeem Oluseyi defied doubters to become a respected astrophysicist and educator. Now he’s inspiring young scientists and spurring astronomy in developing countries.
By Melissa Pandika
See Hakeem Oluseyi in person at OZY Fest, OZY’s festival of ideas, music, food, comedy, art and film, taking place on July 22 in NYC’s Central Park. Find out more.
Hakeem Oluseyi 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 took me on a quest to understand how the universe behaves,” he said. But Oluseyi wasn’t your typical quiet, mousy nerd. He was a loud gangsta nerd who didn’t give a fuck.
Society … didn’t tell me, ‘You’re a scientist.’ They told me, ‘You’re a gangsta.’
Life never came easy for Oluseyi. He carried a gun growing up in Mississippi, dropped out of college and flunked his PhD qualifying exams. Some people found his brashness obnoxious. But he loved physics so much that he learned to ignore the naysayers. That rebellious attitude has paid off so far. Today Oluseyi is an astrophysicist at the Florida Institute of Technology (FIT), where he still sputters ideas without a second thought, some of which have appeared in prominent journals and cover a broad range of subjects, from solar physics to cosmology.
Oluseyi’s enthusiasm is infectious, making him an inspiring educator. Besides conducting research, he teaches astronomy in Africa and leads the One Telescope Project to supply every country with at least one research-grade telescope. He also appears regularly on four Discovery Channel series. In How to Survive the End of the World, on the National Geographic Channel, he explains how to survive a killer pandemic, volcanic cataclysm and other doomsday scenarios.
As a kid, Oluseyi moved with his single mother from one inner city to another. When she noticed him getting in trouble with the law, she moved him to rural Mississippi to live with his dad. When Oluseyi wasn’t acting up, he was tinkering with his chemistry set. “I just love to discover and invent,” he said. “It’s what always fulfilled me.”
Oluseyi doesn’t see himself as the next Carl Sagan or Neil deGrasse Tyson … “I want to be the next Albert Einstein.”
After high school, Oluseyi enrolled at Tougaloo College in Jackson, where he struggled to stay afloat. Although he aced his physics classes, he got Cs in math and kept getting in trouble on the streets. Dejected, he dropped out during his junior year and took a hotel janitor job. But when he couldn’t move up to a bellhop position, even after months of working, he’d had enough.
So he returned to Tougaloo. But 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.
Oluseyi had another breakthrough when three black physics students from MIT and Harvard invited him to meet graduate school recruiters at a conference in Washington, D.C. Recruiters from Stanford University ended up accepting him to the school’s physics PhD program.
But Oluseyi had to fight through Stanford too. He had trouble navigating social norms. On his first day, he asked a classmate, a little too loudly, “Man, see all these squirrels on campus? How come nobody eats them?” The room fell silent. Other students were just mean. He isolated himself from them and retreated next door to East Palo Alto, the murder capital of the country at the time.
In his first year at Applied Materials, Oluseyi churned out eight patents.
Oluseyi failed the qualifying exams doctoral students needed to pass to continue in the program. The faculty committee that graded him “strongly advised” that he drop out.
Determined to prove them wrong, he buckled down and passed his qualifying exams the following year. “I learned that I just have to work hard and just be me,” he said.
Things turned around. Oluseyi found a mentor in his PhD adviser, Art Walker, and began publishing his own research discoveries. “I realized that all of this was for me,” he told TED blogs. “I could be a physicist!”
He also discovered a talent for teaching. The secret was encouraging the undergraduates he TA’d to identify as scientists — something he struggled to do growing up. “Society … didn’t tell me, ‘You’re a scientist,’” he said. “They told me, ‘You’re a gangsta,’ and I lived that out. People take my classes, and they think they can be Albert Einstein. That’s powerful.”
After graduating from Stanford, Oluseyi headed to Applied Materials, a large computer-chip manufacturing company in Silicon Valley. In his first year, he churned out eight patents.
Hakeem comes up with good ideas and ones we don’t use. He has the courage to bring them up and filter them out.
— Alphonse Sterling, NASA astrophysicist
But requesting management’s permission before running each experiment made him restless, and his tendency to tackle big projects and prove others wrong irked his colleagues. While he wanted to talk about the universe, they wanted to discuss stocks and wafers. He also missed teaching.
Although Oluseyi’s research isn’t “earth-shattering,” it’s solid and covers a breadth of topics, reflecting his willingness to let ideas surface without worrying how others will react, said NASA astrophysicist Alphonse Sterling, Oluseyi’s friend and colleague. “Hakeem comes up with good ideas and ones we don’t use,” he said. “He has the courage to bring them up and filter them out.”
Besides teaching students at FIT, Oluseyi does lecture tours in African schools. Last year, he launched the One Telescope Project to put one research telescope in every country, starting in African and Southern Hemisphere nations. But it’s not just about encouraging young scientists in developing countries. It also makes scientific sense: There’s a huge lack of data from these regions.
Although his enthusiasm and storytelling skills have earned him TV spots, Oluseyi doesn’t see himself as the next Carl Sagan or Neil deGrasse Tyson. He’s sure of his identity, now more than ever. “I want to be an excellent scientist and educator,” he said. “If I’m going be the next anybody, I want to be the next Albert Einstein.”
- Melissa Pandika, Melissa Pandika is a lab rat-turned-journalist with an eye to all things science, medicine and more. Likes distance running, snails, late-night Korean BBQ + R&B slow jams.Contact Melissa Pandika