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SISTEM one-on-one with Dr. Hakeeem M. Oluseyi: A Day in the Life of a 'Celebrity' Physicist.

Hakeem M. Oluseyi

Hakeem M. Oluseyi is an internationally recognized astrophysicist, inventor, science communicator, and humanitarian. He has addressed diverse problems in astrophysics including understanding the nature of the dark energy that accelerates our universe, the structure and evolution of the Milky Way galaxy, and the mechanisms by which magnetic fields heat and accelerate astrophysical plasmas. His work in technology development has included developing instruments for space-based astrophysical research, techniques for manufacturing computer chips, and particle acceleration techniques for in-space propulsion. He has more than 80 publications, including books, scientific and technology publications, and also holds 7 U.S. patents and 4 EU patents, with 2 U.S. patents pending. Originating from poor communities of New Orleans and Mississippi, Hakeem has made it his life's work to support science education and development for underserved populations in America and in the developing World. He has personally worked with thousands of students in the U.S. and across multiple African nations. He sees his professional mission as: 1) advancing humanity's understanding of the universe through scientific inquiry; 2) passing on the detailed knowledge of this process and its results to the next generation; and
3) service to humanity and country. Dr. Oluseyi is a popular and effective science communicator. He Co-Hosts several series on Discovery Networks including "Outrageous Acts of Science", "How the Universe Works", "Strip the Cosmos", "Are We Alone?", "Deadly Dilemmas", and "You Have Been Warned". Dr. Oluseyi additionally appears on national network news programs including CNN, MSNBC, NBC, and FOX, to explain breaking science stories to the nation and world. Hakeem is currently the MLK Visiting Professor of Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an Associate Professor of Physics and Space Sciences at the Florida Institute of Technology, Co-Chair of the Energy & Propulsion track for the 100 Year Starship project, and the Chief Science Officer for Discovery Communications. He has earned the following degrees: Ph.D. Physics, Stanford University; M.S. Physics, Stanford University; B.S. Physics, Tougaloo College; and B.S. Mathematics, Tougaloo College.

Q: Can you tell us at what point in your life that you knew you wanted to be a physicist?

Dr. Oluseyi : I knew that I wanted to be a scientist from an early age. If you'd asked 8 year old Hakeem what he wanted to be when he grew up, the answer was an enthusiastic, "Zoologist!" I was really into animals and shows like Wild America. By 10 years of age the answer would have been, "Oceanographer!" At that time I enjoyed watching Jacques Cousteau. At age 11 I discovered Albert Einstein and his special theory of relativity. But for some reason, I did not envision myself being a physicist. Six years later, in 1985, I won first place in physics at the Mississippi State Science Fair by modeling special relativity using the BASIC programming language. The judges encouraged me to attend college and major in physics; but even then, I did not see myself as a physicist. When I eventually did attend college, I started out as Chemistry Pre-Medicine major!

Q: You can be described as a 'celebrity' physicists because it seems like you are always on a television documentary. How important do you think it is to youth belonging to communities that are underrepresented in STEM fields to see you on these shows?

Dr. Oluseyi : I think that it is incredibly important for youth from all backgrounds to see me in the science shows. I receive electronic communications everyday from people in the communities you mention. They congratulate me for being successful at science TV. They thank me for being an inspiration or a role model. And many tell me how they have a new or renewed passion for science after watching my shows and reading about me online. I also receive the same kinds of messages from people who are very different from me. I'm surprised, humbled, and touched by both types of messages. I think that it is the universe that is amazing and inspiring, not so much me. I'm just sharing my love and passion for the universe. But I also recognize the central role that watching science TV had in developing my scientific interests. That led to me pursuing a scientific degree, which completely changed my life. I want to share that gift with others as widely as I can. But I am particularly interested in reaching those underrepresented communities you mention. And through TV I'm able to do so.

Q: Do you think that there is a communication problem between teachers and students when it comes to math and physics?

Dr. Oluseyi : I do think that the magic, splendor, and beauty of the natural world and the human process of understanding it gets lost in translation. The entertainment world recognizes that making people feel is paramount to drawing them in and keeping them. I approach my role as an educator in exactly the same way. The first organization I worked with in Africa had as its motto: Engage, Inspire, Empower. I have adopted this motto as my approach to education and outreach. As the saying goes, "They won't remember what you said; they won't what you did; but they will remember how you made them feel."

Q: What types of things do you think teachers can do to get more of their students excited about math, science, and engineering?

Dr. Oluseyi : First, the educators need to be excited about math, science, and engineering themselves. Our universe and the STEM fields are amazingly cool. Appreciating this coolness and enthusiastically sharing it with the students will naturally draw in those who have a propensity for scientific thought and the process. Second, I think that being able to connect with students' humanity and illustrating a caring spirit is also effective. Showing young people that you care about them and believe in them is incredibly powerful. It's a sure fire way to positively impact lives. And last but not least, the teachers should become as close as they can to being experts on the topics. They should never stop developing their knowledge. Talk to scientists and read everything you can.

Q: What would you say are some of the highlights of your job?

Dr. Oluseyi : Being a scientist is a wonderful profession. First, I have a lot of freedom. My job is essentially to follow my own curiosity. Second, I get to positively impact lives through educating others, inventing new technologies, or uncovering new knowledge. There are also the thrills of discovery and invention. And finally, I get to travel around the world and work with truly amazing people.

Q: Can you provide our audience with a little more information about the type of research that you are involved in?

Dr. Oluseyi : I (fortunately or unfortunately) possess a bit of a compulsive curiosity. As a result, I'm always working simultaneously in multiple disparate areas. My scientific research these days is focused on two broad areas: understanding how magnetic and electric field heat and accelerate astrophysical plasmas, and what we call astronomical survey science. For the first type of work the surface of the Sun is our laboratory. We study how small-scale processes on the solar surface heat plasmas to feed the corona and how plasmas are accelerated to form the solar wind. We've spun off a technology from this work. By accelerating plasmas the way the Sun does, we invented a patent-pending in-space propulsion technology that may propel craft up to 100 times faster than current technologies. For the survey work, we use data from observatories on Earth and satellites to perform Galactic archaeology so that we may understand how our Galaxy formed and evolved. We also use survey data to discover planets around nearby stars. Key in both areas are many computational techniques.

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