Physicist Sekazi Mtingwa considers himself an apostle of science

Ask physicist Sekazi Mtingwa how he ended up where he is today, and he’ll start with his grandmother’s deeply religious home. Growing up there in Atlanta, young Mtingwa somehow got the idea that he was the second coming of Christ.

“I believed that for years,” Mtingwa recalls with a laugh. That only changed after a Sunday school lesson as a schoolboy. It was about Jesus sacrificing himself for murderers and thieves. “I looked around the room, and all these bad boys in my class, I couldn’t give my life for any of them — let alone murderers,” he says.

That was it for the Jesus plan, Mtingwa says. But his desire to serve humankind never waned. Today, says Mtingwa, who remains religious, “I like to think of myself as an apostle of science.”

Apostle of science gets close to the essence of Mtingwa’s career. Over the decades, he’s had many professional titles. As an accelerator and particle physicist, Mtingwa is nationally recognized for his work building accelerators and for developing the theory of how particles scatter when they’re squeezed into high-energy beams. But he’s also a nuclear policy expert, mentor, administrator, activist and founder of dozens of organizations in the United States and abroad dedicated to creating new opportunities in science for people who have been historically kept at its margins.

“People’s everyday lives are impacted and improved by his efforts,” says Robbin Chapman, one of Mtingwa’s mentees who is now associate dean for diversity, inclusion and belonging at Harvard Kennedy School. That impact is expansive, says Chapman, “whether it’s the actual research, whether it’s the teaching or whether it’s the networks he’s bringing together across countries and continents.”

A new theory and a new name

Born in 1949, Mtingwa attended segregated schools in Georgia. Back then, he had a different name — Michael Von Sawyer. Other kids teased him for the name, he says, calling him a “mad German scientist.” Having given up on being Jesus, Mtingwa says, “I had to look for another career.” All that jeering got him thinking it might be science.

black and white photo of Sekazi Mtingwa in his high school graduation gown and cap
Sekazi Mtingwa grew up in Atlanta, graduating from high school in 1967.
Courtesy of S. Mtingwa

Mtingwa devoured books about science at the local library and concocted a project that won him first place in botany at Georgia’s state science fair. It was the first year that the contest was racially integrated. His science fair prize included a box of science books. A few were on general relativity. And with that, his interest in physics ignited.

As an undergraduate at MIT, Mtingwa studied physics and mathematics and learned to channel his ambition to serve others into activism. It was the “turbulent 1960s,” Mtingwa says, and the campus zeitgeist crackled with the energy of the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War protests. He got involved in student groups advocating for racial equity, was a founding member of MIT’s Black Students’ Union, and, along with other students, he participated in a takeover of a faculty lounge.

“That really drove into me the need to serve,” he says. “But I always had this philosophy that you can’t serve until you first take care of yourself — better yourself, get your education, establish your career.” After that, he believes, one can start to reach out to help individual people and, eventually, build systems that go beyond individuals to the world.

After MIT, Mtingwa earned his Ph.D. at Princeton University working on high-energy particle physics. It was during that time that Mtingwa, a Pan-Africanist, chose his name with the help of a fellow graduate student from Tanzania. Shortly after graduating, he joined other Black physicists to found the National Society of Black Physicists in 1977. He’d met several of his cofounders at MIT, which he describes as having been a kind of hub for Black physicists.

But Mtingwa says his academic career nearly ended just a few years later. After two postdocs, he struggled to find a job even as his white colleagues seemed to float up the academic ladder. A Ford Fellowship he received in 1980 saved him, he says, sending him to Fermilab, a leading particle physics laboratory in Batavia, Ill., for a year.

Leon Lederman talks to Sekazi Mtingwa in front of a chalkboard
Sekazi Mtingwa is shown here in the 1980s with Nobel Prize–winning physicist Leon Lederman, then director of Fermilab.Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory

That year snowballed into seven, during which he and theoretical physicist James Bjorken developed the theory of intrabeam scattering — which describes how charged particles spread out when packed together into high-energy beams. In particle accelerators, which create high-energy beams and often use them to smash particles together or into other targets, this spreading can hurt performance if it’s not properly accounted for. The theory Mtingwa helped develop has been put to work in the design of particle accelerators across the world, from small synchrotrons used to generate intense light for chemistry and biology experiments to the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, near Geneva.

“Any accelerator physicist knows about the Bjorken-Mtingwa theory,” says accelerator physicist Mark Palmer of Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, N.Y. “This has had a very, very deep impact on broad portions of the scientific endeavors that depend on accelerator performance with very-high-energy beams.”

Opening science to others

Mtingwa continued his work on the theoretical physics of particle accelerators. But he also started to build them.

At Fermilab, he helped design systems for producing and collecting antiprotons — the antimatter counterpart to protons — so they could be accelerated into beams. Colliding streams of protons and antiprotons in Fermilab’s Tevatron accelerator ultimately revealed the existence of the top quark, a fundamental particle. Not only is the top quark an essential piece of the standard model of particle physics, but its large mass is also useful for testing the model.

Aerial photo of Fermilab’s Tevatron particle collider
Sekazi Mtingwa’s work on intrabeam scattering was key to the operation of Fermilab’s Tevatron particle collider (shown here) and many others.Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory

And at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, Mtingwa worked out the theoretical underpinnings of plasma wakefield accelerators — a type of particle accelerator that speeds up particles using pulsing waves of plasma, which Argonne scientists experimentally demonstrated for the first time in 1988.

In 1991, after years working at some of the top national laboratories, Mtingwa made a decision that he says baffled his colleagues: He became a professor at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro, a historically Black university that, back then, didn’t have a graduate program in physics at all.

“I had at Fermilab and at Argonne worked with students — high school and college — for the summer. And I had gotten interested in surrounding myself with the young, African American students to try to be able to make a difference,” Mtingwa says.

Mtingwa had taken care of himself. Now, he wanted to start taking care of others.

At North Carolina A&T, Mtingwa established a master’s program in physics and laid the groundwork for new Ph.D. programs. Over his many years teaching at North Carolina A&T, Morgan State University, Harvard and his alma mater MIT, he mentored countless people, including Chapman — who now mentors students herself.

“He really captured what I realized is the essence of supporting anyone, but particularly scholars of color as they are moving through their academic careers,” she says. Rather than seeing life and work as separate things, Mtingwa taught Chapman to see them as part of one ecosystem of excellence. “He’s a systems thinker,” she says, with a keen eye for how people fit into their full context and what that means for how they work.

Today, Mtingwa is in what he describes as “that third stage” of serving the world: building institutions. When he talks about this stage, his stories focus on “we” more than “I,” to the point that it becomes hard keep track of which “we” he’s talking about. Over his long career, he’s built, nurtured and then carefully entrusted to others a dozen or so programs, institutions and nonprofits.

Sekazi Mtingwa holds a plaque in front of a screen that reads "2023 AAAS Awards & Prizes honoring excellence in science"
In 2023, Sekazi Mtingwa received the Philip Hauge Abelson Prize for “significant contributions to the scientific community.”Robb Cohen Photography and Video

Mtingwa helped found not only the National Society of Black Physicists, but also the National Society of Hispanic Physicists and the African Physical Society, among several other professional organizations in the United States and abroad, with a focus on places where scientific infrastructure and opportunities are more limited. He is actively leading efforts in Africa, the Caribbean, the Middle East and Asia to train scientists to use synchrotron light sources — small particle accelerators that generate intense light that are vital for many types of research in chemistry and biology — and build synchrotron light source facilities.

The point, Mtingwa says, is to create more opportunities for more people in science. He’d like to see a day without discrimination, when anyone’s scientific careers could flourish — no matter who or where they are.

“I realized I wasn’t Jesus Christ,” Mtingwa says. “But I was put on Earth to serve mankind, so that’s what I’m trying to do now – to be of service.”

Sekazi Mtingwa and other researchers stand outside a building in South Africa
A meeting held in South Africa in 2007 helped launch the African Physical Society, cofounded by Sekazi Mtingwa (far right).Courtesy of S. Mtingwa

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