Beyond the sparkling tech, inclusivity is a big theme of this year’s Supercomputing 2023 conference, which is in its 35th year.
The keynote by celebrated astrophysicist and author Hakeem Oluseyi followed a similar theme: to treat people equally and fairly and to help others with training, guidance, and accountability.
“You can help the next person,” Oluseyi said at the conference’s opening keynote.
Oluseyi is an icon of science as an author, educator, and T.V. host. His speech masterfully mixed Einstein’s Theory of Relativity with how mentors paved his way to becoming a scientist and how it impacted his decision to move their kindness forward.
- Look around you.
- Identify people who need help.
- Be the mentor to help them explore their potential.
Mentorship is especially needed for women and minorities entering science, which is intimidating.
“I encourage you to be open-minded and look deeper than the GPA. You know, there’s no telling where they might end up,” Oluseyi said.
Mentors helped lift Oluseyi off an inner-city life of crime and drugs and on to becoming a reputed scientist.
The mentors, including family members and professors, entered Hakeem’s life when he most needed help.
Family members lifted him from a life of crime and drugs at a young age. Later, professors identified his potential in math and science — something he thought he never had — and that propelled him to become a successful scientist.
He told his story by masterfully mixing science with humorous nuggets of his stint with a California social club called Crips and his dad being a retailer and wholesaler of agricultural products that were illegal in 27 states.
“When I look at my life, I say that I got here through hope, hustle, and help,” Oluseyi said.
As a young man, Oluseyi entertained himself by watching Jacques Cousteau on T.V. While other kids read children’s books, his favorite book was Roots by Alex Haley.
He soon caught the science bug. After returning to New Orleans, he conducted his first experiment, which he joked was pyromania.
“One day, I decided to … ask the question, how high above a candle wick can I hold a flame and ignite the wick? I independently discovered what has been known for centuries,” Oluseyi said.
He then started reading the encyclopedia from A to Z and was obsessed with Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity at the letter E.
But chaos cut that enthusiasm short. Between the ages 11 and 13, Oluseyi moved between nine different households and five different schools across three states.
In the communities, he had to embrace what he called “thug life” so as not to get intimidated by others in the community. He had to fight older kids in the community as an 11-year-old and got involved in the Crips gang.
“Lesson number one, the better way is to punch you in the face before you punch me. Even before a question starts, I should intimidate you before you intimidate me,” Oluseyi said.
Oluseyi’s mother identified that he was going in the direction of a criminal life and moved him back to rural Mississippi, which was the best thing that had ever happened to him.
In Heidelberg, Mississippi, mentors pushed Oluseyi in the direction of a science fair, which he won with the help of a second-hand RadioShack computer gifted to him by his girlfriend at the time. He self-learned Basic programming language on that computer.
“What happened is the judges said to me, young man, you have talent, and you’re way ahead of the curve; you should become a physicist,” Oluseyi said, adding that they did not realize his challenges.
He joined the U.S. Navy, where they again identified his promise. He was educated in math and was taught arithmetic to calculus in one year.
“It was there that I learned algebra, and just as we began trigonometry, that’s when I got kicked out of the Navy,” Oluseyi said.
With some help, he got into Tougaloo College and later participated in a physical chemistry research study at the University of Georgia, Athens. Oluseyi was broke, and a Tougaloo professor, Richard McGinnis, bought him a ticket. In Athens, he was given the keys to the labs so he could access them anytime.
“My jaw hit the floor,” Oluseyi said, adding, “The neighborhoods I grew up… the only thing I never received was trust. And this dude just gave me the keys to the building.”
At MIT, he met Dr. Arthur B.C. Walker, who ultimately became his PhD advisor at Stanford, where he got accepted in 1991. He went on to do groundbreaking work in astrophysics. Today, he has eight U.S. patents and four E.U. patents.
He went on to teach and do science diplomacy in Africa, Asia, Europe, and South America. He also followed his passion for promoting science through T.V. shows like Science Channel’s How the Universe Works and Outrageous Acts of Science.
The keynote also featured a surprise video from astronaut Mark Vande Hei, who from the International Space Station saluted Oluseyi as an influential mentor.
Oluseyi challenged the audience to look at people in a human context, not just by appearance or grades.
“We are wasting a lot of our human capital and potential because we judge people based on what they are capable of, not what they have inside, but how well they have been prepared up to today. Some people have been prepared the way I was, which is not very well prepared at all,” Oluseyi said.
Creating an inclusive and comfortable environment may help overcome challenges. Oluseyi has created a family and non-judgmental atmosphere with his team. But not everyone is the same person, and his focus is on effort and progress.
“Put people in a position where they feel open … where they need help. Then you are in a position to help them,” Oluseyi said.
Mentors may not be able to take on all challenges, so it is also essential for the mentees to find their “tribe” who can guide them through the struggles.
Mentoring also varies by culture and country. In some countries, access to primary education can be a challenge. For example, in some African countries, people must care for their families after getting an undergraduate degree, which changes their life goals.
“I used to say I grew up poor, but now I realize the privilege and the opportunity. I am fortunate to have been here…in many countries, my transformation could not have happened,” Oluseyi said.