Research physicist Sekazi Mtingwa, the first African-American to win the American Physical Society’s Robert R. Wilson Prize for Achievement in the Physics of Particle Accelerators, has a history of helping others overcome obstacles in science.
Mtingwa, who was born in Georgia as Michael Von Sawyer, says his elementary school classmates joked that “I would be like the German scientists in the white lab coats that we saw in our schoolbooks who were named ‘Von this’ or ‘Von that,’” he says.
Growing up as the son of a Lockheed assembly line worker and a licensed practical nurse, Mtingwa attended segregated schools until the 10th grade. That same year, the Georgia State Science Fair was integrated—and his project won first place in biology. Among his prizes were books on science, mathematics, and engineering. “Three of them were introductions to Einstein’s theory of special relativity, which were so captivating that I decided that physics was the thing for me,” he recalls.
Mtingwa earned bachelor’s degrees in both physics and math from MIT and master’s and PhD degrees in theoretical high-energy physics from Princeton. As a grad student, he changed his name to a phrase in Bondei, a Tanzanian language: Sekazi (male hard worker) Kauze (inquisitive) Mtingwa (literally “breastbone,” but the word refers to someone who can overcome many problems).
He held a research post at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, where he and a colleague developed a theory of particle beam dynamics, “intrabeam scattering,” that standardized the performance limitations on a wide class of modern accelerators. He also worked at the Argonne National Laboratory and held faculty positions at North Carolina A&T State University and Morgan State University before serving at MIT as the Martin Luther King Jr. Visiting Professor of Physics from 2001 to 2003. In 2006, he returned to MIT as lead physics lecturer in the Concourse Program and faculty director of academic programs in the Office of Minority Education.
“The most important thing I learned at MIT was the value of mentoring, both as mentee and mentor,” says Mtingwa, who helped found Project Interphase (now Interphase EDGE), a summer program that prepares incoming MIT students.
He also helped establish the National Society of Black Physicists, the African Physical Society, and the African Laser Centre, which is based in South Africa. In 2011, he and his wife, W. Estella Johnson, who have two daughters, cofounded Triangle Science, Education & Economic Development, a consulting company in North Carolina that supports underrepresented minorities in STEM fields.