news highlights

Sylvester James Gates, Jr. at ICTP

Diversity and the Mentorship of Abdus Salam

Sylvester James Gates, Jr. at ICTP
Sylvester James Gates, Jr. at ICTP

07/09/2021 - Trieste

Systems can greatly affect individuals, shaping scientific careers through access, or lack thereof, to education, jobs, or funding. But individual connections are just as important, as Sylvester James Gates, Jr. can attest. A distinguished physicist and a world-leading expert in supersymmetry, supergravity, and superstring theory, Gates points to the mentorship of ICTP Founder Abdus Salam as hugely formative and influential for him. "He was a true mentor to me," says Gates, recalling the five summers he spent as a young scientist at ICTP. "Salam set a certain direction in my life outside of studying superfields, the mathematical construction he pioneered along with John Strathdee," Gates remembers, "and it had to do with diversity."

Gates spoke about just that, with a talk on August 23 entitled "Diversity and Barriers in Science," as part of the 30th Anniversary Celebrations for the ICTP Diploma Programme. Gates is now the President of the American Physical Society and Director of the Brown Theoretical Physics Center as well as the Ford Foundation Professor of Physics & Affiliate Professor of Mathematics at Brown University in Providence, USA.

Back in 1979, he was a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard, after writing MIT’s first doctoral dissertation on supersymmetry, when he was invited to a conference at ICTP by Salam. "Salam was one of my idols," says Gates, "someone who laid the groundwork for my work." His idol invited him to lunch after his talk, and that visit proved to be the first of many, including five consecutive summers at ICTP. "That was Salam's doing," says Gates. "He was a true mentor to me."

That mentorship had career-long ripple effects for Gates. "He understood things about me that I didn't understand myself at that point," says Gates, "I think he knew that after my experiences at the rather demographically homogenous MIT, Harvard, Caltech communities in the '70s, it was important for me to see people from all over the world doing mathematical physics at its highest level, that the universe and mathematics did not erect barriers by race in physics. Salam was the first person who intellectually engaged me on the issue of diversity." The discussion on diversity proved to be ongoing thread in Gates' career, starting with finding an home institution he could thrive.

"One thing Salam said really stuck with me," Gates remembers. "He said, 'I hope that once a sufficient number of people from the African Diaspora are doing physics, something like jazz will appear,'" says Gates. "And that really stuck with me because music is a great metaphor for what diversity can do: jazz, rock and roll, ragtime, they're all the product of diverse musical traditions."  

The diversity of the people gathered each summer at ICTP helped Gates build connections and networks. One summer at ICTP, Gates met Jogesh Pati, a collaborator of Salam's on the famous Pati-Salam model. "I was offered a tenured associate professorship at the University of Maryland, through connections made in Trieste - Pati started the effort to get me appointed," remembers Gates. "It was partly thanks to discussions with Dr. Salam that I decided to leave MIT," he says. "Institutions have standards, as do I, and I believe in reciprocity- if possible I don't stay at institutions I perceive as not sharing my values. I value diversity," says Gates. "Many people thought I was making a mistake — they would call and ask "How is it 'down there'?" after I moved — but it was like dying and going to heaven. It felt like my first time at an institution that was not betting against me."

Gates built a distinguished career at the University of Maryland and then Brown University designing mathematical structures to explain how the universe works, working in supersymmetry, supergravity, and superstring theory. Besides his hundreds of scientific publications and leadership in his field, he has been featured in well over a dozen video documentaries, starred in two commercials, and narrated a ballet. He also served on U.S. President Barack Obama's President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) for eight years, was awarded the National Medal of Science in 2013, and is now the President of the American Physical Society (APS).

His impressive resume and long experience are distinctly shaping his leadership of the APS, as the organization experiences a global pandemic and takes part in the ongoing racial justice conversation. As president, his four priorities include recovery from the pandemic, financial stability for the organization, support for international science, and cultural climate change.

"APS is the only scientific organization that has a policy about policing in regards to where meetings occur," says Gates. "We were also one of the organizations that sued the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) about visa restrictions for scientists, and we were one of the first organizations to cancel conferences for safety at the start of the pandemic," says Gates. "When I talk about culture I mean culture writ large; discrimination against people of the African diaspora is only part of that. Transparency, ethics, safety all of these are issues of culture."

"Part of the basics that need to change is the awareness of the human ecology that surrounds how we do science," says Gates. He points out that often there is "a de-legitimization and re-legitimization of ideas in groups. It's a situation where only certain individuals are given permission by the group to have creative, innovative, novel and ground-breaking ideas. Often new a idea has to be stated by someone of the dominant group to be accepted."  This was the subject of a paper, The Diversity-Innovation Paradox in Science, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences during 2019. Gates jokes that as well as a theoretical physicist, he is also an amateur sociologist, observing questions of access, resources, and exchange.

For questions of expanding access, Gates wants to see more ways for people to get and stay involved in science. "I would like to see a recognition that the metrics that are usually applied to questions about admissions prevent a lot of talent from joining the conversation," says Gates. "We need to build more on-ramps, more active steps of engagement, to say to people, we welcome anyone who can do the work of our discipline."

Gates points to the fallacy that prioritizing excellence and equity are mutually exclusive, a common idea among scientists. "If you want to train a broad, talented deep community of physics, equity and excellence- the idea of performance enters there, and diversity has been proven to increase performance." At the same time, the tools often used to measure excellence are redolent with biases, leading Gates promote looking for different markers of excellence and increasing the ways people can become scientists.

"My mission is to exist on the strange border of mathematics and reality," says Gates. "I have evidence that diversity actually works through my experiences with my own research team.  Recently, we have solved a problem involving billions of unknowns that was a mystery for over four decades. The key was provided by bringing a distinct viewpoint to bear on the question." It is safe to say that Professor Gates is admirably carrying on Salam's mentoring and mission of expanding access to science: "Diversity is a force multiplier for innovation.

Watch Gates' talk at ICTP here.


------ Kelsey Calhoun