[As a disclaimer, this is a blog post about a professional milestone that I have recently achieved, as the title indicates. This is somewhat autobiographical in nature and it involves my life as a physics professor].
In 2005, I was an aspiring applied mathematician who had finally begun to take some upper-division physics courses. After finishing courses in classical thermodynamics, classical mechanics, electromagnetism, optics, and mathematical physics, I had decided to declare physics as my second major, thinking that physics would be the field in which I would apply my mathematical background. At that time, I had no specific professional goals apart from the fact that I would like to continue my mathematics and physics education. In 2004, I joined the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship, which is a program which seeks to increase diversity in the faculty ranks at American colleges and universities. After reporting to my Physics faculty adviser, Willie Rockward, about this program, he suggested that I should consider a career as a professor. After praying about the matter and considering my disposition and abilities, I followed his advice and sought to become an academic.
This decision was made in 2005 and it has taken me to many places. In my undergraduate years, I was able to participate in two different summer research experiences at Duke University under Arlie Petters (studying gravitational lensing) and Harold Baranger (studying the mechanical properties of graphene). During my senior year at Morehouse, I was fortunate to work on independent research projects in gravitational wave physics with Paul Camp and in physical oceanography with Monica Stephens. Since I enjoyed all of the projects, I wasn’t sure whether I should pursue graduate study in applied mathematics or in physics. I eventually decided to pursue a M.S. degree in gravitational physics at the University of Texas at Brownsville (now known as University of Texas Rio Grande Valley). Although I enjoyed my graduate studies in physics and my research on the gravitational wave signals from white dwarf binaries under Matthew Benacquista, I couldn’t see myself pursuing this field for 20+ years as a research faculty.
After graduating with my M.S. in Physics, I decided to go back to my roots in examining how I can apply my applied mathematics background to physically relevant problems. Fortunately, my former undergraduate Physics adviser had a professional contact at Colorado State University and I looked into its program in atmospheric science. When I was introduced to the program, I met with Wayne Schubert and his work on atmospheric dynamics immediately caught my interest because it met the three basic criteria that I desired for research: (1) it involved classical physics (primarily fluid dynamics and thermodynamics), (2) it involved significant amounts of applied mathematics (primarily in partial differential equations and scientific computing), and (3) it was imminently practical and observable. I joined his research group as a PhD student and thoroughly enjoyed the research in the group. There were students who were examining the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), the Madden-Julian Oscillation (MJO), and tropical cyclone structure and dynamics.
In the midst of my PhD work, there were three formative influences that affected the trajectory of my academic career. During my time in Colorado, I met some wonderful Christian brothers and sisters and for the first time in my adult life, I became a member of local church. Up to this point, the focus and obsession of my life was centered on my career ambition as a professor, but my fellowship with these believers fundamentally changed how I viewed my life. From this point, I viewed myself more as a fellow member of Christ’s body, rather than a Black scientist and so this raised an important question: How should this new worldview affect my career ambition? This led me to examine the Lutheran teaching on vocation. The following passage from Marc Kolden from Luther Northwestern Theological Seminary summarized my growing conviction on this topic:
… the world is God’s good creation, not only in terms of its original coming into being but especially in terms of God’s ongoing creative work in upholding and directing all that is and in constantly doing new things. Here is where the first use of the law finds its place: it is God’s will structured into life itself and clarified in the commandments, in the teachings of Jesus, and in the words of the prophets and apostles. Just as God’s redemptive act in becoming incarnate affirms that salvation is not an escape from creation but a restoration and fulfillment of it, so also the Christian life will not be an escape from creaturely life but a calling to it. The call to follow Christ leads not to any religious vocation removed from daily life, but instead it transforms the attitude and understanding one has of the situation in which one already is. The call comes from Christ, but it locates one in a calling in the creation doing works for one’s neighbor. … “vocation” refers not only to one’s occupation but to all one’s relationships, situations, contexts, and involvements (including, of course, one’s occupation, if one is employed). It is true that Luther often speaks about specific occupations, but the purpose in doing so is not to restrict vocation to occupation but to affirm that even the most mundane stations are places in which Christians ought to live out their faith.
In relation to myself, this means that my desire to become an academic should not be centered upon myself, but it ought to be centered on how I can best love my neighbor. This ultimately affected my research decisions. Although there are many areas that are inherently fascinating within atmospheric dynamics, there was one research topic that I could focus on that enabled me to use my gifts and training and would have many implications for serving my neighbor: the dynamics of atmospheric vortices. During 2018-2019, we have seen the disastrous effects of three types of atmospheric vortices: the polar vortex that triggered the arctic outbreak in January 2019, the devastating effects of Hurricane Michael (2019), and the tornado outbreak in Cairo, GA. For this reason, my PhD dissertation focused on tropical cyclone dynamics and the effects of vertical shear on tropical cyclone dynamics.
The second formative influence that affected the trajectory of my academic career was my family. I married my wife on June 4th, 2011, and shortly thereafter, we discovered that my wife was pregnant. In thinking about the idea of vocation, marriage is perhaps the most natural calling that a person can have and thus, it is a matter that should not be treated lightly. There are many academic articles that detail the struggles of being married as an academic and the struggles of marrying an academic. In the decision to marry my wife, I also made the decision that I would not treat my family as a secondary attachment to my academic life. For this reason, I decided to pursue an academic career at a teaching-oriented institution, rather than a research intensive institution. This was a decision that required substantial prayer and trust in God’s promises, namely that He will providentially provide for my family as I seek to love Him and to seek His kingdom. After applying for over 60 academic institutions and spending one year at the University of Louisiana-Monroe, I was eventually hired at the College of Charleston.
The third formative influence that affected the trajectory of my academic career was the reality of American education. While I was a graduate student at Colorado State University, I became interested in education pedagogy and other various trends in modern education. This led me to take a course in education pedagogy and what I learned greatly troubled me. I noticed that academic standards across the board were plummeting and that relatively untested teaching methods were being introduced into college and high school education. This eventually led to me to study various theories of education during my last year as a PhD student. I view it with a sense of irony today that I now teach in a state that is 50th in public education and openly admits that its public education is below “minimally adequate”. One of the ways in which I can serve my fellow neighbor is to focus upon higher educational standards at the college level and advocate for these standards at the secondary level.
With these three influences, I’ve often wondered whether or not I would become a tenured professor. It has not been easy; there has been much pushback regarding the academic rigor that I demand from my students and the culture of academic excellence in which I have openly advocated. However, after 14 years of pursuing the path of an academic, I’ve learned this week that I have received tenure and promotion at my institution. There are many people who have shaped my academic mind over the past 14 years and I owe them a great deal of gratitude in investing in me. There have been many individuals who have prayed for my spiritual and mental health over these past several years. However, most of all, I’m grateful for God’s kindness towards me. I am the recipient of many gifts and privileges that my parents never had because of His kindness towards me. I can confess with Jacob that God has been my shepherd all my life long to this day. He has given me a godly wife, wonderful children, a loving church family with godly elders, and innumerable other blessings. While it was great to accomplish a professional goal that has been 14 years in the making, I’m much more grateful for the God who truly cares for His people.
In thinking about my life as a 20 year old until now, I think that ended this blog with Psalm 65 is suitable:
Praise is due to you, O God, in Zion, and to You shall vows be performed.
O You who hear prayer, to You shall all flesh come.
When iniquities prevail against me, You atone for our transgressions.
Blessed is the one You choose and bring near, to dwell in Your courts!
We shall be satisfied with the goodness of Your house, the holiness of Your temple!
By awesome deeds You answer us with righteousness, O God of our salvation,
The hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas;
The one who by His strength established the mountains, being girded with might;
Who stills the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves, the tumult of the peoples,
So that those who dwell at the ends of the earth are in awe at Your signs.
You make the going out of the morning and the evening to shout for joy.
You visit the earth and water it; You greatly enrich it;
The river of God is full of water; You provide their grain, for so you have prepared it.
You water its furrows abundantly, settling its ridges, softening it with showers, and blessing its growth.
You crown the year with Your bounty; Your wagon tracks overflow with abundance.
The pastures of the wilderness overflow, the hills gird themselves with joy,
The meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain,
They shout and sing together for joy.