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Oral History

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Born on December 15, 1950, in Tampa, Florida, Sylvester James Gates, Jr. moved frequently at an early age while his father served in the U.S. Army. When the family settled in Parramore, a historical neighborhood for Orlando residents of African descent, Gates first attended the Hannibal Square Elementary School, then Jones High School in Orlando, where he graduated as valedictorian in 1969. With the encouragement of his father, Gates studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, earning his B.S. degrees in mathematics and physics (1973), as well as his Ph.D. in physics (1977).

An accomplished academic, Dr. Gates has had a distinguished professional career, serving as a junior fellow at Harvard University, research follow at the California Institute of Technology, assistant professor of applied mathematics at MIT, and professor of physics at the University of Maryland. In 1998, when he was named the John S. Toll Professor of Physics, Gates became the first African American physicist to hold an endowed chair at a major research university in the United States.

As an American theoretical physicist, Gates is known for his work on supersymmetry, supergravity, and superstring theory. He has written or co-authored over 200 research papers and articles. His Superspace: One Thousand and One Lessons in Supersymmetry (1984) is the first comprehensive title on supersymmetry and a standard textbook. He has received numerous honors and awards, including being the first recipient of the American Physical Society’s Edward A. Bouchet Award. In 2009, Gates was named a member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

In addition to his research, Gates is known for advocating the importance of education and being able to easily explain complex physics theories to a non-physics audience. He is a strong advocate for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education. In 2013, President Barack Obama awarded Dr. Gates the National Medal of Science for his contributions to science and research.

Dr. Gates is currently the Ford Foundation Professor of Physics at Brown University. On Thursday, April 12, 2018, he visited Rollins College and gave a public presentation in the SunTrust Auditorium titled “Why Am I a Theoretical Physicist?” During the session, Professor Gate explored the arc of his career and life’s trajectory in physics while reflecting on his family connection in Central Florida.


Sylvester James Gates, Jr.