Black History Month: Dr. Michael Williams

Feb. 22, 2022
Dr. Michael Williams

In celebration of Black History Month, Feb. 1 - Mar. 1, we recognize, Dr. Michael Williams, Application Specialist at Boston Electronics and 2021 Optica Ambassador. Dr. Williams joined us at the Wyant College on March 3rd to speak in the Wyant College Colloquium Series. You can watch his talk, "Continuing the Search for Equity: Advancing the Need for More Representation of Black Scientists in Optics and Photonics" here!

Please tell us who you are in less than 20 words.

I am a man who is surpassing societal limitations about black men and wants to be a light in the darkness.

What and/or who influenced your academic and career choice for optics/photonics?  

I have always loved science and specifically astronomy ever since I was a child. Mainly because I had learned that a fellow scientist named Guion Bluford was also from Philadelphia, where I was born and raised. You don’t necessarily hear of many well-known black scientists originating from Philly, so he was a major inspiration to me. And that he was the first African American astronaut in space, that led me to believe that the sky is not the limit as far black achievers. So, I originally wanted to follow suit in becoming an astronaut, however the science behind being in zero gravity and how it potentially affects the muscles led me to just want to major in studying space science instead, which that path led me to studying optics.

Please tell us about your career path, including your position today?

My career path started by exclusively attending historically black colleges and universities: I received a Bachelor of Science in Physics in 2009 from Morehouse College in Atlanta, GA. I then became part of the Fisk-Vanderbilt Masters-PhD Bridge Program in Nashville, TN, which has a PhD success rate for black men 75 percent higher than the national average; there I earned a Masters in Materials Science in 2012 from Fisk University. Finally, I earned a PhD in Optics from Delaware State University in 2018, where my research was the investigation of the linear, nonlinear, and fluorescent characterization of various nanodiamond suspensions using well-established characterization methods and techniques. The purpose was to determine a deeper understanding on how to engineer nanodiamonds to enhance their optical properties for lasers, biophotonics, and quantum optical applications.

During my graduate student years, I joined both SPIE and OPTICA which gave me resourceful possibilities to create my network in optics. I served on several committees promoting new leadership in optics and photonics and racial diversity and inclusion, as well as participate in the SPIE/OSA Congressional Visit by speaking to the staff of Chris Coons and Tom Carper for the state of Delaware concerning the National Photonics Initiative. Currently, I am an Applications Specialist for Boston Electronics, a photonics distribution company that enable our customers to develop and manufacture superior products and perform leading edge research by providing them with a broad range of advanced electro-optical solutions and knowledgeable application support.

During your time as a student, what resource(s) did you most appreciate? What would you have wished to be available at that time?

The Fisk/Vanderbilt Bridge Program was a huge support system for me in transitioning out of bachelors into being a graduate student because they cared about the underrepresented student holistically and not just academically. Black students have a lot of issues regarding having a sense of belonging, having a “physics identity”, wanting both academic and personal support from their graduate program and hoping to have empathetic professors/advisors. Many black students also come from impoverished neighborhoods in the inner cities, which are treated as having a “third-world environment” within the “greatest country in the world” and “the land of equal opportunity”.  These factors contribute to added concerns of mental health issues, low self-esteem and low confidence for many black people. In my experience many professors, especially those who have not grown up in America, do not understand or see that dynamic, and misunderstand these signatures as discontent or lack of motivation.

So, I wish there was a much better mentoring program for graduate students in HBCUs, more optics companies investing in HBCUs, and emphasis on mental health importance that should be taught to the PhD advisors as well.

What advice would you offer current optics students and early-career professionals?

Always bet on yourself and believe in your abilities no matter what, do not be afraid to take risks regarding the trajectory of your career, and always take a stand when you see/hear something that is morally and ethically wrong.