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Gates, Sylvester James (1950- )


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The theoretical physicist Sylvester James Gates, known for his work in supersymmetry, string theory, superconformal algebra, Adinkra symbols, and bihermitian manifolds, was born on December 15, 1950 in Tampa, Florida. Dr. Gates has three siblings: two younger brothers, and one younger sister. Sylvester James Gates Sr., Dr. Gates’ father, worked as a career military man for the United States Army for 24 years.  Following this, Gates Sr. worked for the postal service and as a union organizer. Consequently, due to Dr. Gates’ father’s job, his family was forced to move often, resulting in Gates having lived in six different cities by the time he had reached the 6th grade.

At the age of 11, Gates’ mother, Charlie Engels Gates, died of cancer. Later when his father remarried, Gates’ new stepmother, a teacher, helped provide books for Gates to read and thus supplement the education he received in public schools.

Gates’ family moved to Orlando, Florida once Gates was ready to attend the 11th grade. High school was the first segregated school Gates had attended. Gates, having started a chess club at his school with a friend, commented on the quality of the predominantly white high schools they would visit for matches, pointing out their superiority to the African American high schools. “It’d be an amazing experience because you’d see audio-visual equipment that we had no dreams of having, swimming pools, tennis courts—things that were just unimaginable. So I understood pretty quickly that the cards were really stacked against us [blacks].”

Despite this, following high school, Gates in 1969 was accepted into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), one of the most prestigious universities in the country. In 1973, Gates graduated from MIT with a Bachelor’s of Science in Physics and Mathematics. Then, in 1977, he received his Ph.D. from MIT in Physics. From 1981 to 1982, Dr. Gates worked as a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow. Then from 1982 to 1984, he was an assistant professor of applied mathematics at MIT. In 1984, at the age of 33, Dr. Gates was promoted to Professor of Physics, a position he held for the next four years before taking an appointment at the University of Maryland, College Park.  In 1991, Dr. Gates left University of Maryland at College Park, to become a professor and physics department chair at Howard University.

To this day, Gates has published a total of more than 120 research articles, written one book, and edited two others. Additionally, Gates has won numerous accolades during his time in the academic world such as: Martin Luther King Award, 21st Century Initiative Award, National Technical Achiever of the Year Award, Physicist of the Year Award, Outstanding Minority Teacher Award, and National Medal of Science.  He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2013 and served on President Barack Obama’s Counsel of Advisors on Science and Technology since 2010.

Emily J. McMurray, Notable Twentieth Century Scientists (Gale Research, 1995); Boyce Rensberger “Superstrings,” The Washington Post, December 11, 1996.


University of Washington, Seattle

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