Dr. Hakeem Oluseyi: From “Gangster Nerd” to Astrophysicist

Astrophysicist Dr. Hakeem Oluseyi joins our partners at MetroFocus to talk about his memoir “A Quantum Life:  My Unlikely Journey from the Street to the Stars.” Dr. Oluseyi shares his story of beating the odds, confronting his personal demons, and dealing with the racism and classism he has encountered in his career.

TRANSCRIPT

> SO, HOW DOES A BLACK CHILD BROUGHT UP IN SOME OF THE TOUGHEST AND MOST IMPOVERISHED URBAN NEIGHBORHOODS IN THE COUNTRY RISE THROUGH ACADEMIA TO BE AN ASTROPHYSICIST?

THAT’S THE LIFE STORY OF A WORLD RENOWNED SCIENTIST AND PROFESSOR WHO OVERCAME SEEMINGLY INSURMOUNTABLE ODDS TO BE WHERE HE IS TODAY.

IT’S A STORY OF DREAMING BIG AND ALSO THE MAGIC OF SCIENCE.

HE KRIEBS THAT JOURNEY IN HIS MEMOIR ENTITLED’ A QUANTUM LIFE, MY UNLIKELY JOURNEY FROM THE STREET TO THE STARS’. HE JOINS US NOW TO TALK ABOUT IT.

DOCTOR, WELCOME.

THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR SPENDING TIME WITH US.

THANK YOU FOR HAVING ME.

LET ME ASK YOU ABOUT THAT JOURNEY.

AND THEN I WANT TO TALK ABOUT SOME OF THE MESSAGES IN THE BOOK.

AND AGAIN, IT’S A MARVELOUS BOOK.

IT’S JUST SUCH A — IT’S A WONDERFUL, COMPELLING READ.

AN INSPIRATION, CERTAINLY.

SO OFTEN TIMES, SPEAKING OF INSPIRATIONAL, WE’LL HEAR ADVICE GIVEN TO YOUNG PEOPLE THAT SAYS, YOU CAN GET THERE FROM HERE IF YOU REALLY WANT TO.

BUT I GOT TO TELL YOU, YOU LOOK AT YOUR STORY AND LOOK WHERE YOU GOT TO, AND AGAIN, THE HIGHEST LEVEL, WORLD RENOWNED SCIENTIST.

BUT THEN YOU LOOK AT WHERE YOU CAME FROM, AND YOUR FIRST REACTION HAS TO BE, HOW UNLIKELY IS THAT JOURNEY?

LET ME ASK YOU TO GIVE US A SENSE OF CONTEXT FOR THE CONVERSATION.

GIVE US A SYNOPSIS OF LITERALLY WHERE YOU CAME FROM AS A CHILD AND ADOLESCENT.

I GUESS WHEN’S SO UNUSUAL IS I MADE IT THROUGH ACADEMIA AND THERE WAS ZERO ACADEMIC HISTORY IN MY FAMILY.

MY FATHER DROPPED OUT OF SCHOOL WHEN HE WAS 9 YEARS OLD.

HE WAS WORN IN RURAL MISSISSIPPI IN 1933.

MY MOTHER DROPPED OUT OF SCHOOL WHEN SHE WAS 16 YEARS OLD, PREGNANT WITH MY OLDER SISTER.

MY MOTHER’S MOTHER ALSO DROPPED OUT OF SCHOOL 16 PREGNANT AND SO DID MY OLDER SISTER BRIDGET.

SO NOT ONLY WAS I THE FIRST PERSON IN MY FAMILY TO GET AN ADVANCED DEGREE, I WAS THE FIRST ONE IN MY IMMEDIATE LINEAGE TO GRADUATE HIGH SCHOOL.

ON TOP OF THAT, YOU KNOW, MY FAMILY WAS SOMEWHAT INVOLVE IN THE CRIME.

ON MY MOTHER’S SIDE, HER FAMILY HAD IMMIGRATED FROM NEW ORLEANS TO LOS ANGELES, AND IN MY GENERATION — I WAS ONE OF THE YOUNGEST.

MY OLDER FIRST COUSINS WERE ALL MEMBER OF A NEWLY A MERGING SOCIAL CLUB IN LOS ANGELES CALLED THE CRIPS.

MY FATHER’S SIDE, THEY WERE FARMERS, HUNTERS, BOOTLEGGERS AND, MY FATHER LOOK IT TO THE NEXT LEVEL BECOMING A LARGE IMPORTER AND WHOLESALER OF MARIJUANA.

MY FATHER INCORPORATED ME INTO HIS BUSINESSES FROM THE AGE OF 9.

YOU TALK ABOUT HOW OFTEN YOU MOVE.

CONSTANTLY PACKING UP, GETTING INTO THE RED MAVERICK, YOU DESCRIBE.

YEAH.

AND DIFFERENT PLACES AND STARTING AGAIN.

YEAH.

AND YOU MENTION THE INVOLVEMENT IN THE WORLD OF CRIME.

AND THE TERM USED IN THE BOOK ABOUT BEING A GANGSTER NERD.

I DON’T KNOW IF I’VE EVER SEEN THOSE TERMS JUXTAPOSED.

TALK ABOUT YOU AS A CHILD, AS AN ADOLESCENT, AS A GANGSTER NERD.

YOU KNOW, I LOOKED AT MY LIFE WITH MY FAMILY AND MY COMMUNITY, I CALLED IT CRIME SCHOOL.

EVERY FAMILY WASN’T LIKE MY FAMILY.

WE WERE SORT OF OUTLIERS IN THAT WAY.

BUT THEN I ALSO FELL IN LOVE WITH BOOKS.

SO ONE OF THE THINGS THAT HAPPENED TO ME, I DID MOVE EVERY YEAR FROM THE AGE OF 4 TO RIGHT BEFORE I TURNED 14, AND YOU KNOW, I WOULD LIVE WITH OTHER PEOPLE.

MY MOTHER WOULD LEAVE ME WITH OTHER PEOPLE TO LIVE, SO IN THE LAST 16 MONTHS OF THAT.

THE PERIOD I LIVED WITH NINE FAMILIES AND ATTENDED THREE SCHOOLS ACROSS FIVE STATES.

SOUTH CENTRAL LOS ANGELES, HOUSTON THIRD WARD, NEW ORLEANS EAST, NEW ORLEANS THIRD WARD, AND ULTIMATELY MISSISSIPPI.

I LEARNED HUMANS WERE DANGEROUS.

INSTEAD OF BONDING WITH HUMANS, I BONDED WITH BOOKS.

MY MOTHER WAS AN AVID READER.

AS A CHILD, YOU DO WHAT YOUR PARENTS DO, NOT WHAT THEY SAY.

MY MOM ALWAYS HAD A BOOK, SO I ALWAYS ENDED UP HAVING A BOOK.

I FOUND MYSELF IN BOOKS.

THERE’S A MOMENT, A STORY YOU TELL IN THE BOOK, AND SO MANY OF THEM ARE SO GRIPPING BUT THIS ONE IS ESPECIALLY GRIPPING TO ME.

AGAIN, IT’S YOUR EMERGENCE AS SOMEONE WHO IS FINDING A LIFE IN BOOKS BUT IS ALSO LIVING A LIFE ON THE MARGINS, AND MAYBE OTHER SIDE OF THE MARGINS.

YOU TELL THIS STORY ABOUT BEING IN HIGH SCHOOL AND YOUR HIGH SCHOOL GET AS NEW COMPUTER.

AND YOU’RE MEETING WITH THE SCIENCE TEACHERS, HAVE THEY HAVE NO IDEA HOW TO WORK THIS.

YOU’RE THE ONE THAT TAKES IT OUT OF THE BOX.

YOU’RE TALKING TO ONE ABOUT THE SCIENCE FAIR YOU WANT TO DO.

AND THE DESCRIPTION OF WHAT THE PROJECT IS — I’M A HISTORY MAJOR/LAWYER/JOURNALIST AND I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT YOU’RE SAYING.

NOR DID THEY, WHICH I THINK IS FASCINATING.

THE ONE GOES, WE’RE NOT GOING TO LET HIM TAKE THE COMPUTER HOME.

HE’S SELLING WEED ON THE HIGH SCHOOL CAMPUS.

TELL ME ABOUT THAT AND HOW THAT’S SYMBOLIC OF THAT PERIOD OF YOUR LIFE.

I WAS REALLY LUCKY.

I THINK WHAT’S SYMBOLIC IN MY LIFE — I ALWAYS SAY I GOT BY ON HELP, HUES AND HOPE.

THE HELP SIDE DIDN’T ALWAYS LOOK LIKE HELP.

IT WAS A COINCIDENCE WHERE SOMEONE POPS INTO MY LIFE AND LEADING ME TO THE NEXT LEVEL.

BACK WHEN I WAS IN HIGH SCHOOL I HAD A GIRLFRIEND NAMED ANITA PAGE.

HER MOTHER WAS A TEACHER AND, THEY BOUGHT HER A COMPUTER FOR CHRISTMAS WHEN WE WERE LIKE 16.

IN THE COUNTRY YOU DO WHAT’S CALLED COURTING, RIGHT?

YOU DON’T DATE.

YOU GO TO THE GIRL’S HOUSE ON SUNDAY, SIT THERE ON THE COUCH, OPPOSITE ENDS.

THE FAMILY WATCHES YOU FOR THREE OR FOUR HOURS AND THEN YOU GO HOME.

I’M THINKING, WHY AM I SITTING WITH YOU WHEN YOU HAVE THAT COMPUTER OVER THERE?

LET ME LEARN HOW TO COMPUTER.

LET’S COURT THE COMPUTER HERE.

THAT’S RIGHT.

IT CAME WITH A LITTLE BOOKLET THAT TAUGHT YOU A BIT ABOUT THE PROGRAMMING LANGUAGE BASIC.

I TAUGHT MYSELF THIS PROGRAMMING LANGUAGE, AND LO AND BEHOLD, WHAT HAPPENS?

OUR SCHOOL GETS A GIFT OF IBM COMPUTERS, 5150, AND NO ONE HAD ANY IDEA WHAT TO DO WITH THEM.

I’M LIKE, HEY, LET ME HAVE A CRACK AT IT.

I WAS ALSO A HIGH SCHOOL MUSICIAN, AND LUCKILY THE BAND DIRECTOR IDENTIFIED ME AS A TALENTED STUDENT.

I WOULD GO TO THE COMPETITIONS, AND HE ALLOWED ME TO TAKE THE UPRIGHT BASS HOME WITH ME.

I COULD CONVINCE THE SCIENCE TEACHER, MR. CROSS LET ME TAKE THE BASS HOME.

GIVE ME THE COMPUTER, AND I’M GOING TO PUT US ON THIS MAP.

IT TOOK CONVINCING BUT I HAD THE SUPPORT OF THE PRINCIPAL, THE VICE PRINCIPAL AND OUR LEADING SCIENCE TEACHER MR. BARBER.

AND THEY ALLOWED ME TO DO IT.

SO WHAT HAPPENS IS, AGAIN, IT’S A HUGE CONVINCE DEN.

THESE PROFESSORS FROM THE UNIVERSITY OF SOUTHERN MISSISSIPPI ARE DOING OUTREACH.

THEY WANT TO HELP THE KIDS THAT NEED HELP.

I LIVE IN A COMPLETELY SEGREGATED SCHOOL SYSTEM.

THERE WAS HIDELBERG HIGH SCHOOL, MY PUBLIC SCHOOL, A MILE DOWN THE ROAD FROM THE PRIVATE ALL-WHITE HIDELBERG ACADEMY.

SO OUR SCHOOL WAS ACADEMICALLY CHALLENGED.

THE AVERAGE A.C.T. SCORE IN MY CLASS WAS SEVEN.

NATIONALLY IT’S LIKE 15 OR 16.

SEVERAL PEOPLE IN MY CLASS BROKE THE RECORD.

COINCIDENTALLY, I HAD THE HIGHEST SCORE UNTIL MY YOUNGER COUSIN BROKE IT A FEW YEARS AGO.

BUT ANY WAY, THE IDEA HERE IS THAT I’M BEING A — SIMULTANEOUSLY I’M BEING A GANGSTER AND A NERD.

BECAUSE AT THE END OF THAT TIME PERIOD WHEN I’M OUT THERE ON MY OWN, I LEARN IT’S BETTER FOR YOU TO PUNCH ME IN THE FACE THAN YOU TO PUNCH ME IN THE FACE, BETTER FOR ME TO INTIMIDATE YOU THAN YOU TO INTIMIDATE ME.

BY THE TIME I’M GOING A SCIENCE FAIR, I’M CARRYING MY OWN GUN.

I GOT MY OWN BUSINESS.

I WAS BEING PULLED IN TWO DIFFERENT DIRECTIONS.

YOU TALK ABOUT A COUPLE THINGS IN THIS THAT ARE SO VERY MOVING AND COMPELLING.

YOU MENTION THE COINCIDENCE OF PEOPLE.

AND YOU HAD A MARVELOUS PROFESSOR WHEN YOU GOT TO STANFORD GRADUATE SCHOOL THAT YOU TALK ABOUT.

YOU TALK ABOUT THE IMPORTANCE OF RESILIENCE.

OH, YEAH.

WHAT DO YOU SAY TO YOUNG PEOPLE WHO WILL LISTEN TO YOUR STORY AND SAY, OH, MY.

AND YOU SAY, LET ME TELL YOU ABOUT RESILIENCE?

WHAT DO YOU SAY TO THEM?

THAT’S ONE OF THE REASONS WHY I WROTE THIS BOOK.

LIKE, YOU THINK YOUR LIFE IS MESSED UP, LET ME SHOW YOU WHAT IT TOOK FOR ME TO GET HERE.

BECAUSE PEOPLE — YOU KNOW, I HAVE BEEN ON BOTH SIDES OF THIS EQUATION, AND WHEN YOU LOOK AT FROM MY PERSPECTIVE PEOPLE WITH, LIKE, FOR EXAMPLE, WHEN I WAS COMPLETING HIGH SCHOOL, I HAD NO IDEA WHAT COLLEGE WAS ABOUT.

I KNEW YOU WENT TO COLLEGE TO BECOME A DOCTOR, LAWYER, TEACHER OR ENGINEER.

I HAD NO IDEA WHAT AN ENGINEER WAS.

BEING AN ATTORNEY SOUNDED AWFUL, RIGHT, BECAUSE THERE’S SO MUCH NEGATIVE PRESS ABOUT LAWYERS.

AND IT SOUNDS KIND OF BORING TO MY SCIENTIFIC MIND.

BEING A MEDICAL DOCTOR FROM MY PERSPECTIVE AT THIS TIME IT WAS LIKE BECOMING PRESIDENT, RIGHT?

IT’S POSSIBLE, BUT HIGHLY UNLIKELY FOR ME, RIGHT?

AND YOU KNOW, BEING A TEACHER SOUND LIKE, OKAY, I DON’T WANT TO DO THAT.

I SEE THE TEACHERS AND ME.

THAT’S NOT WHAT I WANT TO DO.

SO I DIDN’T SEE A PLACE FOR MYSELF.

I THINK THAT’S THE THING — IDENTITY IS SUCH A FACTOR IN DETERMINING WHAT PEOPLE WANT TO DO AND WHAT THEY WANT TO BECOME, SO THE FIRST THING IS JUST TO LET YOU KNOW, LOOK, YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE RICH, YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE FROM A CERTAIN COMMUNITY, YOU DON’T HAVE TO HAVE A HISTORY IN YOUR FAMILY, AND CHANCES ARE YOU HAVE BEEN PSYCHED OUT THINKING THIS AIN’T FOR YOU WHEN IT REALLY IS.

SO WHEN I TALK TO STUDENTS I ATTACK IDENTITY, BECAUSE THAT IS THE REALLY INSIDIOUS THING.

IF YOU LOOK AT MY STORY, A LOT OF WHAT I DID THAT WAS NEGATIVE FOR ME, I WAS ACTING OUT WHAT I THOUGHT THE WORLD WAS TELLING ME, THIS IS WHO YOU ARE, THIS IS WHAT YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO DO.

IN A SENSE OF, HERE’S WHERE YOU’RE COMING FROM, AND YOU TALK ABOUT ARC HERE’S THE COLOR OF YOUR SKIN.

ABSOLUTELY.

THIS IS WHAT YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO BE.

YEAH.

I’VE GOT ABOUT THREE MINUTES LEFT, SO I WANT TO GET TWO THINGS QUICKLY TO YOU, AND ONE IS THE POWER OF MENTORS, PEOPLE WHO SAY, I SEE SOMETHING IN YOU.

TELL US YOUR LIFE.

ABSOLUTELY.

AT EVERY STAGE IT HAPPENED FOR ME.

MY NAVY RECRUITER TO MY PEOPLE IN HIGH SCHOOL TO PROFESSOR McGINNIS AND BRUNO AND TEAL AT TUPELO COLLEGE.

YOU WANT THE HEAR HARD CORE MENTORING?

MY FIRST TWO SUMMERS IN COLLEGE I WAS HOMELESS.

THE SECOND SUMMER I’M SLEEPING IN A DORM ON A BARE MATTRESS.

I WOULD BREAK IN TO SLEEP THERE.

MY CLASSMATE TELLS ME I HAVE BEEN ACCEPTED TO THE SUMMER RESEARCH PROGRAM TO THE UNIVERSITY OF GEORGIA THAT I DID NOT APPLY FOR.

I CONTACT MY CHEMISTRY PROFESSOR, AND HE SAYS, YEAH, I RECOMMENDED YOU FOR THIS PROGRAM.

THEY GOT THEIR GRANT LATE IN THE YEAR, DIDN’T HAVE TIME TO RECRUIT.

I SAID, THANK YOU, BUT I DON’T HAVE ANY MONEY TO GET TO ATHENS GEORGIA.

DOESN’T MATTER.

HE WENT IN HIS POCKET AND PURCHASED MY TICKETS TO THE UNIVERSITY OF GEORGIA WHERE I WAS INTRODUCED TO SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH FOR THE FIRST TIME, AND THERE THE PROFESSOR BLEW ME AWAY AGAIN, BECAUSE I WAS JUDGED BASE ON THE MERIT OF MY WORK.

THEY TREATED ME WITH TRUST.

THESE ARE THINGS THAT HAD NEVER HAPPENED TO ME BEFORE, RIGHT?

SO I WAS, LIKE, RESEARCH IS THE PLACE FOR ME.

THEN I GO TO STANFORD UNIVERSITY, AND LO AND BEHOLD, THERE WAS A PERCENTAGE OF THE FACULTY THAT WAS LIKE, WHO LET THIS KID IN HERE?

YOU WOULD THINK A KID RAISED THE WAY I DID WOULD BE LIKE — NO, SOME PEOPLE THERE’S HIERARCHY.

THEY WERE LIKE, HE’S NOT ONE OF US.

I WAS ROUGH.

I WAS ROUGH.

I WAS UNDEREDUCATED.

BUT I ALSO HAD THIS STRONG WILL.

I COULDN’T BE STOPPED, AND I HAD A STRONG MENTOR.

YOU AND I COULD TALK FOR A DAY ABOUT ALL THIS.

BUT I JUST WANT TO SAY IT’S ‘A QUANTUM LIFE, MY UNLIKELY JOURNEY FROM THE STREET TO THE STARS’. DOCTOR, YOU ARE PROOF THAT YOU CAN INDEED GET THERE FROM HERE.

WITH HELP.

WITH HELP.

WITH HELP.

AND THE RIGHT ATTITUDE.

THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR JOINING US.

REALLY APPRECIATE IT.

LOOK FORWARD TO TALKING TO YOU ONCE MORE.

THANK YOU, SIR.

YOU BE WELL.

TAKE CARE NOW.

YOU AS WELL.