African-American achievers in modern science

Meet scientists who work with invisible lights, nanomachines, and robots that sing songs.

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February is Black History Month. In celebration of the contributions that African-Americans have made to science, we talked to three black scientists who are making history today with their groundbreaking work.

Determination and passion are necessary for success in science, say James McLurkin, Martin Culpepper, and Hakeem Oluseyi. As children, they had something in common: They loved to figure out how things work. These three men also had determination, as well as strong support from their families and from teachers who believed in them.

They have found success by letting their passion for knowledge and their love of discovery guide them. For these African-American scientists, making history is all in a day's work.

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James McLurkin, computer scientist

Meet James McLurkin and his 112 robots. Right now they are running loose. "They are running on my software [computer program]," Mr. McLurkin says, "but there is no good way to see why that one springs around and that group's smashing its heads into the wall."

But he's going to figure it out.

McLurkin and his team of undergraduates at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge are building a swarm viewer. That's a computer program that can get data from just one of the robots that will tell them why all the others are doing what they're doing. It's no small feat. The first two attempts failed, but McLurkin's determination and drive never do.

Always fascinated by insect behavior (he still keeps an ant farm at home), McLurkin was inspired to create computer algorithms, step-by-step problem-solving directions, to control the robots as a group.

It's much like an insect swarm, McLurkin explains. "Any robot can do the job of any other robot." Each can perform by itself, but it is also part of a group. His computer program allows the robots to work together and communicate with one another to solve problems.

They can sing the theme from "Star Wars" and sort themselves into lines. This is more complicated than you might think. Each robot has a different part to sing, and they all have to work together to determine which robot is singing what part and when they need to start singing.

To make a line, the robots have to organize themselves and figure out which one will start the line and which will end it. Next, McLurkin plans to create a marching band of robots.

"It all comes down to doing cool things with robots," McLurkin says. And, even though the work is fun, the science behind it is very advanced. It took more than four years to work out how to get the robots to sing "Star Wars." But the potential benefits would be useful. A swarm of robots sent to a rescue site after an earthquake or hurricane could help locate survivors. Robot swarms on Mars could map out the foundations of a space lab or explore the surface of the planet. The possibilities are pretty amazing.

When McLurkin was growing up, he was always taking things apart and rebuilding them. He wanted to find out how and why things worked. At college, instead of buying a car to drive, he spent his money on remote-controlled cars.

His passion for robotics has taken him to MIT and to the University of California, Berkeley. He worked as a manager at iRobot Corp., which makes mobile robots for home and commercial use. While there, he helped create the world's largest robot swarm. He is now working toward his PhD in computer science.

Like Dr. Oluseyi (page 18), McLurkin had a great deal of support from family and teachers when he was young.

To kids interested in science, his advice is: "Have fun; do the things you like. In the words of the 'famous philosopher' Nike, 'Just do it!' "

Hakeem Oluseyi, astrophysicist

Hakeem Oluseyi, astrophysicist and professor of physics at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, is currently researching the soft X-ray area of the sun's atmosphere. "This is one of the most difficult areas to work with because of the nature of this light and its interaction with matter," he explains. Soft X-ray light is extreme ultraviolet (EUV) light, part of the electromagnetic light spectrum that cannot be seen by the naked eye due to its short wavelength. Because it's at the extreme end of the light spectrum, it's very difficult to detect even with scientific instruments. Dr. Oluseyi has developed a special detector that he plans to send in a rocket to the sun. It will be able to send back new information about this region of the sun's atmosphere.

Oluseyi is also collaborating with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratoryin Berkeley, Calif., on a project called the Supernova Acceleration Probe (SNAP) mission. They plan to launch a space-based telescope in 2010. It will be able to observe thousands of supernovae a year. Supernovae are dying stars that collapse in on themselves and then explode, sending huge amounts of their material into space. He hopes this new data will shed light on the existence and makeup of "dark matter"(invisible matter).

As a child living with his single mom, "I moved every year growing up," Oluseyi says. "We didn't live in the best neighborhoods, so I'd stay inside, reading a lot." He also watched science shows on PBS. "I always thought scientists were really cool," he says. "Albert Einstein was my original inspiration. I read about Einstein and relativity, and the weirdness of it all captured my attention from [ages] 10 to 16." In high school, Oluseyi won a prize at the state science fair for his computer program that did relativity calculations.

He attended Tougaloo College, a black college in Mississippi, where he was one of only two students to major in physics. "It never occurred to me that I'd never seen a black physicist," Oluseyi says. He just always believed he could do it. He earned a PhD from Stanford University in California in 1999.

Oluseyi's advice to young people is: "Pursue your dreams without hesitation and always believe in yourself." He has been able to live his dream and now holds eight patents in the technology field.

Martin Culpepper, mechanical engineer

Even when he was a child, Marty Culpepper loved taking things apart. One of his grandparents owned a junkyard and another had a garage with a sunken area in the floor that was big enough to stand in and work on the family car above. From the time he was 4 years old, he often could be found under a car with his granddad, figuring out how it worked, or in the junkyard taking things apart.

Now Dr. Culpepper is figuring out how to make machines that build tiny things made up of moving parts as small as atoms and molecules. He calls these "super-precise machines," as they need to be able to pick up something as small as a molecule and position it precisely into place.

This is called "nanotechnology," the science of developing materials at the atomic and molecular level. Imagine a very powerful computer so tiny you can't see it without a microscope.

This may happen in the future. Now, Culpepper explains, "Scientists design computers made out of molecules, but they can't build them, so the machines we build will help them make a prototype [or model]."

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he teaches, Culpepper devised a new way of fixing large pieces of machinery, such as parts of a car engine, which need to be very precise.

His method uses self-alignment, which allows adjustments to a hundredth of a millimeter, smaller than a hair's width! Culpepper won an award for this design. He has won other awards and has been granted, as he says, "a slew of patents."

Before he entered college, Culpepper didn't know whether he liked physics or mechanical engineering more. He chose to study engineering, and now is building nanomachines with his MIT students. He says he especially likes that because "it's come full circle, and I'm getting to do physics again."

Culpepper's main advice for potential young scientists: "Know how to work with your hands; play around with stuff." He also advises them to learn the language of mathematics, saying, "It is the language of logical thought."

Parental guidance can help, too. Culpepper remembers a time when he had a pretty good job and was having fun playing basketball, so he told his dad, " I don't think I'm going to college."

His dad replied calmly, "Well, that's unfortunate, because you're going to go anyway."

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