Sylvester James Gates Jr. looks back at his career during the 2021 MIT Compton Lecture

Sylvester James Gates Jr.’s resumé is impressive. He graduated from MIT with two degrees in Mathematics and Physics and completed his PhD four years later (it was on supersymmetry which was the first doctoral thesis on it at the institute). He’s since become an expert on fields within theoretical physics, including supersymmetry, supergravity, and superstring theory. He also served on President Barack Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology in 2009.

Fast forward to 2021 and in September, Gates delivered the MIT Compton Lecture where he discussed his professional journey and his experiences with racism.

In looking back at his career, Gates credited MIT as his “intellectual birthing ground,” where he earned two undergraduate degrees, in math and physics, and a PhD in physics.

“There is a saying that you can’t go home again. And yet today I must admit, I’ve been overwhelmed by the feeling of returning home,” Gates said.

In fact, his path to MIT started at home. When he was a child, he remembers his father asking him and his three younger siblings a question: What college do you plan to attend? His father had spent his own childhood on a sugarcane farm, then worked in the U.S. army for 27 years, never having had the opportunity to attend college himself.

“But he had an iron faith that education was the way to make progress for our family,” Gates said.

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