The Sunday Magazine·Q&A

Hakeem Oluseyi's journey from living in poverty to becoming one of America's only Black research physicists

Astrophysicist and cosmologist Hakeem Oluseyi's new memoir is called A Quantum Life: My Unlikely Journey From the Street to the Stars. It tells the story of Oluseyi's journey from poverty and addiction to the upper ranks of astrophysics.

Oluseyi’s new memoir explores his early years in tough neighbourhoods and his rise through academia

Hakeem Oluseyi is a professor at the Florida Institute of Technology and a frequent contributor to the Discovery Channel as well as National Geographic. (Freddie Claire, Ballatine Books )

As a kid, Hakeem Oluseyi showed the promise of any budding scientist. 

He made sense of the world by asking questions, and by taking things apart and putting them back together again. 

Today, Oluseyi is a world renowned astrophysicist and cosmologist — one of only a few Black Americans in the world's top tier of research physics. But it wasn't a smooth journey to get there.

Right at the end of that process, between the ages of 11 and 13, I had lived in nine different households and attended five different schools in three states.- Hakeem Oluseyi

He attended more than a dozen different schools before he reached high school in some of the toughest neighbourhoods in the U.S. Despite help and advice from his mother, who he credited as one of "two positive intellectual forces" in his life, his family also had ties to gangs, bootlegging and a marijuana operation.

Oluseyi spoke with The Sunday Magazine's guest host David Common about his new book A Quantum Life: My Unlikely Journey From the Street to the Stars, which is co-authored by Joshua Horwitz. Here is part of their conversation.

I want to take you back to when you're four years old, because this is where your book begins: in New Orleans in 1971. Your world is about to change. What happens? 

My parents divorce and we leave. I had one sibling with my mother. My father married multiple times and I have other siblings. But my mother packed the two of us up and we headed west and we didn't stop moving for a decade. 

I moved every year, and sometimes it was multiple times a year. And right at the end of that process, between the ages of 11 and 13, I had lived in nine different households and attended five different schools in three states.

What does that do to craft you mould you into who you've become? 

The people around me crafted me, and luckily there were two positive intellectual forces in my immediate environment. One was my mother, who was a reader. She loved to read and she always had a book in her hand and she loved doing crossword puzzles so she would buy these daily crossword puzzle books. 

Now, she had a best friend [who] had seven kids. The youngest is a guy named Darin Brown. He's two years older than me. Darin went on to become a naval officer and the highest ranking African-American in a Navy submarine fleet. Darren had an intellectual identity. Those two forces were the forces that led to me developing an identity as a smart kid. But, also engaged with me in reading and logic problems and these sorts of things. 

Oluseyi obtained masters and doctorate degrees from the prestigious Stanford University in California, U.S. (Noah Berger/Reuters)

You end up being the first person in your family to graduate high school.

Yeah, that's right. So my father dropped out of high school, and his parents and the generations before him did not graduate. 

My mother dropped out of high school. She was 16 and pregnant with my older sister, just like her mother and just like my sister. My sister, Bridgette, also got pregnant at 16 and dropped out of high school. 

And so I was the first one in my immediate family, in my lineage, to not only graduate high school, but to go beyond and get a university degree and then [postgraduate] degrees. 

But it came with a lot more speed bumps in life. You've talked about homelessness … and there was also addiction. 

Once I left home for the military, I was like, "I'm never going back home again. I'm not going to go and be a burden on my family." We literally live in a trailer in the woods. I'm not going back to being a burden. So I'd rather be homeless: couch surfing, breaking into the dorms. 

But basically what ended up happening was I told my roommate about my father's business, and he suggests that we get engaged in that business. And my father had made that offer to me, and so we did.

My father's business was marijuana. But every time we went down there to make pickups, they had a little mountain of cocaine on the table that they were cooking into rock form and smoking...

It was 1986. No one knew yet what a horrible, horrible monster this was. People would encourage me to participate. For a year and a half I did not. I watched it happen around me and I turned it down until I did. And, you know, I went down that hole like everyone else, and I went in hard and heavy. 

I decided I wanted to live, and quit, and came out of it and did really well academically in 1989 and most of 1990. But then, I relapsed in 1990 — relapsed hard...

When I get to Stanford, I participated again in 1992 and ... I'm not able to get the demon out of my mind for another five years, really. It wasn't until around 1997 that I say that I regained my innocence. 

Your journey to the stars really took shape when you landed at Stanford and you meet your life's great mentor who features in this book so prominently: Art Walker.

He was one of the first three African Americans to go into astronomy as a career in the United States. He got his degree in the 1960s. So Art was a consummate gentleman. His father and grandfather were both attorneys. His mother made sure he got the best education possible. He went to the Bronx School of Math and Science. 

He started by being in the military. He went to the Air Force first as a second lieutenant, and got into space research. But he taught me another way of being, and he taught me how to be a scholar and a gentleman, a true rigorous scholar. 

Just living next to him every day  by living, I mean in the lab and the office space   right there together, 8, 10 hours a day, week after week, month after month. Just being by his side taught me who I could be. 

It's not about race for me. It's about justice.- Hakeem Oluseyi

Do you feel a responsibility to influence young people and particularly young people from racialized backgrounds in the ways that Art did for you? 

It's not just racialized for me. It's about [the] underprivileged. 

For example, this one guy showed up. He's a white guy. He's from Moncks Corner, South Carolina. This kid was a little older than the average graduate student. He had lived a bit of life. And on paper, he wasn't the most impressive student. The professors he wanted to do research with did not want him. 

He came to me because I was the next best option as far as the research he was interested in. And next thing I know, we're talking about hunting and fishing, and all this stuff that I grew up doing. I couldn't believe there was another one. 

This guy, he published more scientific publications than any other graduate student by far ... Now he's another Art Walker, helping people to achieve their dreams. 

I do it in America, [and] I do it around the world. I'm trying to help everybody who's trying to help themselves. 

If they're trying to do it through education in the sciences, I got you. It's not about race for me. It's about justice. 

Written by Oliver Thompson. Interview produced by Jessica Linzey. Q&A edited for length and clarity.