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USA Science & Engineering Festival – Role Models in Science & Engineering Achievement

Ronald Mickens

Ronald Mickens -- Research Physicist and Mathematician

A leading authority on oscillations (repetitive, vibrating motions that occur in cycles) and in developing mathematical models for predicting the spread of disease. He is also a recognized expert on the history of the contributions of African Americans to science and mathematics

Although he is now a respected researcher and educator, Ronald Mickens can remember as a child being constantly in trouble at home because of his curious, active mind for dangerous scientific experiments. This includes conducting experiments with caustic chemicals he discovered under the kitchen sink and in the tool shed, and setting the curtains on fire while investigating the workings of the family fireplace.

"Even at two or three years of age, I was curious about the 'workings' of the universe and of the human mind," says Ron, who was born in Petersburg, Virginia, where his maternal grandfather (who was highly educated and interested in the sciences and math), encouraged his curiosity and introduced him to a scientific way of looking at things.

"I grew up inn the late 1940s and 50s," says Ron with a laugh, "when there wasn't much distraction in the form of technology like the internet. When we had no radio and air conditioning, there wasn't much to do besides look up at the stars and the clouds." His grandfather knew a lot of the constellations, and readily pointed them out to Ron.

By the time he was eight years old, Ron knew he wanted to become a scientist. He attended Peabody High School in Petersburg where he took algebra, plane and solid geometry, chemistry, biology, and physics. Because he took courses during the summer, Ron graduated early at the age of seventeen.

After high school, he entered Fisk University with a full scholarship where he studied chemistry, mathematics and physics. He graduated in 1964 with his B.A. degree in physics and one of the highest academic averages in the history of the school. Ronald immediately enrolled in a graduate program at Vanderbilt University where, in 1968, he received his Ph.D. in theoretical physics. In addition, he won a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, a Dansworth Fellowship, and a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship, which allowed him to study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Beginning in 1968, he spent two years conducting research in elementary particle physics at the MIT Center for Theoretical Physics.

In 1970, Ron returned to Fisk University where he accepted a teaching position in the physics department. During that time, he spent brief stints conducting research at other institutions including Vanderbilt University and the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics in Boulder, Colorado. In 1982, he became a professor at Clark Atlanta University and was named a Callaway professor of physics in 1985.

Why He's Important: Currently a scientist at Clark Atlanta University (where he also professor of physics), Ronald Mickens is a leading expert in various areas of physics and mathematics, including oscillations (repetitive, vibrating motions that occur in cycles) and in developing mathematical models for predicting the spread of disease. In the case of oscillations, Ron explains such vibrating systems can be found everywhere -- such as cars with bumpers that are used to reduce the vibrations in car accidents and tall buildings that vibrate because of wind. Vibrations are described by equations that can't be solved, he says. He's currently working on finding methods that can approximate solutions to these equations, which can be useful in real-world applications such as in construction and in the auto industry.

His mathematical model for predicting the spread of disease is a standard model which he is working to apply to people worldwide who are susceptible, infected, or removed from a disease (meaning they have already had the disease and can't get it again). "In real situations," he says, "people can remain in the class of infected for a couple of weeks, infinitely, or anywhere in between. Ron is investigating how to adjust the model to reflect this changing factor.

Other Achievements: With his keen interest in researching the contributions of African Americans in science and technology throughout history, Ron has become an expert in this field, and has written and published widely on such black pioneers as Edward Bouchet, the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in any subject (it happened to be physics), and on the lives and achievements of several African American women scientists.

He has also authored five advanced mathematics textbooks in addition to his contributions to over 120 scientific research papers. Ron serves on the editorial boards of several research journals including the Journal of Difference Equations and Applications. His professional memberships include AAAS, the American Mathematical Society, the American Physical Society (for which he is an elected Fellow), the National Society of Black Physicists, and the Society for Mathematical Biology.

In His Own Words: In advising students who may wish to pursue science, he says:"Take pleasure in not only learning about science, but branch out and learn about anything and everything, from science and math to literature and history. Also, put time and effort into the task at hand, so that you can learn new things from every experience. But most of all: love and enjoy what you do."