An Interview with Stephen Roberson

By Alison Jordan

PhD in Physics, Florida A&M University
OSA Member since: 2004

Jordan: You have participated in some exciting professional development opportunities. Can you tell me a little about being awarded the National Research Council Postdoctoral Research Assistantship to study at the Army Research Lab in Aberdeen Proving Grounds, MD?

Roberson: The NRC postdoctoral research award was great. I worked on the trace detection of energetic materials using a series of nanosecond lasers. That work transitioned me into the work I'm doing now. The NRC postdoc allowed me to interact with people I would never meet otherwise. There were a lot of professional development opportunities we were exposed to. We met a lot of other postdocs from all over the country. It was great; I'm glad that I applied and received the award.

Jordan: In addition to your studies and contributions to The Optical Society and its Young Professionals Program, you have been very active professional organizations such as the American Physics Society, National Society of Black Engineers and the National Society of Black Physicists. Why do you think participation in professional groups such as these are so important?

Roberson: I like to participate in these groups because it allows me to grow my professional network. Participating in these organizations gives me a chance to interact with people with similar professional interests that are at all different levels in their careers. I get a chance to receive professional advice from many people who are more senior and offer professional advice to those who are working to get where I am. I've met a lot of good friends at these conferences and had the chance to network extensively.

Jordan: I see you teach part-time in the Physics department at Morgan State University. Are there other ways that you support educational outreach? Why do you believe supporting these types of efforts is important?

Roberson: I work with my church on educational outreach to children ages 7-12 to show them the opportunities they have in math and science. I believe that's it's important for someone like me, who is just like them, to come back to a community that is a lot like the one I grew up in and say that these careers are possible for anyone who wants to work hard and loves what they do.

Jordan: Do you currently have a mentor? Tell me a little about how a mentor has been a professional and/or academic assistance to you as you've strived to fulfill your career goals?

Roberson: I have a lot of mentors that I've met from conferences like NSBP, but my most consistent mentor was my thesis advisor, Dr. Joseph A. Johnson III. He believed in me when at times I didn't believe in myself. It is absolutely vital that people have mentors that pick up their mentees when they are down, believe in them, and show them the path to success.

Jordan: I noticed from your bio that you are working as a research scientist at the Army Research Laboratory conducting quantum control experiments. Tell me a little about that and what it means for the future. How do you see this technology transforming over the next few years?

Roberson: The work we are doing right now has to do with detection of energetic materials. We believe that the femtosecond laser source we are using coupled with the control of the laser pulse will be able to allow methods of detection that are currently not possible. The work is in its infancy right now, but we have seen other people that are able to detect minute differences in bacteria or suppression of ion formation in a mass spectrometer. This gives us ideas as to things we think we might be able to try.

Jordan: What inspires you most about your research?

Roberson: I like working at the Army Research Lab because the work that we're doing will potentially protect our soldiers from harm. If we can more accurately detect energetic materials more effectively, that will save soldiers' lives. I really can't think of a better thing to do with my technical training.

Jordan: What are some difficulties or challenges you've had to face and/or currently face being a minority in your field?

Roberson: I think that the challenge is to find where you connect with people, even though I'm a minority in my field. Science is not racist. Math is not sexist. Facts are facts and it doesn't matter who comes up with them. My parents used to tell me that as a minority, I would have to be twice as good to get the same recognition. Being twice as good as anyone around me is a challenge I enjoy. I never want to feel like I've arrived. I always feel that I have to prove that I belong, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Jordan: What other career would you have had, had you not gone into Physics?

Roberson: If I had not gone into physics, I would have probably been a computer scientist of some sort. However, we have to do so much of our work on a computer; I don't feel like I missed out much on the computer science.

Jordan: Why did you first join OSA?

Roberson: I first joined OSA as a student. I thought that it would look good on my CV and I would be able to receive another magazine besides Physics Today.

Jordan: Is this a good time to be working in/studying Physics?

Roberson: It is always a good time to be studying physics. There are so many things about our world that we do not understand. Physics gives you the basic tools that you need to answer almost any technical question, be it chemistry, engineering, biology, optics, you name it. When you learn the basics, you have the capability to understand the underlying essence of a problem and can better formulate solutions to a problem in my opinion.

Jordan: What was the last non-scientific book that you read?

Roberson: The last non-scientific book I read was Come on, People: On the Path from Victims to Victors by Bill Cosby and Alvin F. Poussaint.

Jordan: What inspired your interest in Science?

Roberson: I liked science and math because it wasn't subjective. The right answer is the right answer, no matter what. What advice would you give to other aspiring minority scientists? My only advice to any minority scientist is to be the best. If you are the best, it doesn't matter if you are a minority. Be the best, period.