February is Black History Month in the United States. For this month and beyond, we wish to continue highlighting the important work and achievements of Black astronomers, physicists, educators, and scientists through our #BlackInAstro series. This is an ongoing, year-round series in collaboration with blackinastro.com (@BlackInAstro on Twitter). For our cornerstone post, see here.
Dr. Ronald Gamble is an Afro-Latino Theoretical Astrophysicist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. His research focuses on the physics of black holes, particularly in Active Galactic Nuclei, what can be said about black holes by looking at blazars and quasars, and the physics of how black holes lose angular momentum. I sat down with Dr. Gamble to talk about his career to date and what advice he has for current underrepresented students in STEM. Although he describes his current position as summiting his own personal “Mount Olympus”, his ascent up the slope took many switch backs.
Dr. Gamble had an interest in astronomy from a young age (“Mom, does the sun have fire?”), but a switch was truly flicked in high school when he realized that theoretical physics was fundamentally the process of applying mathematics to learn more about the Universe, even in the 21st century. “I hadn’t known that you could get a career coming up with new math. I always thought that was the old ways of physics. But as I got older, I learned more, I learned more math, and more math, and realized there is a lot of stuff that we don’t know!”
Math can often be a barrier for those interested in science, but Dr. Gamble doesn’t see it that way. “I try to use math as a language, the way poets would use prose. I use it as a creative language. My creativity is involved in developing this new math, and then coming up with new science that we can decipher from the math. Or vice versa, new science – new math.” While he has a creative relationship with math, that’s not to say that his academic path was easy. His BS in physics took 5 years not 4 (“Jackson E&M will do that to you”), and when it came time to apply to graduate schools, he found that he wasn’t ready to engage in an R1 PhD program, having only been waitlisted at two schools.
Taking a winding path, but keeping an eye on the summit
At this time, his mentors came in to provide an opportunity. Dr. Gamble’s undergrad advisor at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (NCAT) offered him a chance to stay in academia for a Masters at the same institution. The degree wouldn’t be on the astronomy research that Dr. Gamble felt was calling to him, but it would allow him a chance to keep learning physics. “He [his advisor Dr. Abebe Kebede] knew that I wanted to pursue research long term, [but also] knew that I had to do something short-term. If I could just do [experimental physics] for now, we could work on getting me the research opportunities I wanted to do later. He was helping me [get back to astrophysics] on the side, we wrote two grants to try to switch the masters topic, NSF had other ideas. We didn’t have a shared research interest, but our connection was to try to get me to succeed.” This is essential to what Dr. Gamble thinks makes a good mentor. “A good mentor wants to see you succeed whether or not they are mentoring you or you are being mentored by someone else. They just want to see you succeed.”
After the master’s degree Dr. Gamble was able to stay at NCAT to pursue his PhD in theoretical astrophysics as part of an interdisciplinary program with computational science. By the time he left NCAT he had earned 3 degrees, designed 6 courses and spent 12 years at the same institution. However his next steps weren’t clear, even if his passion for his science was. Dr. Gamble found himself without an institution, but he didn’t let that prevent him from continuing his research. He presented his work at a national conference while unemployed, and eventually found himself at a post-doctoral position at the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) in the Department of Defense. While there, Dr. Gamble’s winding path through physics became an acute advantage. The diversity of projects he was part of during his time at NCAT allowed him to apply his physics knowledge to a variety of proposals being sent to DTRA in the DoD. “I felt truly like a professional, the variety of my experimental and theoretical projects in the past really helped. It was an interesting challenge to step into. I loved the position, but I still had this goal to get to NASA.”
Throughout his time at the Department of Defense, Dr. Gamble was still working on his research on the side, as he had done since getting his PhD. Even with a potentially successful career in front of him, he knew he still wanted to be a scientist at NASA. When he eventually got an interview, he had a slide deck ready to show off new research. “I had to fight myself in staying motivated to get the dream job, and to keep doing the research. I applied to 116 positions after finishing my PhD. One of the easiest applications was the dream job. It took all that time to build up that confidence and work. I already had 30 slides prepared to show them during the interview.”
View from the top
When asked what advice he would give to others starting their career Dr. Gamble said “Have the tenacity not to get in the way of yourself. If it’s a dream that you have, fight for it, even if you have to fight yourself for it. Find a network of people that look like you in your field and talk to them. And keeping with Black History month, you don’t have to be a 65 yr old astronomer winning 12 awards to be black history. The ink isn’t done drying yet. If you are a black astronomer/astrophysicist, you are already black history in the making. If you want to pursue it, accept that it is going to be a difficult path, but it’s going to be possible. There is room at the top, come on up.”
To learn more about Dr. Gamble, check out his website!
Astrobite edited by Pratik Gandhi
Featured image credit: Astrobite collaboration