My research group, Seifu Research Group (SRG), at Morgan State University (MSU), consists of three doctoral students, three masters students, and two rising senior undergraduate students. I joined MSU in 1994, immediately after completing my Ph.D. at the University of Cincinnati (UC) in Ohio. My Ph.D. research focused on the computation of the electronic structure of alloys, specifically ordered and disordered CuAu alloys, using the Korringa-Kohn-Rostoker coherent potential approximation method. The 1990s were a tough time to find a job or postdoctoral position, even for experimentalists, let alone for theorists, because of the recession, the halting of the super-conductor and super-collider projects, and other factors such as the shift in the world order. I can count on only one hand the number of physics graduates from my graduate program who landed an academic job in the US during the seven years I was attending school.
Though I wanted to pursue an academic career, I had a backup plan for returning to my old position, at Addis Ababa University (AAU). Before leaving for the US, I had been a lecturer at AAU for five years, during which I had a wonderful time of studying and teaching physics. MSU came into the picture when I was visiting my sister, who was attending a graduate program there. A few weeks after my dissertation defense, while waiting for my transcript and Ph.D. degree to be processed, I had a chance encounter with the chair of MSU's physics department, who asked me if I was interested in some kind of academic position at MSU. This changed my destiny. At MSU, I started a research project on mechanical alloys and characterizing them using Mössbauer spectroscopy; this became my informal postdoctoral position in experimental physics.
Milling alloys and irradiating them with gamma rays to measure their Mössbauer spectra proved to be a lot of fun, and with that, I was converted to an experimental physicist. I used my computational skills to code the Mössbauer spectra analysis software from a cumbersome FORTRAN format to MATLAB. In 1994, this was a big deal, as it eased my efforts to analyze experimental data by about a factor of 10, saving time in the interpretation of data.
In 1996, I traveled to Saint Louis, Missouri to present my findings at the American Physical Society (APS) conference (Seifu, D., et al, Mössbauer Study of SmFe3, APS March meeting, St. Louis, MO, March 1996). The conference was so different for me that year, even though I was not new to APS. I had been to APS in 1993 and 1994, while I was a graduate student, to present my Ph.D. research findings; however, in 1996, I was surrounded by many interested attendees. This reminded me of a saying by a professor at AAU: everyone believes an experimentalistâ€™s results; the only one who may have doubt in the results is the experimentalist himself, but this is not so for a theorist.
I went on to present my research at several national and international conferences, including ones held in England, Germany and India. My research in mechanical alloying led me to an area that became very attractive in the mid-1990s, since milling for longer periods produced nano-particles with properties different from their bulk counterparts. This new area of research led me to join the nanotechnology branch of NASA, near Palo Alto, California (NASA Ames, at Moffet Field) during the summer of 2004 as a faculty research fellow. During this time, I had already been promoted through several academic ranks at MSU, moving from a part-time lecturer to a full-time lecturer in 1995, to a tenure-track assistant professor in 1998, and finally to a tenured associate professor in 2003, based on my research, which had produced several publications and few grants. However, I wanted to expand my research horizons and to work more deeply in the areas of nanoscience and nanotechnology.
I told the director at NASA Ames that I planned to visit the center every summer to pursue my research for few more years. He suggested that I work with his collaborators at the Materials Directorate of the US Army Research Laboratory (ARL) all year round, since ARLâ€™s proximity to my institute allows it. Beginning in 2005, I was a guest researcher there, where I remained until 2012, the year I received a collaborative research and education agreement (CREA) award from ARL, which is still active. The research I began at NASA Ames focuses on integrating the carbon nanotubes (CNTs) synthesized at NASA Ames with magnetic nanoparticles I prepare using mechanical alloying. I pursued this research at ARL, bridging my alloying lab to the nanoscience and nanotechnology lab at ARL. In 2009, I received a summer research fellowship at the National Synchrotron Light Source at Brookhaven National Lab, in Upton, NY, for three summers to learn how to use synchrotron light sources on the nano-materials I synthesize between my laboratory at MSU and at ARL. These activities, and the several colleagues with whom I interacted, inspired me to win the Major Research Instrumentation award from the National Science Foundation twice and an ARL CREA to build a state-of-the-art nanoscience and nanotechnology laboratory, and to sustain a research group (SRG). I have since presented my research at the APS, Michigan Technological University, Hofstra University, Howard University, and at several national and international conferences held in England, Germany, Italy, India, Japan, Finland, Ireland, and many major cities in the USA.
In 2013, I was promoted by MSU to a full tenured professor position in physics. I achieved this position after a paramount effort over innumerable sleepless nights and working over weekends to publish research articles and apply for research grants. My promotion from contractual lecturer to a tenure track position in 1998 required an extraordinary effort since there were four internal candidates including myself, contractual lecturers competing for the same position, in addition to external applicants. All four internal candidates were from four different continents, represented continents were North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. Had we had candidates from the remaining three continents it would have been a worldwide competition for a tenure-track position in Physics.
At present, my research has two chief objectives. The first is to increase the magnetoresistance ratio of atomically engineered tunneling magnetoresistance. The second is to enhance the magnetic properties of carbon nanotubes and graphene via proximity-induced ferromagnetism using magnetic nanoparticles to develop magnetic semiconductors.
This summer (2018), I have been a faculty fellow at ARL's Vehicle Technology Directorate. My research is focused on studying the magnetic properties of embedded nano-sensors. In the past, together with my group, I discovered that superparamagnetism in magnetic nanowires can be suppressed by encapsulating them inside CNTs. Recently, we discovered proximity-induced ferromagnetism in graphene.
Beginning in 2018, and for the next two years, I am a member of a committee reviewing the physics portion of the Graduate Record Exam (GRE). I have been a contributor and editor of GRE test questions for the past 15 years. This year I have also been elected Vice president of the Ethiopian Physics Society (EPS-NA). One of my tasks in this capacity is overseeing the EPS-NA's 10-year plan.
I decided to become a physicist after I read the book Steps to the Stars during the summer of 1972. I was awarded the book when I graduated from elementary school at Hara Meda Model School, in Debre Zeit, locally known as Bishoftu. I believe that our science teacher, must have personally chosen the book for me. After my first year of middle school, my family and I moved to the capital city, Addis Ababa. One year later, the revolution of 1974 occurred. Besides numerous other incidents, several and longer periods of public school closures occurred due to students protests. The school disruption and political unrest continued throughout my high school years. During my junior year, it became so dangerous to be a student that I had to leave day school and join an evening school for adults while working during the daytime. This helped me survive the chaotic times of the revolution when all students were considered anti-government forces.
I worked at an electronics company owned by a good friend of my uncle for two years; there, I was an assistant to the electronics technician and organized magazines. Whenever work was slow, I worked hard to hone my math skills, and I was able to pass the School Leaving Exam and gained admission to AAU. At AAU, I was one of the 250 freshmen physics majors and one of the 12 who willingly majored in physics. That year, three of the faculty members, including the department chair, were taken to the main prison for involvement in an opposition party. Two of them were released after seven years, and one was released after five years; he became one of my classmates when I began my Master's studies. Out of those 250 freshmen physics majors, only 40 of us graduated, and out of the 40, 10 of us graduated with distinction. I was second in my class and given the chance to stay on as a lecturer at AAU. A year later, I began pursuing my Master's degree.
After one year in the program, I was offered an assistantship at the University of Miami, but I was not allowed to leave the program at AAU. Instead, I was told to complete my Master's degree and to serve two years before going abroad for my Ph.D. I graduated from the Masterâ's program in November 1985. During that time, few months before completing my Master's program the whole University community was called for a 3 months of campaign to build huts for new settlers. Physics students and faculty were assigned at Ubela, Gambela. In 1986, I enrolled in the Spring School in Condensed Matter Physics at the International Center for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Trieste, Italy.
I applied to doctoral programs at nearly a dozen schools in Canada and the US and was offered a full scholarship to five of them. I chose the University of Cincinnati. The schools to which I applied were mostly those with no application fee; this, in addition to my own lack of information, is one reason I did not apply to top 10 schools.
During my first year in Cincinnati, I studied very hard and was one of the few who passed the Ph.D. qualifying exam in the first round. In terms of research, I joined a laboratory that specialized in Mössbauer spectroscopy, but after one year I decided to change to computational condensed matter physics. I made this decision so that, if I returned to AAU, I could pursue my research at ICTP in Trieste and AAU however, if it is an experimental research it would have been harder to pursue significant research at AAU. Had I remained focused on experimental research, it would have been harder to pursue significant research at AAU. Â I completed a second Masters and my Ph.D. in seven years, mostly working independently on my research.
My independence in pursuing research carried me even further after I joined MSU. In the last 24 years, I have served in several different capacities ranging from a part-time lecturer to an assistant, associate and finally full professor. I was also interim chair of the department for a total of four years and served as the graduate coordinator for 15 years.
If I could go back in time and change the path of my life, I would still have majored in physics at AAU. However, I would like to restructure the curriculum at the undergraduate level by dividing it into three concentrations within physics. The first concentration would be for those who want to go into education, as all physics major did in the last 50 years at AAU. They would take 18 credits, or six courses, in education. The second concentration would be for those aspiring to become scientists. Those interested in condensed matter physics would need 18 credits (six courses) in chemistry. Those interested in high energy (elementary particle physics) would need 18 credits in math. Those focused on biophysics would need six courses in biology, while those interested, in geophysics would complete six geology courses, Medical physics students would need six courses in medicine, engineering physics would require six courses in engineering design and science, and so on. The third concentration would be for students aspiring to become entrepreneurs. They would take six courses in economics and business management. Such structure of the physics curricula would make physics graduates more diverse, dynamic, and useful for society. For instance, physics entrepreneurs would form start-up companies that create jobs for many graduates and move the economy forward. They could also create internships for college-level and high school students.
In my opinion, these three concentrations should be just the beginning. The university must be open to increasing the number of concentrations or, as they are usually referred to, minor areas, within the physics major. Students should be allowed to choose their minor and even be given the option of making their studies interdisciplinary. This would make the university more student-centered and produce graduates who can change the nation. For example, if a physics major is interested in becoming an author, he or she should be allowed to take 18 credits, or six courses, in literature. Student-centered educational policies will produce self-reliant and resilient students. They will not graduate and ask, What's next? Rather, they will create something extraordinary before graduating that will be useful not only for themselves in particular, but to the nation as a whole. Students who graduate from student-centered curricula will not graduate to go on and grab whatever job is available, even including day-laborer positions; instead, they will come up with extraordinary inventions that will excite and appeal to investors. Developing a mutually beneficial culture between the academic and business communities is essential.
Before closing, I would like to share one of my unfulfilled dreams on my to-do list. I wanted to go to AAU as a Fulbright scholar and serve the institution in particular and the country at large that provided me with so much. To coincide with my first sabbatical leave, I applied for the Fulbright scholars program for the 2005-2006 academic year. I clearly remember where I was during the summer of 2004 at my office at NASA-Ames in Paulo Alto for my summer faculty fellowship. It was there that I received a call from a Fulbright executive director, who asked me if I would consider any other African countries besides Ethiopia. I could tell from her voice that I would have had a high chance of being successful had I said yes; however, I said no, as I had a two-year-old child and we were expecting a second child in six months. Considering these family issues, I decided that it had to be Ethiopia, failing which I would stay in the US. A few days later, I received the news that I had not been successful. I tried to figure out why I was denied a place in the program, and the only plausible reason I could come up with was that AAU was not enthusiastic enough. The news was gut wrenching, and it took me a decade to bring myself to make a second attempt. This time, I was on summer vacation in Ethiopia, and I made arrangements to meet the dean of engineering of AAU. He wrote me a very enthusiastic letter of support, and I made it to the second stage. I asked former Fulbright faculty scholars at MSU what my chances were once I had made it to this level, and they agreed that I had a 99 percent chance of getting it; the 1 percent was if something went wrong on the ground in the host country. I started preparing for my trip, including finding schools for my kids, which was the most crucial and difficult part. I succeeded in getting admission for one son, who was a freshman in high school, in one of the three schools to which I had applied, but my other son, who was in middle school, was not accepted at that school. Before I had recovered from that shock, I received a denial letter from Fulbright for the 2016, 2017 academic year. I still do not know why I was denied a place, and I consoled myself with a verse from the Book of Romans 28 እግዚአብሔርንም ለሚወዱት እንደ አሳቡም ለተጠሩት ነገር ሁሉ ለበጎ እንዲደረግ እናውቃለን። (Amharic Romans, 8:28). I am hopeful that with the new enedemer initiative, I will finally make it.
I would like to close by paraphrasing one Eastern and one Western Africans sayings:
The dogs bark, but the caravan goes on.
Until lions start writing their own history, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.