S. James Gates, Jr. at Interphase, 1975

S. James Gates, Jr. at Interphase, 1975
Courtesy MIT Museum

S. James Gates, Jr. as a Project Interphase instructor at MIT, 1975.

Sylvester James "Jim" Gates, Jr. '73, PhD '77 earned a Bachelors in Physics (Course XVIII) and in Mathematics (Course VIII) in 1973 and a PhD in Physics in 1977, both from MIT. (While in graduate school, he tried out to be an astronaut and was friends with the late Ronald E. McNair PhD '85.) Mentored by Professor James E. Young, Gates wrote a doctoral dissertation entitled “Symmetry Principles in Selected Problems of Field Theory,” the first devoted to "supersymmetry".

His postgraduate studies began as a Junior Fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows (1977-1980) and ended with an appointment at Caltech (1980-1982). His teaching career started in 1972, as a summer calculus instructor at MIT, and he has since taught mathematics or physics without interruption. From 1982 to 1984, he served as an assistant professor at MIT.  

Gates went on to focus on string theory, an extremely mathematical view of physics, joining relativity and quantum mechanics. He is also well-known for using adinkras (West African geometric symbols) to develop graphical representations of supersymmetric algebras.

Since 1984, Gates has been on faculty at the University of Maryland at College Park, where in 1998 he was named the first John S. Toll Professor of Physics, the first African-American to hold an endowed chair in physics at a major research university in the U.S. On a leave of absence from 1991-1993, he served as Physics Professor and Departmental Chair at Howard University.

Gates has been elected to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the National Academy of Sciences, and received a a 1997 Dr. Martin L. King, Jr. Leadership Award from MIT. After his time as a 2010-11 MIT MLK Visiting Professor, Gates was among 12 scientists to be awarded a 2013 National Medal of Science, which brought him “a very strong sense of personal closure about [his] professional efforts as a researcher and theoretical physicist".


Project Interphase

Established in 1969, Project Interphase (today Interphase EDGE) is a scholar enrichment program for incoming freshman. It includes a seven-week summer session as well as programming during the academic year to help ease the transition to MIT and to build community among new students.

Timeline: 1970s
School: School of Science
Department: MathematicsPhysics
Life: Black Alumni/ae of MIT (BAMIT)Black Students' Union (BSU)
Career: EducationScience
Object: Image
Collection: Faculty, Harvard, Integration and Differentiation 1969-1994, Interphase, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mentorship, Ronald E. McNair, Students, Sylvester James Gates, Jr.