From living in some of the roughest areas in the country all the way to NASA, Hakeem M. Oluseyi has metaphorically reached the stars.
Born James Edward Plummer, Jr. in the lower ninth ward of New Orleans, Oluseyi’s parents divorced when he was four-years-old. He and his mother moved from place to place along the United States southern border averaging about one move a year.
After living in some of the toughest neighborhoods including Watts in Los Angeles, Inglewood in California and Third Ward, Houston they finally settled in rural Mississippi a month before Oluseyi turned 13 years old.
As a youth living in a small, poor town in Mississippi, he said one of his life’s highlights was winning first place in a state science fair at MSU. He created a software program that did relativity-based calculations. When his physics project won best in show at the state science fair, judges told him to become a physicist.
He completed middle school and high school in the East Jasper School District in Heidelberg, Mississippi, and despite the hindrance of frequent moving, he graduated as his high school’s valedictorian in 1985.
The judges at that science fair told Hakeem that he should become a physicist, but since he didn’t know what a physicist was, he joined the military.
He served in the United States Navy from 1984 to 1986, which he credits with fostering his love of advanced math.
He changed his name to Hakeem (wise) Muata (he who speaks the truth) Oluseyi (God has done this), and enrolled in Tougaloo College after receiving an honorable discharge from the Navy. At Tougaloo, he earned his Bachelor of Science degrees in physics and advanced mathematics.
From there, Oluseyi earned a Ph.D. in physics from Stanford University after devoting himself to experimental space research. He was instrumental in designing, building, calibrating, and launching the Multi-Spectral Solar Telescope Array which led to imaging of the Sun’s transition region and corona.
Currently, Oluseyi is stationed at the NASA Headquarters in Washington DC where he is the Space Sciences Education Manager.
In addition to astrophysics, Hakeem also has a passion for teaching a love of science to children, especially those in low socioeconomic areas.
“As the new kid in the bad neighborhood, I was always immediately challenged upon arrival, which meant fighting,” Hakeem explains in a quote to aps.org. “I was not interested in this, so I spent a lot of time indoors reading and watching PBS nature shows. I discovered Jacques Cousteau on TV and Albert Einstein in my reading. The effects of relativity just knocked my socks off! I did everything I could to get my head around this stuff. I thought, ‘Man! Scientists are super cool!’”
He understands the importance of a personal role model to children who may not likely have one. That fuels his desire to reach out to the next generation of the country’s physics students.
“I find service to students and humanity as exciting as making a new scientific discovery. That is my life- I educate, I inspire, and I research,” Hakeem says.
“I have to pinch myself sometimes. I couldn’t be happier,” said the once poor kid from rural Mississippi.