First, Rewrite the Rules
Then, Refuse to Follow Them

What Emeagwali Did Differently

Interview with Job Postings magazine.


Emeagwali

Job Postings:How did your experience growing up in Nigeria train or prepare you for your future career?


Emeagwali:

The experience of being a child soldier in Africa's bloodiest war made me tougher than a Vietnam vet. It was like learning from the school of hard knocks. I became very skilled at surviving with little money. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. I came out stronger from the civil war crisis. In fact, the Chinese symbol for "crisis" is the same for "opportunity". You can focus on the crisis in your life, or you can focus on the new opportunities that the crisis presents. Or, as my mother tells me, "when one door closes, God opens another".

 

Job Postings:How old were you when you developed your interest in science and mathematics?


Emeagwali:

When I was nine years old, my father insisted that I solve one hundred maths problems every evening. The daily homework was a ritual that bonded us closely. Helping a child with homework helps strengthen the father-son relationship and also enhances the entire family experience. The old saying "A family that prays together stays together" could be interpreted as a "A family that studies together ..."

 

Job Postings:What instilled in you the confidence that you could achieve your goals, despite the difficulties of your childhood?


Emeagwali:

My teachers instilled confidence in me by constantly reminding me that I was a prodigy and that they expected great things of me. If you tell a child she is a genius, she will likely become a genius. It's called the self-fulfilling prophecy.

 

Job Postings:What inspired you to begin studying with the university of London by correspondence?


Emeagwali:

I was deeply traumatized by the experience of dropping out of school at a young age. I loved school. I was the hardest-working student in my class. I had great self-confidence and knew I had not reached my full potential. The University of London did not require any tuition fees. I only needed to study hard and pay for the final examinations.

 

Job Postings:Did you receive encouragement from family to pursue higher education?


Emeagwali:

My mother completed only third-grade and my father had never seen a college campus. The closest institution for higher education was 100 miles away and I only knew a handful of people who had attended college. Therefore, it was difficult for parents and friends to provide me guidance beyond high school. Also, people with limited education often believe that there is a limit to the knowability of the world. My mother thought they was a limit to knowledge and that I could learn all there was to be learned by the time I had completed high school.

 

Job Postings:As a young person doing a correspondence degree in Nigeria, what did you think your future career would be?


Emeagwali:

There was an air of uncertainty. Deep within me, I knew I had the potential to go far. I had supreme confidence in my intellectual ability. My friends predicted that I would excel, although none expected me to get this far.

As a child in Nigeria, I wanted to be a great mathematician or physicist. I knew little about computers. The most advanced computing equipment that I ever saw was a slide rule. I didn't even know that computer science was a field of study. When I came to the United States, I decided to become a mathematician and use supercomputers to solve computation-intensive problems in physics and engineering.

 

Job Postings:What was your idea of success back then?


Emeagwali:

My idea of success was to get three meals a day. My first breakfast in the United States was memorable. I walked into the campus cafeteria on March 25, 1974 and the choice of food was unbelievable.

In Nigeria, we rationed food and I assumed that was how it was done everywhere else.

 

Job Postings:What is it now?


Emeagwali:

I measure my success by the scientific knowledge that I create and the number of people my discoveries have inspired and helped.

 

Job Postings:Do you consider yourself successful?


Emeagwali:

I have been successful as a scientist, son, husband and father.

 

Job Postings:What difficulties and challenges did you face as an African graduate student in the United States?


Emeagwali:

Recruiters came to college campuses looking for the best and brightest. A foreign, black, African student could not at the time make it beyond the preliminary interview.

It was a life of endless struggles ... for education, employment, equal pay, job promotion, and respect. The United States is the land of endless struggles for all Africans. Europeans consider America to be the white man's land. An African who does not understand that America is the white man's land is in for a rude awakening. A black African must be twice as qualified as a white American to earn half as much.

 

Job Postings:Coming from an engineering background, how did you become interested in computer science?


Emeagwali:

I was primarily a mathematician and a physicist who spent considerable time studying and working as an engineer. Computing was the common thread and I had been continuously computing since 1974. I made a switch from mathematics, physics and astronomy to study engineering (civil, ocean, coastal and marine). I also once fancied myself an astronomer but later turned down a job offer to become an astronomer for the United States government. Instead, I became a civil engineer for the United States Bureau of Reclamation, in Wyoming. Because I was underemployed and underpaid, I got bored and returned to mathematics and physics. Initially, mathematicians did not show me much respect but rediscovered me when my work in supercomputing started making headlines.

We are all attempting to solve the same problems from different directions. The direction a mathematician uses is one that he understands or in which he "sees light". This reminds me of the little girl who encountered an elderly man searching for a lost needle outside his house. Offering her assistance, the girl asked:

"Where did you drop your needle?"

"Inside my house," the man replied.

"Then why are you searching for it outside?" she asked.

"Because I do not have light in my house," he explained.



Because I did not have "light" in my engineering house, and I switched to computer science.

 

Job Postings:Was there anyone during your graduate years, perhaps a classmate or professor, who inspired you to take the career path you did?


Emeagwali:

I had a friend, mentor and role model named Fred Merryfield. Actually, I lived with him in 1975-76. I was studying mathematics and Fred, a retired civil engineering professor, convinced me to switch to civil engineering.

He, like me, had come to the United States at the age of 19 and had also earlier served as a soldier in a brutal war. Fred emigrated from England in 1919, after being wounded as a pilot in the First World War. He worked his way from ditch digging to become the founder of the multinational CH2M-Hill (CH2M.com). His struggles and successes are what inspired me to switch to civil engineering. After he passed away, I left civil engineering to return to mathematics and later, computer science

 

Job Postings:In what ways has the American university landscape changed since you were a student?


Emeagwali:

The buildings have not changed much, but the technology has changed dramatically. In 1974, I prepared my term papers on a manual typewriter. I owned a pocket slide rule and an electronic pocket calculator. Today, students have access to supercomputers and the internet.

In the old days, the computer input format was by a punched tape and card decks. The computer was not in-house and I had to use a teletypewriter, a telephone line and a modem to connect to the Digital DEC PDP-8 at Oregon State University. Friends back in 1974 would say "ghee-whiz" when I told them that I was a computer programmer.

In those days, programming computers was a hands-on affair and we carried around big boxes of punch cards. My programs were executed by batch processing. Occasionally, I would accidentally drop my box of cards and then spend days rearranging the cards. All the same, I loved punch cards because I did not have to worry about infinite loops consuming the balance of my expensive computer account.

 

Job Postings:When your initial proposal for an international network of computers was rejected in the early seventies, what inspired you to continue working on it?


Emeagwali:

After spending 15 years on a project, you intuitively know it will eventually work. It was a grand idea; it is easy to be inspired and to continue working on an invention that has a huge potential payoff. I have learned that people are frightened of innovative ideas. They need time to understand and absorb radical thoughts. But then, as R.W. Emerson once said: "In every work of genius, we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty."

 

Job Postings:What employment challenges do you believe minorities face in the workplace, particularly in the maths and sciences?


Emeagwali:

It is easy to find a high-school math teaching position or an entry-level engineering job. Hiring decisions become more subjective and discriminatory for high-level research positions.

In the late 1970s, I was interviewed for several positions at federal research laboratories. All interviews ended with "we will call you later." Not a single phone call ever came.

Twenty-five years ago, securing a research position was not merely a challenge. It was a brick wall. I worked at the United States National Weather Service research laboratory, but I was not paid for the entire five years I spent there. My white co-workers were paid. It was a heartrending experience, to say the least.

 

Job Postings:As a scientist and inventor, what aspect of the creation process interests you the most (e.g. coming up with an idea, working it through, communicating it to the public)?


Emeagwali:

Defining the problem and solving it is the most challenging. The discovery and invention gives me a product to communicate. Communicating the discovery is important because nothing really happens until people know about it. It is really the age-old question, "If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?"

 

Job Postings:What policies or educational initiatives do you think need to be created to ensure greater minority representation in these fields?


Emeagwali:

We need to re-educate the educators. The greater white representation in these fields is due to white privileges that have been institutionalized for centuries and are now invisible.

 

Job Postings:What overall qualities do we need to instill in our young people of minority backgrounds to allow them to become more successful in the American workplace?


Emeagwali:

Nothing. The young minority possesses the same qualities as the young majority. What needs to be changed is the prejudice of the people in the workplace. The people that are minorities in North America are actually majorities in the world.

 

Job Postings:What do you feel has been your biggest obstacle?


Emeagwali:

My work was rejected for 15 years. The first five years I was ridiculed. The second five years I was forced to work without pay. The third five years I was paid $750 a month. As the saying goes in Hollywood, "it takes 15 years to become an overnight success".

 

Job Postings:What do you consider your biggest accomplishment?


Emeagwali:

The majestic Iroko tree is one of the tallest in Africa. Climbing this giant tree is an impressive accomplishment. To climb it without a ladder is an even more impressive feat. My biggest accomplishment is that I climbed the Iroko tree with my bare hands.

My biggest accomplishment is not technological. It is the courage to dare and to attempt what was considered a mission impossible. It is this courage that now inspires many young people.

 

Job Postings:If you could do anything over again, what would it be and why?


Emeagwali:

I would have urged my parents to flee from Nigeria in 1966. One in fifteen people in my hometown died in that 30-month war. A reason for the heavy casualties is that both sides did not take prisoners of war. They did not want the burden and expense of caring for war prisoners. Each side insisted that the prisoners be returned in exchange for nothing. They reasoned that returned prisoners would be trained as soldiers who would later fight against them. From the perspective of their personal survival, it made sense for them to kill all captured male prisoners.

When their soldiers captured my hometown, most of the men were shot. And many women became comfort ladies. If I were to do it all over again, I would have fled the brutal civil war.

 

Job Postings:What is your greatest piece of advice for the young people of today?


Emeagwali:

I learned from the school of hard knocks that a career ladder is like a long corridor. As I walked along that corridor, I found most doors were shut to me. However, I discovered that some doors were only half-closed. I learned to stop banging my head on the doors that were shut. Instead, I moved on and inched in through the doors that were half-closed.

In the late-1970s, I sent out one thousand resumes and discovered that the doors to the traditional fields of mathematics, physics, and engineering were shut to me. However, the doors to the newly emerging fields of supercomputing and the Internet were only half-closed. The reason was that these were new fields and they allowed new rules. I learned that once I beat them in their own game with their own rules, I could play my own game with my rules. First, I rewrote the rules. Then, I refused to follow them.

My advice to the young people of today is that the key to success in life is to understand when, where, and what rules to break and how to write your own rules.

 

Job Postings:What were your feelings when you chose to leave Nigeria and study in America?


Emeagwali:

Because I had a passion for mathematics and physics, I came to America with the ambition of being the next Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein. I believed that coming to America would give me the opportunity to become a great scientist. On the day I left Nigeria, I felt sad because I was leaving my family.

 

Job Postings:What did you expect America to be like before your arrival?


Emeagwali:

I grew up with little exposure to the media and I knew little about the place, people or way of life. The little that I knew came from a couple of western movies starring John Wayne. I even thought some people commuted on horsebacks. A few days before I came to the United States, I decided to educate myself by seeing an American movie titled Shaft. That movie left me speechless. I saw black people, big cars, and modern cities.

I arrived in the month of March wearing a pair of cotton pants, a cotton sweater and a pair of sandals with no socks. I never heard of winter coats and was amazed that it could get so cold.

 

Job Postings:In terms of the changes at the university, you discussed the technological changes that have taken place over the last 30 years. How do you think the university environment is different from a social or cultural perspective?


Emeagwali:

The demography has changed with more female, immigrant and low-income students. Scientific knowledge doubles every ten years and students today are learning new subjects that did not exist 30 years ago.



Philip Emeagwali's Website

Interviewed on March 23, 2003


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