Meet College of Sciences Alumnus Willie Rockward, Chair of Physics at Morehouse College

Advice to students: Master managing time quickly

As a young man, Willie S. Rockward loved football and physics. When football didn’t work out, physics was there for the long haul.

Rockward grew up in Louisiana, attending South Terrebonne High School, in Houma. He now lives in Atlanta, Georgia, with his wife, Michelle L. Rockward, and their seven children.

He received a B.S. in Physics from Grambling State University, in Louisiana, in 1988. He completed an M.S. in Physics in 1991 at the University at Albany-SUNY before attending Georgia Tech, where he earned an M.S. in Physics in 1994 and a Ph.D., Physics, in 1997. 

Rockward is an associate professor of physics at Morehouse College, which he joined in 1998. His research focus is nanolithography. Among his research collaborators is Tech’s Vladimir Tsuruk.

In 2011, Rockward became chair of Morehouse College’s Department of Physics and Dual-Degree Engineering Program.

According to Rockward, Morehouse has about 2,100 students; all are men, and 93% are African-American. About 80 students are physics majors, and about 185 are in the dual-degree engineering program, in which students spend three years in Morehouse and two years in a partner engineering institution, such as Georgia Tech.

Morehouse, Rockward says, has “the most productive dual-degree engineering program in the country” and is the “top producer of underrepresented minorities with bachelor degrees in physics.”

What attracted you to study in Georgia Tech?

I fell into physics because I wanted to play football at Grambling for coach Eddie Robinson, the most winning collegiate football coach at the time. Grambling offered me a physics scholarship, which I took so I can play football. When a linebacker hit me during a practice session, I decided to stick with physics.  

After Grambling, I was accepted at Georgia Tech, MIT, and Stanford. But I felt as though I wasn’t quite ready to go straight to a high-powered graduate program. So I went to Albany.

Tech had all the right parameters: great academic history and prestige; Atlanta was a booming city with good weather. I’m a Louisiana boy; the weather in MIT and SUNY was too cold; Stanford was on the West Coast, too far from family.

What is the most important thing you learned while at Georgia Tech?

Hard work always pays off. Tech professors pushed us to make choices that reflect what we want to do.

For example, in fall 1990, the Yellow Jackets were undefeated. I had classical mechanics at 8:30 a.m. on Mondays, and Dr. Raymond Flannery would always give an assignment on the Friday before. The homework was so difficult that you could not afford to attend a weekend football game.

We thought he was being mean. But I realized that for him, if you really want to do physics, you will make the sacrifices to do well. It’s the same lesson I teach my students and children.

Dr. Flannery also gave me confidence. When I didn’t pass my comprehensives the first time, he told me, “Rockward, I know you can do it. Hold your head up, study and work hard, you’ll do well next time.” I couldn’t believe hearing those words from him. His gave me confidence to keep pressing forward.

I remember Dr. Brian Kennedy. He taught courses in electricity and magnetism. Very young then, he presented the subject so simply that I had a “born again” experience that opened my complete understanding of Maxwell’s equations.

I got married while at Tech. Starting a family slowed my studies, but I learned that academia gives you flexibility of time. You can select the time to use for family and work.

What is a vivid memory of your time at Georgia Tech?

I never saw a game of the undefeated Tech football team in 1990-91. However, I felt a sense of belonging among other students who, like me, had to work long hours.  

I was one of the first teaching assistants in CEISMC. That’s where I learned that I love to teach.

How did you get to your current position?

While at Tech, I was also a part-time scientist in Eglin Air Force Base, working with laser radar and guided munitions. In 1998 I joined Morehouse as a tenure-track assistant professor. My Tech thesis adviser, Dr. Donald O’Shea, helped me set up my lab by donating his photolithography equipment.

When Morehouse searched for a physics chair, I put my name in the hat. They selected me.

What do you like most about your current job? The least?

I like to interact with students and faculty. As a recruiter of students for Morehouse, I visit math and science schools across the nation. I sense who will come, and when they are here, I see them grow.

I like paperwork the least. Parents also can be a challenge. Some have not learned to let their sons grow up. Being a parent, too, I can understand.

What has been the greatest challenge in your professional life so far?

Balancing family and work, especially when I need to focus on work. I’m also an ordained minister, and I served as a pastor for 11 years.  

I make sure to delegate responsibilities. I communicate with my wife, and I set deadlines on those periods when I have to be intensely focused on something.

What has been the most gratifying experience of your professional career so far?

Getting tenure, in 2008, was very rewarding.

I have influenced more than 100 students to study graduate-level physics or engineering. At least 20 have obtained the Ph.D. To see them come back and engage with me is deeply satisfying.

If you could have taken an alternative career path, what would you be doing instead?

I’d be in physics still. My high-school physics teacher, Mr. Paul Johnson, really turned me on. Experiments with lasers and optics just blew my mind.  

What advice would you give to incoming first-year students at Georgia Tech? 

You have to change your study habits and master managing time quickly. Hard work always pays off. Sacrifice; do the extra work in math, physics, and engineering. The parties will be there when you finish.

What’s something about yourself that’s not obvious to your colleagues?

I’m serving my second term as the national president of Sigma Pi Sigma, the physics honor society. It’s a great honor to serve. We are getting ready for the 2016 Quadrennial Physics Congress, in November, in San Francisco, the largest gathering of undergraduate physics students in the world.

If you could have dinner with any person from history, whom would you invite?

Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King Jr., and Marie Curie.

Marie Curie is the only female two-time Nobel laureate, in chemistry and physics, yet we don’t know much about her personal life and interests.

Albert Einstein is a good conversationalist who paid attention to what’s going on around him.

Martin Luther King Jr. speaks to the preacher side of me as I continue to embrace the balance between science and religion.

I would like talk to them about Black Lives Matter, modern phenomena in physics such as quantum computing, race relations, and the 2016 presidential elections.

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  • Willie Rockward with Morehouse students

    Willie Rockward with Morehouse students

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