Persistence, community support leads WSU physicist to prestigious national fellowship

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Arthur Bowman, a Wayne State Ph.D. candidate in physics and astronomy and Detroit Public Schools alum, has been named a 2021-2022 American Institute of Physics (AIP) Congressional Science Fellow.

A highly competitive program, the institute sponsors just two scientists annually to spend a year providing analytical expertise and scientific advice to Congress.

Bowman is a true Wayne State Warrior. He started his undergraduate journey at WSU in 2008 and has completed his master’s and Ph.D. courses at WSU as well. Bowman will be only the third African-American to receive his Ph.D. in physics and astronomy at Wayne State.

Bowman started his educational journey as a political science major with intentions to become a lawyer. He comes from a line of lawyers but said his father always encouraged him to pursue other paths. Bowman discovered his passion for physics and astronomy while taking a general education astronomy class. Since then, he has dedicated his research to solid-state devices used in modern computers and technology.

Even before he was a student at Wayne State, Bowman was a part of the WSU Math Corps starting in 2002. The program is designed to offer math instruction and mentorship to students in the Detroit Public Schools in middle and high school. After coming to Wayne State, Bowman became a teaching assistant for the program during the first year of his undergraduate studies.

Bowman said he was grateful for this program because not only did it cover a portion of his undergraduate tuition, it also connected him with a group of like-minded students. He and the other students studied and collaborated, took similar courses, and provided a strong support system for each other. He said that having this group of students helped him succeed in the STEM field.

“The other instructors and I were taking math classes together. We were all collaborating on homework and studying together for quizzes and exams. That access to a group of Black students who were all moving towards that same goal of success in STEM fields and taking mathematics courses for that, that was an integral thing for me when I was taking undergrad math and physics courses,” said Bowman.

Bowman said that being one of the only Black students in his program was alienating at times. Moving forward, he would like to see the university make a greater effort to increase the Black student body and offer extra support to Black students. He said we need to acknowledge that Black students face a unique set of problems and struggles of social isolation and not being included in the network of researchers and collaborators. He added that Black students have to work hard to overcome Imposter Syndrome.

“You have to do the extra work to overcome the Imposter Syndrome. It’s normal for you to feel like an imposter because you are in the sense that the system is not configured for you to be there. It fundamentally undermines the ability of most people who fit your description to even go through those doors,” said Bowman.

Bowman said that the process of being awarded this fellowship was a long journey. He first applied in 2019 with the encouragement of Wayne State professor Alvin Saperstein.

Saperstein told Bowman that this fellowship would be an excellent opportunity for a Wayne State physicist. He applied for both the American Physical Society and the American Institute of Physics. Bowman was then invited to Washington D.C. for a follow-up interview.

"I come from a political family. I have always been a highly connected and concerned citizen in Detroit; therefore, I got an equal amount of policy experience in these last 12 years and experience in science and technology as a researcher,” said Bowman. “I was excited to learn about the American Institute of Physics Congressional Fellowship because it seemed like a position that was well-curated for me. A person who has intimate knowledge of not only physics but also the policy and how social and economic problems exist in our society and how they often inhibit our ability as a scientific community to put science in command.”

Bowman was not offered the fellowship that year, but he didn’t want to give up and decided to apply the following year. Bowman has always been involved in his community and considered himself a concerned citizen who wanted to see and make positive changes in his community.

In 2020, he sat on a panel with Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, discussing the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Black Americans. He was also a part of the Detroiters’ Bill of Rights projects that, among other things, resulted in legislation that classified facial recognition data as personal property subject to a warrant by Detroit police.  

He remained involved in using science to craft policy and used this momentum to achieve his goal of getting the congressional fellowship the following year. “I deserved it, and if they didn’t see that I deserved it, then I was just going to keep working harder to convince them that I was the right person for the job,” he said.

Bowman firmly believes that science should be involved with policymaking. He says members of the scientific community know that there are strong currents of anti-scientific attitudes in society. There are people who simply wish to put their political objectives above what is scientifically advisable and good for society and the planet.

According to Bowman, his fellowship is a one-year appointment, with the option to work permanently as an American Association of Science employee afterwards.

While he sees this role as a great experience, he would like to do something within his community. Bowman said his heart is in Detroit; he wants a large-scale social and economic transformation in his community. He wants to help the 84% of Black constituents in the city who are often overlooked by elected representatives.

“For me, I see this as an opportunity, as my boss put it, to understand the pulleys and levers of policymaking and truly gaining an understanding of how the system works from the inside.”

He wants to learn about inner machinations, so his long-term political and scientific life is in Detroit. After the congressional fellowship, he will return to research and pursue a postdoctoral appointment. He plans to pursue tenure while continuing community organizing and making changes he knows the city needs.

In addition to these goals, he says a run for Detroit City Council isn’t out of the picture. Bowman believes that community organizing has to happen amongst communities you are part of.

“My long-term objectives are still focused on making as positive of an impact as I possibly can for my city and my people,” said Bowman. I see the congressional fellowship as a great stepping stone for that and as an opportunity to learn more about how the system works so I can have a better picture of how to apply it here.”

Despite obstacles, Bowman has been successful in his field. He said it is certainly a long hard road and community is critical and can be your best friend.

In addition to his community, Bowman says two people have stood out as strong supporters and he credits them for much of his success.

Dr. Ratna Naik played a crucial role in his path to success because she saw his hard work, dedication, and potential as a great physicist. Naik was the chair of the physics and astronomy department when he began his graduate studies in 2014. When Bowman took his graduate record exam, he struggled and didn’t get a high enough score to get into Wayne State’s program.

Naik stood up for him and said she knew he would be a good addition to the program and didn’t want him to be rejected immediately based on his general GRE score. She fought for him to take the physics GRE that would be administered in-house. He passed the test and was admitted into the physics and astronomy program. Bowman said he is grateful that she saw his potential and gave him a chance to show his skills.

"I would not have ever gotten the opportunity to do either of those things if Dr. Naik had not seen me as a person and not just a test score,” he said.

Bowman also attributes a portion of his success to Professor Sean Gavin. Gavin has supported students, encouraged them to pursue physics majors, and offered them long-term support. He said Gavin wrote a letter both times he applied for the congressional fellowships and has always been a strong supporter.

“He was always there through all of my efforts to move up the ranks in this field,” said Bowman.

Bowman said he was grateful to all of the outstanding professors who helped him along the way to receiving this fellowship. Bowman believes the best professors are not the ones who thought undergraduate students should be an asset to the department or those who only want students who are already very skilled in the field. The best professors are the ones who are not expecting you to be perfect and believe they can turn students into great physicists by giving them the resources to be successful.

Bowman believes that the key to success is to find your group. Having a support system will keep you successful. He also recommends applying to your home university because there will be people there who know you personally in ways that people at outside institutions won’t. Bowman said he is honest about how hard it can be to move past systematic barriers, but he believes it is possible if you have people to support you through it all.

“The folks who are great physicists, great biologists, the folks who are great engineers, or at least the people who are revered as such in society, it’s about understanding that there truly is nothing more special about them than there is about you,” said Bowman.

“That is not me saying that you can do anything you put your mind to because I am very honest about systemic barriers that do block lots of people from doing anything they put their mind to. What I will say is having a community that offers you support will be the difference between making it or not.” 

By Hannah Naimo, public relations associate

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