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Morgan Student Lands Astrophysics Internship at Florida Tech

Mikel Tucker Seeks to Make Name in Exclusive Field of Science Research

Mikel Tucker has been his own person for as long as he can remember. As a child, when other kids were playing with toys they’d seen on television or following the latest fad, he found an old telescope in his house and discovered a passion for space. When time came for him to go to college, he followed that passion to choose a major that he thought would make him different: physics.

“I just wanted to do something I felt nobody else was doing and that only a few people could do,” he says.

His major and his subspecialty, astrophysics, do indeed make Tucker a rarity. Only 18 black students in the U.S. received degrees in astrophysics or astronomy from 2004 through 2009, according to the federal government’s National Center for Education Statistics. This summer, the Morgan State University physics major will spend 10 weeks at Florida Institute of Technology, working as an intern in the university’s Department of Physics and Space Sciences, and getting practical experience in his chosen field. His supervisor during the internship will be astrophysicist Daniel Batcheldor, Ph.D., assistant professor at FIT and director of the school’s Olin Observatory.

“I’ve been anxious to get experience in the field, because I know it’s important to do that before I graduate,” Tucker says. “We will be writing a paper, I assume, on the things we do over the two months, (including) making a star atlas from pictures from the Hubble Telescope, repairing telescopes and things of that nature.”

Timothy Akers, Ph.D., Morgan’s associate dean for graduate studies and research, was instrumental in helping him get the internship, through the Southeastern Association for Research in Astronomy (SARA) Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) Summer Intern program. The program is sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Defense. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security provided the funds for Tucker’s internship.

Tucker is from Baltimore and has long been a member of the Morgan family. His mother is Cynthia Tucker, Ph.D., assistant professor in MSU’s Department of Nutritional Sciences/Dietetics. He also had a solid foundation in science, technology, engineering and math as a student at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, his high school, but he admits he didn’t apply himself fully to his academics while he was there.

“I was a good student; I had a 3.0 average. But I could have done much better,” he says. “I didn’t put my all into it. I just did the work and kept it moving. That changed in my second year at Morgan. I settled down, got serious, started putting in more time, and things started to come together.

“I think the change came because my peers, the people I went to high school with, were advancing, and I didn’t want to be left behind,” Tucker says, “especially since I was viewed as one of the smarter people. I didn’t want to be making dumb decisions when everybody knew I was smart.”

Tucker is in full stride toward his goals now. After graduating from Morgan in December, he plans to pursue a doctorate in astrophysics and join the thin ranks of African Americans in the field. He looks forward to the day when prominent black scientists such as Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City, will be his peers.

“I would like to definitely do something with space science and know everything there is to know about the galaxy we live in, the Milky Way, as well as know what’s going on in outer galaxies and (with) different phenomena in outer space,” Tucker says.

But when we talked with him, in May, he was just anxious to get to Florida.

“I’m definitely happy about embarking on this opportunity,” he says. “This will be my first time outside of West Baltimore by myself for an extended period of time. It’ll be nice to see somewhere else and live on my own.”

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