A Talk with Donnell Walton

Photo of D. Walton

Donnell Walton [Image: Courtesy of Corning Incorporated]

Editor’s note: In a May 2023 feature article, “Breaking Barriers, Advancing Optics,” Optics & Photonics News profiled six Black scientists in the United States, their pathbreaking work in optics, photonics and related areas, and their perspectives on progress and challenges for underrepresented groups in science. In this special accompanying online “Conversations” series, we offer edited versions of the interviews behind those profiles.

In this installment, OPN chats with Donnell Walton, director of Corning West Technology Center (CWTC) in Sunnyvale, CA, USA.  

What initially got you interested in pursuing physics?

Donnell Walton: I started off being interested in engineering. I was fortunate to get into an introduction to engineering and science program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the summer between my junior and senior year in high school.  I was humbled by this experience, and it was tough. A lot of the kids were a lot more prepared than I was. There were students there who had already taken calculus, and I was mystified by an integral sign.

I remember reading some of the reviews from some of the professors, and one of them said something that stuck with me for many years. It said, “Donnell accepted the impossibility of the situation.” But I didn’t realize I had a choice in the matter—I was convinced that the topic was simply beyond me. After reading that comment, I did the closest thing a 16-year-old can do to internal reflection and considered what I could have done differently.

“A lot of the kids were a lot more prepared than I was. There were students there who had already taken calculus, and I was mystified by an integral sign.”

In my senior year of high school, I went back to physics and did extremely well, and then I pursued an electrical engineering major in college. During this time, a physics professor asked me if I had considered majoring in physics, but at the time electrical engineering was one of the highest-paying starting salaries—physics was not. So, he suggested that I double major, which I did.

I got research experience at Bell Labs while pursuing my undergraduate degrees. I also enjoyed several internships in research at IBM in various electrical engineering job capacities.

And how did you end up in optics?

I really liked electricity and magnetism, so I took some courses in microwaves during college. I also learned a little bit about lasers—so I kept stepping up the electromagnetic spectrum. Then I went to the University of Michigan to do my Ph.D. in optics. I did my theory work with Herb Winful and experiments with Gérard Mourou on ultra-short-pulse science. I got lucky—I was blown away and fascinated by the approach to physics taught by these two individuals.

I also like the interplay between physics and engineering. Understanding the fundamentals of these two areas was more interesting to me than the applications, but the applications were what attracted me to it, being able to really understand what was going on. I never had an affinity for pure theory or cosmology. While they’re cool, and one of my best friends is a cosmologist, optics is a great opportunity to kind of combine the two.

After your Ph.D., you became an assistant professor at Howard University, USA, and established a fiber laser and amplifier lab. What was that experience like?

I went to Howard to start the lab, and it was literally starting it from the ground up, meaning that we poured concrete for the foundation of the building.

In parallel to my work at Howard, I was also fortunate enough to do some hard-X-ray experiments at the then-burgeoning Advanced Photon Source at Argonne, where we were able to do some of the first ultrafast electron measurements there.

How did you decide to transition out of academia and into industry?

I interviewed at Corning while I was in graduate school, but at the time, I wasn’t interested in going to such a rural place. Washington, DC seemed more attractive, and my partner was finishing up a post doctoral program at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Then we welcomed our daughter, and our son a few years later.

After my partner wrapped up her postdoc, she got a good job at Corning and ended up taking it, and I also took a role at Corning. In short, the Corning opportunity was a good one for us to grow our family and continue our professional careers.

Did anything surprise you about this career move?

I would never have guessed it, but in my early years at Corning, some of the skills that I developed at Howard became, counterintuitively, very relevant. Areas such as grant writing were critical.  During the telecom boom and bust, we were able to write some grants to keep a lot of our resources. I also utilized my teaching skills. In a customer-facing technical capacity, I’ve had an opportunity to do a lot of instruction and teaching, maybe even more so than I did in academia. 

“I would never have guessed it, but in my early years at Corning, some of the skills that I developed at Howard became, counterintuitively, very relevant.”

How has your career at Corning evolved?

I came here with the absolute intention of being a bench scientist. I was doing optical-fiber-based lasers, and what better place was there in the world at the time to do that than Corning? At Howard, I would spend the lion’s share of my grants on obtaining these fibers, and at Corning, my cup runneth over with fiber. So, I was very content with that work. And this was during the inflation of the telecom bubble where people needed more optical fibers and amplifiers. We were writing a lot of papers and publishing patents.

Even though our focus on telecom shifted, we were able to write grants to go from the milliwatt amplifier for communications to kilowatt levels for DARPA for lasers. While we didn’t figure out a good industrial value proposition to pursue that at Corning, I was able to flex some different muscles and show that I was good at leading more complex projects and working with external customers.

Then, when an opportunity with Corning Gorilla Glass came about, they needed someone to manage the technical customer interaction. So I was moved from the research environment into a commercial environment to work on teaching the technical world how to design phones, computers and tablets with glass, which was a new concept at the time.

This was an interesting role because glass is as tough in a lot of ways as aluminum, but the failure modes are very different, with dented aluminum being very different than shattered glass. So how do you design your device around that? I was able to do that for several years, and it was a great experience to grow along with the business.

Was that something of a departure from your previous work?

Absolutely. I was learning it, as the Feynman method says, by teaching, which was a lot of fun. It was one of the fastest-growing divisions that Corning has ever had. During my time there, we were on a hypergrowth ramp. This experience is what ultimately led me to my current position leading a customer-facing technical lab in Silicon Valley.

Photo of Corning West Technology Center grand opening.

The grand opening of the Corning West Technology Center in Sunnyvale, CA in 2017. [Image: Courtesy of Corning Incorporated]

Can you tell us more about the Corning West Technology Center, which you now direct?

Corning’s headquarters are located in upstate New York, and we had labs and facilities all over the world but no presence in California, where many important technology companies were based. Corning realized that we needed to get something there to stay in lock step with our local customers.

CWTC is a small lab of around 40 people. It’s a mixture of scientists, engineers and business professionals. We’ve pulled together a team of technical and business-development people to look for opportunities for Corning, primarily on the West Coast. While materials science can’t move at the speed of software, we have to shoot ahead of the target, so that’s what we’re really here to do. We don’t make materials at our lab in California, but we use them to build prototypes with our partners and customers to try to figure out the anticipated needs for novel materials in the future.

What changes have you seen, if any, in the experience of young Black people working in industry over the course of your career?

I’ve seen the ups and downs and the effects more of economic dynamics than racial dynamics. I went to Corning in a hypergrowth time, and then when there were times of austerity, you saw people of all races and genders leaving. It’s kind of like a rising-tide phenomenon.

What are your thoughts on the underrepresentation of minority groups in physics in particular, and how to address that?

I tend to think about representation in a different way. I think that if we have groups of people that are underrepresented, then there are also groups that are actually overrepresented. There may be hoarding of opportunities.

“I’ve been told multiple times that I didn’t look like a physicist. It’s like, what does a physicist look like? A physicist is someone who does physics, right?”

I think the term is “ascription”—we ascribe certain unrelated characteristics to people based on their identities. I’ve been told multiple times that I didn’t look like a physicist. It’s like, what does a physicist look like? A physicist is someone who does physics, right?

We like symmetry arguments in physics, so thinking about it from the context of symmetry may be helpful. There are biases against people, but there are also definitely biases for people. And that so-called affinity bias is something I’d like to see a lot more work on.

I remember working for the American Physical Society on a bridge program, and one of the professors there reminded us that not everyone who wants a physics degree deserves one. And I said, “Sure, no argument there, physics is hard. But keep in mind the way things work. Many people who have physics degrees didn’t necessarily deserve them.” So just focusing on one aspect of it may not lead us to a conclusion.

You mentioned the impact of your time at Howard University, which is one of the United States’ historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs.) What is your view of the importance of HBCUs and where they stand today?

I believe that HBCUs are extremely valuable. When we look at the data, we see that a disproportionately high number of African Americans who get Ph.Ds. started at HBCUs, so they certainly continue to be relevant for a lot of reasons.

The biggest issue with HBCUs is resourcing. While race is obvious—it’s obvious if you look at me, and you see that I’m black. Resourcing inequity not as obvious, but it’s a huge issue for HBCUs, as many are under-resourced.

You’re a member of the research advisory board of the IBM-HBCU Quantum Center, which aims to “create a more diverse quantum-ready workforce.” What do you think partnerships like that might accomplish for diversity in STEM?

Many things are getting smaller and into the quantum domain. Having opportunities to expose people who are traditionally underrepresented to cutting-edge areas is only going to make things better. This is something that would be in the absolute positive interest of the country, to make sure that everyone has access to these opportunities, not just people who have traditionally had it.

You’re a supporter of a number of initiatives in early science education, including Florida A&M University’s STEM Day. Do you think reaching people at a young age is particularly important for STEM fields?

I think if you ask how people become scientists, that question is a little bit backward in my mind. We all start off curious and asking questions and wondering how things work, and then somehow it gets broken out of us, and we stop enjoying science.

It’s important to begin learning concepts in STEM as early as possible to be sure that kids have positive experiences and want to keep learning. So that’s why I really enjoy doing things like STEM Day and figuring out how to continue to talk to sixth graders about science.

“It’s important to begin learning concepts in STEM as early as possible to be sure that kids have positive experiences and want to keep learning.”

The main thing is technological literacy because people tend to think about it as being able to use technology, but that’s not what literacy means. If you could only read, you would be considered semi-literate. In order to be considered fully literate, you have to be able to write. So not just use the latest apps or type my essay with chat GPT, I need to be able to write some code. And you’re not “weird” if you like these things; you’re actually fortifying yourself for the future.

It still frustrates me when my friends’ kids get discouraged by science. In the US, if students don’t perform well in math, they say that math just isn't their thing. And many adults with similar math anxiety allow them to get away with that excuse. On the contrary, in countries that outperform the US on math exams, when students don't do well, they say that they didn't try hard enough.

My experience is that if you put the time in, you get the result. But if you get discouraged and decide that it’s not for you, and then it’s reinforced by other people who don’t expect you to do well, then you don’t do well.

You’ve mentioned the impact your interactions with some other Black physicists, like Herb Winful and Lewis Johnson, have had on you. Could you talk about the importance of those relationships and the Black physicist community?

One of the biggest influences for me has been being part of the National Society of Black Physicists, and I’m happy to be a board member now.

These relationships are critically important. Lewis was a year or two behind me in undergraduate, and he was one of the first people that culturally reinforced my love of science. We both liked the same kind of music, and we both understood how to do triple integrals, so we have kind of a mutual mentoring relationship.

“One of the biggest influences for me has been being part of the National Society of Black Physicists, and I’m happy to be a board member now.”

And Herb is just a wonderful teacher. As a matter of fact, one of my biggest disappointments in life is that I can’t explain things as clearly as he does. Now that I’m 10 or 15 years older than he was when I met him, I’ve realized, I’m not going to get there.

As another example, when I first left undergrad, I thought I wanted to do an M.D./Ph.D. program. So I went to the University of Pennsylvania, but I started to gravitate away from the life sciences back toward physics, and I was very lucky to meet Larry Gladney, a Black particle physicist. He did a summer program, and through that program, I was able to teach physics to some of the incoming freshmen.

And one of the brightest freshmen was a young man named Kimani Toussaint. And I reconnected with him recently, and I was like, “wait a minute, you were that kid I taught at Penn!” And he’s just doing outstanding work, now at Brown University. I hadn’t seen him since he was an incoming freshman; now he’s got gray hair and I’ve got no hair. It’s just amazing how these cycles work.

Having people like the examples I shared is just so important. Your conversation can go from Schrödinger’s equation to the Middle Passage.

Update, 10 April 2023, 13:24 EDT: This story has been updated to reflect that Walton's children were born in Washington, DC, before his move to Corning.

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