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From Poverty to Ph.D.: A Scientist Finds Himself in Physics

Darnell Diggs and his twin sister are the youngest of 15 children who grew up in the small Alabama town of Brundidge to parents who did not finish high school. Their parents did value education. "Our parents inspired us to work hard at school, and if you didn't, you got disciplined. That was encouragement enough," Diggs recalls.

Thirty-four-year-old Darnell is now Dr. Diggs, a physicist working at the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. Most of his siblings have at least undergraduate degrees in areas as diverse as chemistry, math, physics, business, and education.

Diggs was a 2004 Black Engineer of the Year Award winner in the "Promising Scientist in Government" category. He was also named one of the 50 Most Important Blacks in Research Science in 2004 by Science Spectrum magazine.

Changing Majors and Surviving Academic Death

During his high school days Diggs was first-chair trumpet player in the school band and was in the ROTC. He preferred biology to the physical sciences and planned to become a physician. Yet when he went off to Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University, a historically black school near Huntsville in Normal, Alabama, he took a cousin's advice and began to study business, hoping to prepare for the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) on the side.

That all changed during the final semester of his sophomore year, when he took a required physical sciences class for nonscience majors. The instructor of that class told Diggs he was in the wrong field and that he ought to be majoring in physics. He even offered to help Diggs obtain a scholarship if he tried studying physics. Having paid for his schooling on grants and loans up to that point, the offer of a scholarship was enticing. Diggs enjoyed the physical science course, so he decided to take the instructor up on his offer.

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force

The physics department gave Diggs a scholarship based on his instructor's recommendation, even though his earlier work was merely satisfactory. During Diggs's early days in physics, members of the physics department must have wondered whether they had done the right thing, because as Diggs took the final exam of his first physics course, he had a failing average.

But Diggs found inspiration in a book entitled Gifted Hands by Ben Carson, an African-American who grew up in inner-city Detroit and at age 33 became the director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University Hospital. Diggs identified with Carson, who had to struggle to overcome many of the same hurdles Diggs did, and drew motivation from Carson's story.

With Carson's book in mind, Diggs dug in for the comprehensive final and came through with a grade high enough to pass the course. That academic near-death experience gave him the resolve to struggle on, although it was not an easy path.

One of the things Diggs had to do was improve his study habits. In high school, he was an honor student and a National Science Merit scholar without having to work hard. Being a physics major in college, though, was harder. But Diggs--and his grades--rose to the challenge.

Because of the change of major, it took Diggs 6 years to finish his bachelor of science degree with a major in physics. During that time he sang in the Alabama A&M University choir and the campus gospel choir and served as president of the Society of Physics Students.

Graduate School and All Points Beyond

As graduation approached, Diggs thought about what he was going to do for the rest of his life. During that period of introspection, he attended a seminar at the National Conference of Black Physics Students that discussed the low numbers of black graduate students in physics. The attendees were encouraged to go to graduate school if they were able, and Diggs decided to give it a shot. He was admitted to the master's program in physics, also at Alabama A&M, on the condition that he do well academically. The focus of his master's studies was fiber optics. He enjoyed graduate school and his grades continued to improve. By the time he received his master's degree in physics, his grade point average was 3.5, a considerable increase from the 2.7 at the beginning of his graduate career.

Diggs enjoyed graduate work so much that he decided to stay on for a Ph.D., also at Alabama A&M, where he developed a sensor that detects ammonia in ambient air. The sensor is intended for use in agricultural settings, where ammonia is used for refrigeration.

Diggs received his doctorate in physics in the summer of 2001 and proceeded to teach a summer session at Drake Technical College in Huntsville. At about that time he was recruited by the Air Force Research Laboratory through a minority initiative program. He began work there in December 2001 and remains there today, where he is now affiliated with the Materials and Manufacturing Directorate's Survivability and Sensor Materials Division. His current work involves electro-optic modulation, a system similar to fiber optics in that it is used to transmit large amounts of data at high rates of speed using light waves. Electro-optic technology is currently used to transmit information to and from space.

In addition to his professional activities, Diggs is involved in the Dayton chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers and serves as a minister of the Faith Tabernacle Church of God in Christ in Columbus, Ohio.

Despite the many obstacles he had to overcome, Diggs never gave up. He worked hard and held fast to his dream. Regardless of where his research interests take him, he will continue to be a role model and the personification of perseverance.

Victor Chase is a freelance writer and may be reached at

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