Each February Americans celebrate Black History Month, also known as African American History Month, to recognize the importance of Black history in American history. We profile three employees—Jackie Scoggins, Matt Rice, and Thierry Nouidui—who tell their stories of how they came to Berkeley Lab.
Jackie Scoggins, Team Lead, NERSC Operations Technology Group
It was a high school summer job at the Oakland Naval Supply Center’s print shop that first sparked Jackie Scoggins’ fascination with computers, though she didn’t know it at the time.
“I always wondered how those printers knew how to keep track of how many copies they had made and what they were copying,” she recalls. “I didn’t even realize that it had anything to do with computer science.”
But when it came time to apply for college, the experience Scoggins had gained through the many positions she’d held in the city of Oakland’s summer job program—clerical, administrative, finance—had reinforced her love of math and contributed to her choice to major in computer science in college.
“I literally had no programming experience with computers prior to college, and no one in my family had worked in a math or science field,” Scoggins says. “But both my older sisters had gone to college and education was highly valued in my family. I knew I liked math, and it came easily to me, so I just went for it.”
Since graduating from Cal State Hayward Scoggins has enjoyed a rewarding career in computer science, starting with a position as an operations system analyst at NASA Ames Research Center and then joining Berkeley Lab’s National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC) in 1996 as one of two engineers in the systems group.
After her third child was born, Scoggins decided she needed a break from the 24/7 nature of her job and went to work for the Lab’s IT division in the Unix support/high performance computing group in 2000. Now that her children are older, she returned last year to NERSC, this time as a site reliability engineer team lead, bringing her analytical and administrative skills into operations to grow the team into an analytical site reliability engineering group.
Scoggins, who grew up in north Oakland, credits many of the city and school programs with leading her and her peers into successful jobs, whether vocational or through degrees. Those programs have largely disappeared though, leaving a lot of Oakland youth with fewer opportunities.
Scoggins has been going to the same church since she was four years old, and it’s always been an important part of her culture and community. She’s been involved for the last 15 years in organizing church activities for Black History Month. “I think it is important to understand as a people who we are, our history, and to take pride in who we are at all times regardless of the actions of others,” she says. “History really needs to show the truth and not lie about the African-American contribution to America.”
Scoggins’ family is from the South, and she knows her parents and grandparents went through many more trials and tribulations than she has. “My family has a strong spiritual heritage, and I think that really helped with everything that they went through,” she says.
She adds: “It’s not like I haven’t faced prejudice in my own lifetime though. It’s just that in California, I feel like racism is much more subtle; it’s like a screen that you know is there, but you aren’t sure what’s behind it.”
Scoggins recalls working at a childcare center at UC Davis while she was in college and having to educate a four-year-old who was telling his classmates not to touch an African-American boy because his color would rub off on them. “I was taken aback, but also took the opportunity as a teaching moment,” she says. “I hope that child remembers that moment now as a grown-up.”
Scoggins has also had to help her children, now 21, 17, and 15, deal with racially charged incidents and comments from teachers and other people. “My kids are well versed and they understand subtleties,” she says. “I think some of what they’ve experienced has made them grow stronger about who they are.”
She adds a final thought: “I think a lot of what Dr. Martin Luther King said about being happy when one day people would stop judging us by the color of our skin but by the content of our character. There are good and bad in all races, and we need to see people for how they act versus how they look.
Matt Rice, Safety Engineer, EH&S
Raised in Pittsburg, California, Rice left home at the age of 13 and has basically been on his own ever since. When friends discovered that he could play basketball pretty well, he started hearing from high school recruiters. “Basketball kept me in school,” he says. “I was living in West Oakland in some really rough neighborhoods, and I wasn’t so interested in school.”
After high school, Rice was recruited by UC Berkeley, Oregon, and San Jose State but opted to go to junior college largely because he discovered that dunking was allowed in junior college basketball. He finished his college career at Livingston College in North Carolina with a bachelor’s degree in business administration.
While living in North Carolina, a friend suggested to Rice that he take up a dance career. “Dance was just something I’d done all my life for fun,” he says. “I had never really taken it seriously.”
But 15 years later, Rice found himself with a successful dance company that toured the nation and performed regularly all over the Bay Area. “We did variety shows, parties, various other venues,” he says.
As it happens, a new career opportunity came along at just the right time. In 1995, Rice was helping a friend who needed a ride to a construction job call for Berkeley Lab. The company, GSE Construction, had a contract with Berkeley Lab and needed five workers that day. Rice was the fifth. He never really intended to keep working construction but found he was good at it and enjoyed being at the Lab, so he kept saying “yes” when they asked him back.
He has since held a variety of positions at the Lab, from truck driver to tool crib attendant. He got his contractor’s license along the way and went through the Lab’s tuition reimbursement program to get another bachelor’s degree and an MBA. Rice wrote his thesis on a zero-accident program at the Lab. Now an EHS Safety Engineer, he jokes that he got his Ph.D. from his coworkers in the Facilities Division.
Rice has had his share of painful experiences. He recalls being in the midst of shootouts in West Oakland as a young man, barely escaping with his life. He was pulled over by Oakland police for driving too slowly and beaten badly when he questioned the reasoning. In North Carolina, he and a friend out on a run through the hills were chased by gun-toting Ku Klux Klan members.
“But all these cumulative experiences have never made me give up on the fact that goodness always outweighs badness and evil, because I’ve always been helped by good people,” he says. “We are hearing so much about racism in this country right now, and I often wish we had a new culture across the board. I wish racism could be set into a little capsule and buried in the ground, and then we could discover it one day when someone digs it up and wonder why it ever existed.”
Thierry Nouidui, Principal Scientific Engineering Associate, Building Technology and Urban Systems Division
It took Thierry Nouidui awhile to get used to not standing out as a “foreigner” when he first moved to California.
“I remember being at a conference and someone asking me where I was from, and just automatically answering ‘Cameroon,’” he says. “They were surprised I had come all the way from Cameroon, Africa, to a conference here in the States!”
Nouidui realized afterwards that the questioner had not assumed that he was from another country, but rather that he had traveled from another city or state to attend the conference.
Born in Douala, Cameroon, in West Africa, Nouidui moved to Germany after high school to pursue his education, which he describes as “a huge adjustment.” The first of his four siblings to travel abroad, Nouidui says he found out after the fact that his parents had felt a bit scared sending him off to a foreign country where he had no family or close friends. His father, a mechanical engineer, and his mother, a seamstress, felt that they had to send their kids abroad for a good education, as the university system in Cameroon suffers from underfunding.
Nouidui ended up spending 13 years in Germany, receiving an M.S. in Electrical Engineering from the University of Kiel and a Ph.D. in Building Physics from the University of Stuttgart. “It was really interesting to be immersed in such a different culture,” he says. “And they have a very good, inexpensive university system; at the end of earning my Ph.D. I had no debt and just had to work summers and part-time to pay for my education.”
However, Nouidui says he always felt like an outsider in Germany. “You can spend 10 years in Germany, and it will still be like you’ve just arrived,” he says. “People will always ask the question, ‘when are you flying back?’”
He felt this most after university, while working as a research engineer at the Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics. “You really feel like a foreigner every day there, especially in the business world,” he says. “It’s tiring, as you are always asked to prove yourself. You tell one person, and then the next person you talk to needs the same explanation of your education and life story.”
It’s been different since he came to California. Nouidui joined Berkeley Lab as a postdoc in 2010 and is now a Principal Scientific Engineering Associate in the Simulation Research Group of the Energy Technologies Area. “Here in California, I don’t feel that way at all,” says Nouidui. “So many people in the scientific field here are foreigners, so I kind of just feel like one of many.”
Nouidui and his siblings were encouraged by their parents to pursue higher education and given the means to do so. His two sisters followed in his footsteps, moving to Germany to attend university after him. It’s common practice in Cameroon for parents to struggle, often going without enough food, to save enough to send one child abroad for university, and then count on that first child to work and earn enough to educate more kids in the family, says Nouidui.
As an African, Nouidui has been in the minority in scientific fields, both in Germany and here in the U.S., where Africans and African-Americans are underrepresented in science and engineering. Reflecting on how to foster more diversity in science disciplines, Nouidui observes that, unlike in his native country, “when you are born to a poor family in the U.S., it seems like it’s very unlikely that you’ll end up going to college.”
“I have young children, and I see it starting so early here, with kids from poor families coming to school at a young age with a disadvantage right from the beginning—they often haven’t eaten enough and they are hungry and not as ready to learn,” he says. “Interventions shouldn’t start at the university level; that’s already too late.”
Nouidui hopes to return to Cameroon at some point to give back. “My dream is at some point to go there and make a contribution, probably through the education system,” he says.
– Keri Troutman