Interviewing Dr. Reginald Blake

Dr. Reginald Blake is the Interim Associate Provost and Dean of Curriculum and Research at the New York City College of Technology (CityTech). Dr. Blake is a Professor in the Physic Department at CityTech. He is also a Co-Director of the Center for Remote Sensing and Earth System Sciences (ReSESS) at CItyTech. His research interests include the application of satellite and ground-based remote sensing to study hydro-climate, hurricanes, and air pollution.

How has your identity as a Black/African American scientist influence your profession?

Two things. One is that it [identity] drove me to go beyond. By that I mean, it forced me not to become complicit or to settle for mediocrity. Being a Black man, being a professor in the midst of a community that is not Black/African American and even coming up in the ranks of academia getting up to the professoriate. There is this burden of always having to measure up, of having to show that you belong, of having to exceed and excel. So that was an addition burden that one had to bring along as I came to this level.

Additionally getting to this level have another burden, because there is this desire to make sure that the pathway is clear or has been cleared for others to come along. So not only did I have to make it to the level that I wanted to get to but in getting there, I had to reach back to make sure that others can not only make it to that level but that some of the stumbling blocks were cleared out of the way so that it is easier for them to have a pathway to the same level. It wasn’t in my mind to get to a certain level and stand on top of the hill and say ‘Oh, look at what I’ve done, look at what I’ve achieved”, it was never that way. It was always ‘How can I get others to the same level? Or to exceed?’, that has always been the driving force. That’s one of the reasons I think I have a desire and passion for students. It is not about any one person, it’s about bringing as many people along as I possible can. I do that of all of my student respective of race, color, or creed.

But I know what it is to have that burden of making sure that others come along. The pipeline is leaking the pathway is littered with stumbling blocks. Not many underserved students, not many minority students make it through. Therefore, the burden is always there to make sure that I can pull along as many as I can, so that they too can attain to higher levels. It’s a twofold burden, one of trying to excel and to exceed, and to show that you belong. And then the other burden is also then to try to bring along as many people as possible.

There has to be a purpose in life. For me, the purpose has to be human beings. It’s not about attaining some, some fame or fortune. It’s about giving back. It’s about reaching back and treating people with respect and with dignity. Helping them to be the best they can be, attaining to their fullest potential. That’s what gets me excited. That’s what gets me happy. That’s what makes me feel fulfilled. When my students succeed, I succeed. That’s irrespective of race, color, or creed. So that’s my mind. That’s how I see life.  We’re here for all, all of us. We’re all in this together.

What obstacles have you faced in your profession as a Black/African American scientist? How did you overcome them?

One of the things that one of the reasons why our minority students do not excel in STEM, is because they’re not aware of STEM. They have not been as exposed as they ought to be. They have also not been encouraged, as they ought to be. In addition, the encouragement comes not only from the faculty in the institution, but the encouragement comes from the community. I have an issue with my own community, because I don’t think that my community does enough to encourage our young people to get into STEM. I think and I will place the blame at our communities first. And for us to start looking internally at what it is that we are doing wrong in our communities, for example, we do not celebrate scholarship enough in my community. My community, folks are gung ho about movie stars and entertainers and rappers, and basketball players, and all of those things, they all have a place. However, when it comes to the advancement of a nation, when it comes to the advancement of people, where the nurses and the doctors and engineers coming from, where are they going to come from? I’ve been to hospitals and I look around, and I don’t see any of us [Black/African American People]. I’m not saying that others should not be represented and get these positions. But by golly, where are our people? Don’t we have brains as well? Can’t we be doctors, engineers, and scientists as well? We don’t see that and partly because we do not celebrate scholarship at the grassroots level. We need a revolution, in our communities, in our homes, in our families, and in the neighborhood. It has to be okay for young African American students and Hispanic students, black and brown people to say, ‘You know what, I love math. I love coding. I just discovered something. There’s something that just gets into me because I was able to solve that problem’. Where is that passion in our neighborhoods? That’s the place we need to get to. That’s a lifelong endeavor of mine, to get our people to that place where we start believing in ourselves and become part of our own destiny, and not be drawn or be dragged along or be just following behind the procession. Why can’t we leave the procession? My point is that we’ve got to be introspective and see what’s working, what has not worked. Find ways to help our young people to get involved in the things that do work. One of the reasons why so many of our young men and young women get caught up in all the distractions in this world, in the city, whether it’s crime or drugs, is because I think there’s a missing element. That missing element comes from us. There has to be an investment from the community in the lives of our young people. It has to be a community engagement and endeavor. I think that that’s what’s missing.

One of the obstacles is if you are an African American, in academia, at some point along the way, you’re going to run into obstacles of racism. You’re going to run into colleagues who don’t like you, because they don’t like you. Not because you’ve done anything wrong, you could be the nicest person in the world. There are people who are just like that they don’t like you because they don’t like you, don’t like the color of your skin. They don’t like the way you dress, don’t like the way you speak People will find anything to latch on to, to support and to feed the hatred that’s in their hearts. The way I overcame there was to find a supporting path and system outside of the realm of the racism that I faced. You’ve got to find people who love you and will support you and build you up when others are trying to tear you down. The more they tear you down, the more you should use that as a propellant, to get you to the next level. The more you strive, the harder you work. You cannot allow the negativity to pull you down, and have folks bring you down to their level. Now, that’s another thing, not because someone retaliates or does something negative to you, then you do something negative to them. We can’t do that. Michelle Obama said it best maybe she said, ‘when they go low, you go high’. That’s exactly what you have to do. You cannot allow yourself to be sucked into that same vacuum. You’ve got to be the better human being. In fact, you have to be the way human beings were meant to be. We were meant to show love, concern, and respect for each other. I had to overcome that. But it was easy for me because I understand these ideas. I had a wonderful mentor, they passed away a few years ago. Those are some of the things that were in my spirit, because of the mentorship I received, that you’ve got to go above and beyond and you’ve got to be the better person. So overcoming the obstacles, there were some hateful and hurtful things that were done to me, but I was able to get over.

I’ll tell you something about the duck. Here’s a wonderful thing about the duck. The duck doesn’t like to get its skin wet. So what it rains if a duck is outdoors, you know, what the duck does? It has a way of putting its feathers together so that they form a very cohesive unit. In addition, they enfold together. When the rainfall occurs, the rain falls on the feathers and rolls off the duck, never getting to the skin. I’ve learned over the years that you want to do exactly that. You want to have a layer above you were whatever the criticisms, and the hurtful things are that they roll off, and they don’t seep into your system and into your mind. Therefore, I’ve learned to develop that. So that’s how I overcome obstacles, I do not allow them to seep into my skin. If you get a punch, you want to feel a little pain. But I found ways not to allow the pain to dwell. So I may absorb the pain, deal with the pain, but then I have to release the pain. If you don’t release the pain, the pain is going to stay, there’s going to grow, it’s going to metastasize. And it’s going to cause you to end up being bitter and being like the person who inflicted the pain in the first place. I learned to not allow the infliction to get into my system.

In Jamaica, there’s an old saying there, it says, ‘If you want something good your nose has to run’. You have to pay a price for something that is worth paying a price for. If you want something good, you have to make a sacrifice, right? I see all of those things, whether they’re obstacles that people place in your way, or things just happen a certain way, they’re all part of the price that needs to be paid to get to the level. There is another saying ‘anything that comes too easily is not worth it.’, there has to be a price to pay. If something is precious than you have to do something precious to get it. So as a student, for example, as I tell students, anyone who tells you that learning comes easily is lying to you, there’s a price to be paid for gaining knowledge You got to study you got to read, you got to stay up. Sometimes there’s sleepless nights, you got to take exams, those are the things you do. Whenever the obstacles come along, I see them as being part of the growing process. If you can take the obstacles and turn them into something positive, and gain from them, instead of having them keeping you down, then you win. And you win. And that’s what I’ve done. I’ve never dwelt on the negatives as if they were negatives, I find a way to turn them around, and use that as inspiration to go higher, to try more, to dig deeper, to realize more of the potential that I may have. I think that is a wonderful way to do to live and to not only survive, but to thrive.

You have really started living when you can take all of that stuff, that negative stuff and turn them into something positive that will help you to rise above. So the idea we’re living in a broken world timeline and if anyone thinks that they’re going to go through this world without being criticized or talked about or treated unfairly, you better wake up. The thing to do is to not act as if the world is over because someone called you a name or someone put a stumbling block in your pathway, the thing to do is to see that, hey, you know what this is life, but I’m not going to let this stop me. My destiny is not going to be determined by someone who is trying to stop me. I’m going to go as far as I can, I’m going to be the best version of myself. I am going to be the best that I can be. That’s living. I think that’s what we try to get people to see. If you can get to that point, then your academic success becomes part of a bigger picture. And that’s all we need to see. I think we need to see life. That’s when you really start living, because by golly, I’m the best version of myself. I am doing all right. I will always be moving forward. No matter what you do, no matter what you say.

What does Black History Month mean to you?

Three things, to assess where we are now, reflect on where we’re coming from, and then the third is to be aspirational as to where we would like to be. Black History Month for me is a time to really be introspective as a people, to look at the history that we’ve had and the lessons that we have learned. The inspiration we should derive from those who came before. Look at where we are today and to do another formative assessment, if you will, and to say, ‘ did we do, as well as our fore-parents expected us to do?’. Where are we, along the spectrum of advancement? Have we made progress? To be honest, in our critique, and to say to ourselves, Well, you know, we didn’t do well in these areas, we need to improve. To not just be aspirational with ideas about, ‘we should do this. And we should do that.’ What we need is an action plan, it’s not sufficient to say ‘we’d like to do this, and we should be there’. How do we get there? What are the steps? We need to be very definitive in the way we achieve those accurate aspirational goals, we’ve talked a whole lot, but we have done very little. And we’ve done very little, because we don’t have the guidance, we don’t know the pathways, we don’t have the access. We have not implemented the little steps that are necessary to get us where we need to go. In fact, we have not even articulated those steps. I think Black History Month means for me a time to reflect on history and to draw inspiration from the past. To have a honest critique of where we are today by looking at our faults and flaws and our successes, but then to also be aspirational, and to figure out what are the steps needed to be taken to make those aspirations come to pass.

How can we go about creating an action plan?

Dr. King said, for example, ‘I have a dream’, right? So there’s something visionary, something to look forward to. The question is, how do we get there? Until we have those steps clearly defined, and sometimes you don’t know what those steps are, but we need to start somewhere. The Chinese have a saying that ‘a journey of 1000 miles begins with one step’, we need to know where to start and what follows. We need to have a plan, even if we have to sometimes deviate from that plan. But, we need a blueprint to start with. And I don’t think we have one or a good one. And that’s why we keep spinning our tails going around in circles and not making the progress that our people need us to make. We need our leaders, we need our scholars, we need the input from those that we look up to say, and ‘You know what, here are some concrete plans. These are the ingredients needed to get us to where we need to be’. That’s what’s missing. I think is not an it’s not a goal for any one person. It’s a collective. It’s a community. It’s for our leaders to come together with one common cause and to put our heads together. It’s not a one man show. It has to be a collective and community effort, if we’re serious about nation building, because if you only have one person leading, all you need to do is to get to about one person and the movement falls. We need to do better, we need to diversify, we need to strategize, we need to plan we need to think, and we need to find ways to make sure that this is a collective movement for all of us to move forward. We need a collective, that’s what’s missing.

What has been your biggest inspiration?

I guess my inspirations have been through sources of who’s and what’s. What is my relationship with my Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ? My spiritual connection to the Lord is what keeps me going. That is, number one, nothing comes close. My faith in Christ is what my biggest motivation, inspiration is, it is what keeps me tethered, and tethered to the things that are in line with the discipleship of Christ. Number two, all the people that the Lord has placed in my life, to be my mentors and my motivators.

I have been very fortunate to have great mentors, both males and females. They have taught me many things verbally and non-verbally, I have learned a lot by just watching them and learning from their mistakes. Without naming names, but there, I have had many mentors, you know, my pastor, my professors, many great men and women. We need to tell our young people is that mentors come in different flavors. Mentors ought to be diverse. The person who mentors you in one area of your life doesn’t have to be the same person who mentors you in another area of your life. We need to figure out who is the best mentor for what aspect of our lives because we do have different compartments to our lives. One person typically, cannot fulfill all of those roles. There’s so many different compartments that it’s hard to find one person will be a mentor for each one. I’ve been fortunate that for almost all the compartments in my life, I’ve found a mentor or the Lord has been my mentor. Those things inspire me. I am inspired to do good. I am motivated to help others. I am thrilled and fulfilled when I can help somebody else and it doesn’t matter who it doesn’t matter about race, color, creed, or class. My greatest joy comes from helping somebody else. My mantra is if ‘I can help somebody, as I travel along this way, then my living shall not be in vain’, that comes from an old spiritual that I’ve adopted as my mantra. I think that be what life is all about. We’re here to help each other. We’re here to love one another. We’re here to respect each other. We’re here to share and to care. If we’re not doing that, then we’re not living up to the ideals of what it means to be a human being.

You are a role model for many of our students. What advice would you give Black/ African American youth interested in Earth Systems science?

One of the first things I will do is to congratulate such a young person because we do not have many of our[Black/African American] young people who are in  Earth System sciences. We don’t have many. I would go to conferences, either as a participant or as an observer, I could always count on one hand the amount of African American or Hispanic fellow students that I would see and even scientists presenting, I could count on one hand. And even though we have made improvements, the numbers are still very dismal. Number two, I would direct that student advise that student to find himself or herself a mentor. Doesn’t have to be one from his or her own ethnic group. But if they can find one, because you’re so few of them, latch onto him or her because more than likely his or her background experience, trials and tests will be very similar to the students. The students can identify with that mentor. Studies have proven that our students do better when someone who shared their experiences or looked like them, or can come from their background mentors them. If you can find such a person fine, but not to exclude the fact that there’s so many other great mentors who don’t look like us. There are many mentors from all ethnic groups who are just good people. They’re good human beings, fine human beings, great mentors. Find yourself a good mentor who can guide you through or now help you to navigate the system. Another one is to be introspective. What is it about the Earth system sciences that really resonates with you [the student]? What’s your passion? Do you want to study hydrology, meteorology? Or oceanography? Do you want to study astronomy? Whatever it is that you want to study, find out first from you yourself, what is it that I would like to do? Then you, okay, I like meteorology, as I did, and figure out well, what area of meteorology you want to focus on? Where can you go? This is when a mentor would come in, to help you to help to guide you to where the opportunities are. Don’t spin your tail and take two years to decide on where you want to go. When you’re a grad student, the clock ticks and their deadlines and their timetables, and there’s a certain period by which you have to finish in your dissertation and defend it. You want to make sure that by the time you get there, you have a clear idea where you want to go. Then you want to make sure that you are gathering in all the information about the area that you like. So you need to go to conferences, you need to read the papers, you need to get involved in research, you need to get yourself in forums that allow you to express ideas and to soak in ideas about this area in this field that you’re in. One of the major issues I have found with our students who get to grad school, and they are involved in STEM, the weakest area for our students is math, even at the grad school level. What I would advise a young student to do getting ready for grad school, show off your math skills and your coding skills. If you get your math together, you get your, your coding skills together and your physics is okay. You should be fine.

You want to get those building blocks under your belt; you can then use those as launching pads to go anywhere you want. You need those building blocks and, and there’s nothing wrong in not having them now. You then say to yourself, ‘Okay, I know my math is a little weak, I know my coding is a little weak, then you know what I have some work to do’. Develop the skills that are lacking. First of all ,you find out from yourself, what is it you want to do? Then say to yourself, ‘do I have the skills needed to be successful in this’ and if you do not? Attain them and get them. Latch yourself onto a professor who’s in a research project and say to that professor, ‘I will volunteer, I will analyze the data for you don’t have to give me anything’, I just want to get part of the project. That professor may then make you a coauthor of the paper because you made a contribution to the paper. If nothing else, the experience is what you need. The professor sees that you’ve done this. When another project comes along they’ll realize, ‘Oh, I remember that student’ and give you a shot and there’s all you want a shot. That’s how you get your foot in the door. That’s how you learn. That’s how you move along. And the last thing I’ll tell the student whatever you have gained and how far you have attained, make sure you find another student down the line and reach out to her. It’s not about all that we have gotten, shame on us if all that we have is what we’ve gotten, and we care nothing about the persons coming behind. I think true success comes from not only attaining those things, but by going back and giving those things away freely. You gain more by giving skills away freely than anything else that you have. Give it away. You’ll never lose by giving it away. If you’re good in math, you want to teach someone some math. You’d be surprised at by giving that knowledge to someone else, it consolidates the knowledge in your own head so you don’t lose anything. One of my favorite things I love to say to students. If you enter a room that is dark and everybody in the room has a candle, but the candle is not lit, and the room is dark, but each person has a candle. What happens if you walk into that room with your candle that’s lit? What do you think happens? Well, there’s some illumination. There’s some light in the room now. What do you think happens if you take your candle that’s lit and you walk up to each person and you light their candles? The whole room gets bright. You know what? Your candle will still be lit, you would not have lost anything from your candle. If we only go around the proverbial room, and light the lights and the candles of other people, we lose nothing. But the world becomes brighter. That’s what we need to do. Share our lights, that the world may be a better place.

The CUNY CREST Institute gives thanks to Dr. Reginald Blake and our other amazing scientists participating in our interview! We are proud and honored to have you as part of our team, for not only your great work and success but also to serve as a role model and leader to students, partners, stakeholders, and other communities we serve at the CUNY CREST Institute.