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Michael Spencer

Electrical Engineer, Computer Scientist and Engineering Professor Michael G. Spencer was born on March 9, 1952 in Detroit, Michigan. Spencer’s passion for teaching is part of a family tradition, his mother and grandparents were teachers. He grew up in Washington, D.C. and travelled to Ithaca, New York to study at Cornell University. He earned his B.S. degree in 1974 and his M.S. degree in 1975. Spencer worked at Bell Laboratories from 1974 to 1977 before returning to Cornell to receive his Ph.D. degree in electrical engineering in 1981.
He joined the faculty of Howard University as an assistant professor in 1984. Spencer also founded the Materials Science Center for Excellence in 1984 and served as its director for the entirety of his career at Howard. He spent the next eighteen years working and researching at Howard, becoming a full professor in 1990 and the David and Lucile Packard Chaired Professor of Materials Science in 1999. During this time, Spencer also worked as a visiting scientist at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)’s JET Propulsion Laboratory. In 1999, he returned to his alma mater, Cornell University as professor of electrical engineering. He served as associate dean of research and graduate studies for the College of Engineering from 2002 to 2008. Spencer directed the Wide Bandgap Laboratory where he researched semiconductor materials like Silicon Carbide (SiC) and Gallium Nitride (GaN), as well as two dimensional semiconductors like graphene. He co-founded Widetronix, a company that builds low power long life betavoltaic batteries. Spencer has written over 130 publications concerning semiconductors and has also co-authored eleven United States patents.

Spencer has received much recognition for his research and teaching. In 1985, he received the Presidential Young Investigator Award from the National Science Foundation. Spencer also received the QEM (Quality Education for Minorities) Giants of Science Award and the Allen Berman Research Publication Award from the Naval Research Laboratory. He served as one of the directors for the National Science Foundation (NSF) Nano-Fabrication Network. Spencer was a member of the program committee of the American Vacuum Society and the International Conference on Silicon Carbide and Related Materials. He also held memberships in the Electronic Materials Conference Organizing Committee and the Compound Semiconductor Symposium Organizing Committee. Spencer lives in Ithaca, New York.
Michael G. Spencer was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on August 5, 2012.

Accession Number

A2012.158

Sex

Male

Interview Date

8/5/2012

Last Name

Spencer

Middle Name

Gregg

Schools

Cornell University

New Hampton School

Jefferson Middle School Academy

La Salle Elementary School

Speakers Bureau

Yes

First Name

Michael

Birth City, State, Country

Detroit

HM ID

SPE63

Speakers Bureau Preferred Audience

Adults

Speakers Bureau Honorarium

Yes - $200-$300

Favorite Season

None

Speaker Bureau Notes

Honorarium $200-$300 (may be waived or negotiated depending on circumstance)

State

Michigan

Favorite Vacation Destination

None

Favorite Quote

None

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

New York

Birth Date

3/9/1952

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

Ithaca

Country

United States

Favorite Food

None

Short Description

Electrical engineer, computer scientist, and engineering professor Michael Spencer (1952 - ) is a leader in materials science and holds eleven United States patents.

Employment

Bell Laboratories

Howard University

Cornell University

Favorite Color

Blue

Timing Pairs
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DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Michael Spencer's interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Michael Spencer lists his favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Michael Spencer describes his mother's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Michael Spencer talks about the Denmark Vesey Revolt

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Michael Spencer talks about the history of Charleston, South Carolina

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Michael Spencer talks about his ancestors in the Marines during the Revolutionary War

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Michael Spencer talks about his mother's childhood

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Michael Spencer describes his mother's education

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Michael Spencer describes his father's family background

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Michael Spencer describes his paternal great-grandfather acquiring freedom and becoming a teacher

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Michael Spencer describes how his paternal great-grandfather became a shoemaker

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Michael Spencer talks about his paternal great-grandfather losing his stocks in the Stock Market Crash of 1929

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Michael Spencer talks about his great-grandmother Sue Spencer's family pt. 1

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Michael Spencer talks about his great-grandmother Sue Spencer's family pt. 2

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Michael Spencer talks about his father growing up in Frankfort, Kentucky

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Michael Spencer talks about his father's career as a beer salesman

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Michael Spencer describes how his parent's met

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Michael Spencer talks about his parents' marriage

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Michael Spencer describes his parents' personalities and who he takes after

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Michael Spencer talks about his household as a child

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Michael Spencer describes the neighborhoods he grew up in

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Michael Spencer talks about elementary school and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Michael Spencer talks about the death of his father

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Michael Spencer talks about his mother's careers

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - Michael Spencer talks about government officials his mother worked with

Tape: 3 Story: 9 - Michael Spencer talks about his mother being part of African American society in Washington D.C.

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Michael Spencer talks about his junior high school

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Michael Spencer talks working with a graduate student on his science fair project

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Michael Spencer talks about Dr. Herman Branson's involvement in the discovery of the structure of DNA

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Michael Spencer talks about Dr. Herman Branson

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Michael Spencer describes how he decided to go to a prep school in New Hampshire

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Michael Spencer talks about his experience at his prep school, New Hampton School, in New Hampshire

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Michael Spencer describes his science classes and extracurricular activities at his prep school, New Hampton School

Tape: 4 Story: 8 - Michael Spencer talks about his interviews for admission to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Michael Spencer describes the racial tensions on Cornell University's campus when he attended

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Michael Spencer talks about the Africana Studies Department at Cornell University

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Michael Spencer describes the engineering department at Cornell University

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Michael Spencer talks about the Black Electrical Engineers and alumni of Cornell University

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Michael Spencer talks about his time as a member of the Nation of Islam

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Michael Spencer talks about Minister Farrakhan and Malcolm X

Tape: 5 Story: 7 - Michael Spencer talks about religion

Tape: 5 Story: 8 - Michael Spencer talks about his education at Cornell University

Tape: 5 Story: 9 - Michael Spencer describes the work environment at Bell Laboratories

Tape: 5 Story: 10 - Michael Spencer describes his work at Bell Laboratories

Tape: 6 Story: 1 - Michael Spencer talks about his doctoral dissertation

Tape: 6 Story: 2 - Michael Spencer talks about his time as a professor at Howard University

Tape: 6 Story: 3 - Michael Spencer talks about doing research at Howard University

Tape: 6 Story: 4 - Michael Spencer talks about his former students at Howard University

Tape: 6 Story: 5 - Michael Spencer describes his decision to leave Howard University to become a professor at Cornell University

Tape: 6 Story: 6 - Michael Spencer talks about his research at Cornell University

Tape: 6 Story: 7 - Michael Spencer talks about Widetronix, the company he cofounded

Tape: 7 Story: 1 - Michael Spencer talks about the prospects of Widetronix

Tape: 7 Story: 2 - Michael Spencer describes his publications and patents

Tape: 7 Story: 3 - Michael Spencer reflects upon his legacy

Tape: 7 Story: 4 - Michael Spencer talks about STEM education in the United States

Tape: 7 Story: 5 - Michael Spencer describes his hopes and concerns for the African American community

Tape: 7 Story: 6 - Michael Spencer talks about his family

Tape: 7 Story: 7 - Michael Spencer talks about how he would like to be remembered

Tape: 7 Story: 8 - Michael Spencer describes his photographs

DASession

1$1

DATape

7$5

DAStory

2$9

DATitle
Michael Spencer describes his publications and patents
Michael Spencer describes the work environment at Bell Laboratories
Transcript
Tell us about some of your publications and would it be correct to generalize that you are publishing more at Cornell [University, Ithaca, New York] than you did at Howard [University, Washington, D.C.]?$$Yeah, I would say so. Certainly more in terms of numbers and also citations are higher, the number of citations are higher.$$Okay, that's when someone else uses your research?$$Yeah, when someone else--$$Cites what you're--$$--cites your work in their publication.$$Okay.$$Yeah.$$All right. What are some of your papers and I want you to talk about some of your patents too.$$Well, we have on the patent side, we have of course in a small company you always--patents are more important. So we have some patents on ways of getting more power out of beta voltaic batteries or nuclear batteries. So power meaning power density and so that's one major area of patenting. In terms of publications, we have, we did a lot of work on using something called scanning probe microscopes to get information about semiconductors. So a scanning probe microscope is based on the material that is piezoelectric. Now piezoelectric means that if you apply electricity to this material it moves a very, very small distance. So in a scanning probe unit you have a little tip which is moved very small distances by these piezoelectric manipulators and as that tip comes close to the surface of the semiconductor it will experience a force and that force that it experiences can be measured. Now using that force and a lot of other things related to it we can make very nice measurements about some of the properties of the material. We can determine what are the electric fields that are coming from dislocations and other problems and so we use that, those techniques. It's called Kelvin probe microscopy to characterize a material. And we were some of the first to do that and so that publication has received a lot--those series of papers have received a lot of citations and that work was started when I came to Cornell. Some of the more recent graphene work in which we have demonstrated a way of actually producing suspended membranes of Graphene. So I told you that graphene is one atomic layer thick. Well we can actually make a membrane that is suspended in space bound on either side, it's suspended and this one atomic layer is literally in space. And so you can actually see right through it with an electronic microscope. And it's really quite amazing that you can actually, that one atomic layer of atoms will self-support but the other amazing thing is you can actually make useful devices out of this one atomic layer. You can put it into vibration and you can make lots of things. So this particular way of suspending the membranes has also you know been given a lot of attention. We're completing a paper now in which we have demonstrated for the first time producing graphene on another material called sapphire and we have studied and we plan on submitting this to the journal 'Nature.' I'm very excited about it. We have studied the way in which the potential of the substrate will actually align the graphene films so that paper has yet to be submitted but it will be soon. And I don't remember what all the things that I put down, one of the other papers I put down on there. I think I probably put down something about a measuring properties of aluminum nitride which we've talked about and we also--and then there was the initial work on grain boundaries which we're very proud of. And you know there, I think there are a number of other things but I think, you know I have over one hundred and twenty publications so I think that's a good--I think right now is a good place to stop. (Laughter).$$Okay.$Now what kind of projects were you working on at Bell Labs and well tell me something about the environment of Bell Labs and as a work environment and what projects were you working on?$$So at Bell Laboratories was divided into divisions or areas, Area 10, Area 20, Area 30, Area 40, Area 50--10 was basic science, 20 was applied engineering, that was my area, 40 I believe was transmission I think or switching. I can't recall all of them. But I was in Area 20 and we did power supplies. I was the only black engineer at Area 20 and my first--and Area 20 had several, a couple of laboratories. A laboratory is a fairly large group of, fairly large group and then departments, laboratory department then groups. So, first departmental meeting one of the technicians raises the question about affirmative action hires. I'm the only black face in the room. It must have been fifty people and were they qualified, something to that affect. Oh god, anyway you asked about--$$Well how was that handled? We can't just skip over that. Now what--?$$How was that handled?$$Yeah.$$It wasn't handled. The question just laid there as the department head sort of moved on and didn't answer.$$There were no affirmative action hires in your department right?$$Well the implication was that I was the affirmative action hire.$$Right, right, right, yeah.$$Being the only black in the room. And it wasn't handled.$$So, well go on. So what was that typical of the atmosphere there or was it--did it get better?$$Well it wasn't typical but it wasn't atypical either. I think you were--I think the way you have to view Bell Labs is it had managers who were both, who were angels, some were angels and others were devils and others were ambivalent.$$Hmm, okay just like in the rest of life I guess?$$Hmm?$$Just like everything else in life?$$Pretty much.$$Every other area.$$Yeah.$$Okay, all right. So I've heard people--now I'll put it like--I've heard people say the people we've interviewed within this month have talked about how Bell Labs had such a wonderful you know, what a wonderful place it was to work because of the way all the you know research scientists were treated and engineers for the most part, freedom to you know explore things and they had well, they were well equipped and they had you know there was a lot of freedom at Bell Labs to explore things and that sort--that's what we were told.$$Well yeah that's absolutely right. That's probably, there were three places in the country to work and Bell Labs was one of them. As an MTS, member of the technical staff, I, you know I had a signature authority of a thousand dollars on my own as I recall. We were more in applied division. In the research area, Area 10, even more flexibility on what to work with. Bell Labs was a monopoly that wasn't very well controlled at that time and so the labs were run on one percent of the profits of the Bell system which was a huge amount of money and they didn't have to worry about getting money so that was always there. So it was a tremendous place to work, wonderful work was done. It has never been duplicated. Again, I'm very proud of the fact that I'm an alumnus of Bell Labs in a technical sense and you meet other people who are alumni of Bell Labs and as I said it has, was not duplicated.