A Family Affair: Gates Twins Graduate and Move on to Doctoral Studies

A college graduation is a big deal for any family. Proud relatives and friends travel from far and wide to celebrate the new graduate’s achievements and maybe make a few suggestions for the future. 

Delilah Gates (left) and Sylvester Gates III at Spring 2015 Commencement. Credit: John T. ConsoliBut for twin siblings Delilah Gates and Sylvester Gates III, graduates of the University of Maryland Class of 2015, their commencement on May 22 held a couple of unusual and exciting twists. 

For starters, not everyone gets the chance to graduate alongside a brother or sister in the same ceremony. Sibling rivalry might have guided some twins to attend separate schools. But for physics and mathematics double major Delilah and biological sciences major Sylvester, who sometimes stop short of finishing each other’s sentences, attending the same university seems to have been a natural fit. 

But that’s only part of the story: Delilah and Sylvester also had the rare honor of knowing their commencement speaker personally. Their father, Sylvester James Gates Jr., addressed the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences’ bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral graduates at this year’s ceremony. 

Gates is a University System of Maryland Regents Professor, Distinguished University Professor and John S. Toll Professor of Physics at UMD. Their mother, Dianna E. Abney, joined her husband on stage for the duration of the event. Abney is an accomplished pediatrician and health officer for the Charles County, Md. Department of Health in southern Maryland. 

(L-R) Delilah Gates, Dianna Abney, Sylvester James Gates Jr., Sylvester Gates III. Credit: John T. Consoli

“You would think I had encouraged Sylvester and Delilah to study science, but that’s not the case at all. I wanted them to study finance, so they can take care of their mother and me when we retire!” says the elder Gates, who is called Jim by family and friends. He cracks just enough of a smile to let on that he is joking, and is justifiably proud of his children’s accomplishments. Sylvester is quick to call out his father’s ruse. 

“I don’t believe them,” Sylvester says. “They’ll never retire. They’re workaholics!” 

Not surprisingly, their parents’ drive has left quite an impression on Delilah and Sylvester, who will both begin Ph.D. programs in the fall. 

Delilah will study physics at Harvard University, but not before continuing research she began here at UMD. In collaboration with her father and several colleagues from the Army Research Laboratory, she has co-authored three papers on adinkras—a type of mathematical symbol that describes relationships in supergravity and supersymmetry. 

Sylvester will study molecular cancer biology at Duke University. He spent the summers of 2013 and 2014 at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, and studied a protein suspected to play a role in leukemia and other cancers. He’ll get something of a head start on his Ph.D. work when he begins his research rounds in July. 

Both twins considered other schools for their undergraduate studies, but ultimately decided that UMD was the best choice. The close proximity to home was just an added bonus. 

“We had spent so much time here as kids, it felt like a second home anyway,” says Delilah.

Writer: Matthew Wright

This article was published in the Summer 2015 issue of Odyssey magazine. To read other stories from that issue, please visit go.umd.edu/odyssey.

About the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences

The College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences at the University of Maryland educates more than 8,000 future scientific leaders in its undergraduate and graduate programs each year. The college's 10 departments and six interdisciplinary research centers foster scientific discovery with annual sponsored research funding exceeding $250 million.