U.S. Government’s Top Chemist
The first lessons Willie May, Ph.D. ’77, chemistry, learned about management came from growing up in a poor neighborhood of segregated Birmingham, Ala., in the 1950s and 1960s.
As an only son in an area where many boys had big brothers, “I learned to negotiate to keep from getting my behind beat,” he remembers. “I learned to reason with people because we can’t beat them all.”
That neighborhood, which was in the midst of civil rights protests, was also where May absorbed the key value that continues to guide his decisions: fairness. “I used to think if I was ever in a position of authority—and I had no reason to think I would ever be—that I would go out of my way to treat everybody fairly,” he says.
Now, May is applying those lessons and others in his new job as the director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the undersecretary of commerce for standards and technology. The Senate confirmed him to those posts in May 2015, making him the highest-ranking chemist in the federal government.
May is well known at NIST. He has worked there for 44 years, starting as an analytical chemist before earning his Ph.D. at the University of Maryland and gradually moving up the ranks to become director.
“For me, this is the most exciting time to be at NIST,” May explains. NIST was once just an obscure research lab working on standards, but recently it has risen into the national spotlight. “We are seen as the administration’s go-to place for standards and technology. We have bicameral and bipartisan support. And we are being asked to work on some very important problems.”
Those issues span the nation’s science priorities. They include developing computer security standards, improving manufacturing research and reforming forensic science. May says his goal, put forward in his typical, friendly, low-key style, is to not “screw it up.”
He has the staff of NIST to help him succeed in that effort. “People grew up with him in this organization. Most of them see him as Willie, not the director,” says Neil Alderoty, an administrator at NIST who has worked with May for years. “They know how much he loves this place.”
Baseball And Birmingham
Growing up in the projects in Birmingham, May’s mother, Rubie Daniels May, initially stayed home to care for him and his two sisters before opening what became a successful day care center for more than 200 children. His father—after whom May is named—was a nursing assistant at the local Veterans Administration hospital. The elder May also ran a tax service and worked as a bail bondsman, which put him in contact with civil rights leaders including Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy.
Walter Howlett Jr., who lived across the street, remembers May as studious but also mischievous. “We lived in a neighborhood where you had to get along with a bunch of different personality types without always getting into fights. He was able to maneuver that environment quite well,” Howlett says. “He was good at getting you upset while he remained calm.”
As a child, May was more serious about sports than about science. He organized pickup baseball games and designed his football team’s plays. May did show an interest in experimentation—he asked Howlett to pitch a thread spool to him over and over. “If he could hit that, he thought he could hit any curveball anyone would throw at him,” Howlett says.
In high school, May was a quiet, conscientious, serious student, remembers his classmate Marilyn Spencer. And that fit perfectly with the high expectations of the community. “You were encouraged by your instructors to do well because you represented them, not just yourself, not just your family,” she says.
Educated African Americans in the 1960s had a limited choice of careers. Many of those who turned to teaching might have otherwise been corporate leaders, May says. “I benefited from their deprivation.”
A chemistry instructor, Frank Cook, took a handful of high school students, including May, under his wing and challenged them with a college-level curriculum. “We sacrificed our study hall—since we weren’t going to study anyway—and actually took advanced chemistry courses that he had taken during the summer at Alabama A&M,” May says.
Spencer, May’s classmate, says, with “all of us competing with each other, I think we made each other better.”
When high school drew to a close, May’s father encouraged him to become a player for one of the company teams that brought on black players. May says he was an above-average baseball player, but he had come to see his growing interest in chemistry as a means to a better life.
“I didn’t want to work in the steel mills or the coal mines,” May says. “My parents were not that well-to-do, and this was the post-Sputnik era; maybe I could get a scholarship. So my interest in chemistry was nothing organic.”
May had his heart set on going to Howard University in Washington, D.C., but his application got lost in the high school principal’s office. To make up for misplacing it, the principal arranged for him to go to Knoxville College, a historically black institution in Tennessee. May was disappointed at the time, but he now sees the situation as a blessing. “I probably would have gone buck wild, the first time away from home in a city like Washington. In Knoxville, there wasn’t a whole lot of other stuff to do,” he says.
The small college also gave May a chance to ease into a different way of life. “It was the first time that I’d had any relationship with whites that wasn’t hostile because I grew up in segregated Birmingham. About half the faculty members were white, half were black. So it was the perfect environment for me.”
Razi Hassan, now a chemistry professor at Alabama Agricultural & Mechanical University, went to high school with May and was his teaching assistant at Knoxville College. “Willie just excelled in everything, and he did it with style,” he says. “He worked hard, and he had a sort of easy personality. That’s his gift.”
Although many people change majors in college, May decided early on to stick with chemistry because he had learned so much in high school. “I didn’t feel intimidated. More than that, I thought I had an advantage over the other students.”
By the time he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1968, “I was hooked on it,” he says. “I got to wear a white lab coat. Being a scientist was cool in the ’60s.”
May planned to go to graduate school and was accepted into chemistry programs at Harvard University; the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; and the University of Tennessee.
But then he got a draft notice with a lottery number of 42, low enough that he was likely to get shipped out to Vietnam. The universities that accepted him for graduate studies couldn’t guarantee him an academic draft deferment. So instead, he took a job that ensured him a deferment at Oak Ridge Gaseous Diffusion Plant, some 20 miles from Knoxville. He hated it.
In 1971, May was offered a one-year internship at what was then called the National Bureau of Standards in Gaithersburg, Md., and he took it sight unseen. “After I had been here a week, I thought, ‘If they will have me, I’ll spend the rest of my career here,’ ” he remembers. “I got a chance to apply some of my creativity to solve problems. It was just the place for me.”
May worked in the analytical chemistry division as part of a start-up group finding ways to identify trace amounts of organic compounds. His specialty was liquid chromatography. “It was exciting times for all of us, and we were upstarts in an institution with a lot of traditions,” says Harry Hertz, who worked with May.
One of their assignments was traveling to Prince William Sound in Alaska to determine the background petroleum levels in the environment before the start-up of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. “Nobody had ever done that before. But that was the fun,” May remembers.
At the same time he was traveling to Alaska, May was earning a Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of Maryland. NIST would have paid for him to go to school full time, but he was having too much fun at work. “I didn’t want to give that up,” he says.
That analytical chemistry group eventually expanded to fields beyond environmental ones to search for trace organics in, for example, clinical or forensic samples. This work gave May important experience talking to people with expertise in other fields, Hertz says. It also helped May appreciate the freedom scientists often need.
“We were allowed to be innovative, to take the appropriate risk in terms of exploring and researching—sometimes in less traditional ways—because it was a new field,” Hertz remembers.
After about a decade at the bench, including several years leading a small group, May was promoted in 1983 to division chief overseeing some 50 people. He tried to stay in the lab, but he felt he wasn’t able to do both effectively. He missed the camaraderie of being in the lab and seeing the tangible benefits in discoveries and publications.
May intended to quit management, but his supervisor told May he had the potential to become a great leader. So he decided to fully commit to being a manager. “You have a larger impact on the organization if you do a job in leadership well,” May says.
May grew into the role, rising through NIST’s chemistry ranks to eventually lead the Material Measurement Laboratory, which includes most of NIST’s respected standards-setting operation. He became deputy director in 2011.
As to what has made him a successful manager, May circles back to the sense of fairness he learned growing up. “You learn that treating everybody fairly does not mean treating everybody equally,” he explains. “You have to spend some time analyzing the situation and the person.”
May takes what some might call an analytical chemist’s approach to problems. “I gather a lot of information, get input from a lot of folks, then make a decision,” he says. Laurie E. Locascio, who now heads the Material Measurement Laboratory, says that in meetings May “likes to encourage debate, but he’s willing to change his mind—even if he is so sure about a point—when presented with evidence.”
However, she sees May’s interest in people as his greatest management asset. When she was pregnant, Locascio wanted to take time off but was worried about hurting her career. The person she turned to for advice was May, even though he wasn’t her direct supervisor. “One thing that was really obvious about Willie was that he was really an open-minded and compassionate manager,” she remembers.
May encouraged her to work from home at a time when that practice was uncommon. And two years later, when she was still working part time, he offered her a promotion. “I was just stunned,” she remembers. “He was willing to see beyond the fact that I was doing the mom thing…to judge people from the work they do and their productivity, and not on their life circumstance.”
Victor R. McCrary, a former NIST manager now at Morgan State University, first met May at a conference for black chemists when he was a graduate student. He is impressed with how May encourages people to take research risks. “You can do a lot of incremental innovation, but that is not really innovation,” he says. “That is why you need people like Willie May.”
May is proudest of his efforts to mentor his fellow black scientists at NIST and elsewhere. NIST has not always been the most welcoming environment, he says, but that is changing. “I could not get up and look myself in the face every morning if I did not do everything I could to give back and to try to hoe a row for others,” he says. “I have to try to make things as fair as I can within my span of control.”
For example, May was vital in creating a joint NIST-University of Maryland scholarship to encourage more black chemists to get doctoral degrees. And he was also instrumental in the creation of the American Chemical Society Scholars Program, which provides scholarships to minority students.
“Regardless of how high he has been at NIST, he has always made himself super-available to students to encourage them,” says Janice Reutt-Robey, chair of UMD’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.
Christopher Sims, Ph.D. ’15, chemistry, met May when Sims was a graduate student and was amazed at how laid-back and approachable May was. Now a postdoc at NIST, Sims was excited to see May become director.
“For me, it was very inspirational. It served as a motivation to say, ‘If I keep doing good work, that is what you can accomplish.’ ”
Until he took over as director, May had worked primarily on the technical side of NIST. As director, he says his biggest challenge has been taking on the policy role that comes with becoming an undersecretary at the Department of Commerce.
For example, manufacturing research is President Barack Obama’s highest priority for NIST. So May is working to figure out how to make NIST an effective leader of the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation, which is designed to bring together representatives of industry, academia and government to work on important research challenges facing the manufacturing sector.
May is also focused on enhancing how NIST operates internally. Those challenges include improved hiring practices, more efficient purchasing of its one-of-a-kind instruments and better coordination with other agencies.
NIST takes it cues from the administration and Congress, but once the agency gets its assignments, it has freedom to approach problems in its own way.
And what May learned in Birmingham and since will help him guide the institute. “We have the independence now to do new and creative things,” May says. “I don’t think the scientists could ask for more.”
Written by Andrea Widener
Story reproduced courtesy of C&EN
This article was published in the Spring 2016 issue of Odyssey magazine. To read other stories from that issue, please visit go.umd.edu/odyssey.