Volume 93 Issue 24 | pp. 11-14
Issue Date: June 15, 2015

Cover Story

U.S. Government’s Top Chemist

Willie May rises from the segregated South through the ranks of the National Institute of Standards & Technology
Department: Government & Policy
Keywords: NIST, Willie E. May, analytical chemist, mentoring
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CHIEF ON TOP
Willie May was confirmed as director of NIST in May.
Credit: James Kegley
NIST director Willie May.
 
CHIEF ON TOP
Willie May was confirmed as director of NIST in May.
Credit: James Kegley

The first lessons Willie E. May 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, 67, is applying those lessons and others in his new job as the director of the National Institute of Standards & Technology (NIST) and the undersecretary of commerce for standards and technology. The Senate confirmed him to those posts on May 4, 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 he earned his Ph.D. 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

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BEGINNINGS
May with his parents, Rubie Daniels May and Willie Edward May.
Credit: Courtesy of Willie May
Willie May with his parents, Rubie Daniels May and Willie Edward May.
 
BEGINNINGS
May with his parents, Rubie Daniels May and Willie Edward May.
Credit: Courtesy of Willie May

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.”

Choosing Chemistry

Willie E. May

◾ B.S., chemistry, Knoxville College, 1968
◾ Ph.D., analytical chemistry, University of Maryland, 1977
◾ Is a serious softball player; played up to 150 games a year on nights and weekends until he cut back a few years ago.
◾ Has attended college basketball’s Final Four games with his son every year since 2002.
◾ Hopes that his daughter, an artist, can paint his official government portrait.
◾ Is not named after the baseball player Willie Mays, who is also from Birmingham; once owned a Willie Mays jersey, but it was stolen while he was in college.

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 whitesthat 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.”

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DEEP SOUTH TO FAR NORTH
May (left) with Harry Hertz (center) doing fieldwork in the Prince William Sound area of Alaska in 1974.
Credit: Courtesy of NIST
Howard Hertz and Willie May Port Valdez 1974: They show Willie and Howard Hertz (former NIST researcher and former head of the Baldrige Excellence Program) taking environmental samples to establish pollution baselines before the Alaska pipeline was built.
 
DEEP SOUTH TO FAR NORTH
May (left) with Harry Hertz (center) doing fieldwork in the Prince William Sound area of Alaska in 1974.
Credit: Courtesy of NIST

Dreams Deferred

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.

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WORLDLY
May travels often to lead international standards meetings, including one in China in 2002.
Credit: Courtesy of May
Willie May in China for a meeting of the International  Committee on Weights and Measures Consultative Committee on Metrology in Chemistry; he chaired the Organic Analysis Working Group. He also was member of a Peer Review Panel for NRCCRM'S (At that time China's national standards lab for chemical measurements) chemical measurements and standards programs.
 
WORLDLY
May travels often to lead international standards meetings, including one in China in 2002.
Credit: Courtesy of May

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 analytical 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,” May 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. May 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.

Embracing Management

May has grown 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.”

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MORE THAN A FAN
May with National Football League Senior Vice President Jeffrey B. Miller in January, announcing a competition to create materials to help prevent concussions.
Credit: Gail Porter/NIST
Willie May with Jeff Miller, the NFL's senior vice-president of health and safety at a Jan. 2015 news conference in Phoenix, AZ, held in conjunction with Super Bowl XLIX. May was jointly announcing with the National Football League, GE, and Under Armour a new effort called Head Health Challenge III, an open competition to advance materials that better absorb or dissipate energy.
 
MORE THAN A FAN
May with National Football League Senior Vice President Jeffrey B. Miller in January, announcing a competition to create materials to help prevent concussions.
Credit: Gail Porter/NIST

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 the chemistry department at Maryland.

Christopher Sims met May when Sims was working on his Ph.D. at Maryland 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.’ ”

New Challenges

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 lab. “We have the independence now to do new and creative things,” May says. “I don’t think the scientists could ask for more.”  

 
Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © American Chemical Society
Comments
Rosalie Ruegg (Mon Jun 15 18:11:41 EDT 2015)
A great profile of Dr. May! He has long been a respected presence at NIST. I remember him from my early days at NIST back in the 1970s, and continuing through the years as he rose to leadership positions in NIST. I also appreciated the sane and fair environment provided by a science laboratory. NIST was super place to work!

Best wishes to Dr. May and to NIST.
Ciro A. Sanchez (Tue Jun 16 09:11:05 EDT 2015)
Good article; Congratulations to Dr May.
Scharol Bronson (Tue Jun 16 10:13:02 EDT 2015)
I am so proud of Mr. May's accomplishments and being elevated to director. Perserverance, knowledge, understanding, objectivity, and intuitiveness are some of the keys to success and Mr. May is a true example. He will definitely provide an avenue for not only himself, but also his fellow employees to excell beyond the confines of the "box".
stephanie smith (Tue Jun 16 16:54:11 EDT 2015)
Wow, What a great article. Mr. Mays is awesome! Hope to see more of him in the press. This is such an inspiration and it's great to see a Black man in this capacity. He really knows his stuff! Thank you!
Michele May Christian (Tue Jun 16 22:44:29 EDT 2015)
Great article! I am one proud little sister.
cosmas O. Okoro (Wed Jun 17 15:07:13 EDT 2015)
My heartfelt congratulation to you and your family. I had opportunities to meet you as a graduate student at Howard university in late 80s and also at ACS National Meetings.

Professor Cosmas O. Okoro
Norman Moll (Thu Jun 18 07:26:56 EDT 2015)
Congratulations Dr. May! May NIST continue to thrive under your leadership. From my time as The Dow Chemical Company's technical liaison person back in the 90's, I have great respect for NIST scientists and their mission.
Charles Langevine Esq (Thu Jun 18 07:45:05 EDT 2015)
Congratulations to you, Dr. Willie May on your new appointment. I met you while attending a NOBBChE Convention and was impressed with the way you mentored and worked with graduate and undergraduate science students. Your life story is truly inspiring.
James D. Beck (Thu Jun 18 09:27:38 EDT 2015)
Congratulations! I recall your presentation to the Virginia Section of the ACS at Virginia State University in Petersburg on Dec. 5, 1997. Best wishes.
Bryan Wilson (Thu Jun 18 11:12:38 EDT 2015)
What a wonderful article and congratulations to Dr. May. I never knew he life was filled so many vivid experiences and its no wonder why he has rise through the ranks to become the leader he is today. As PhD/MBA graduate student of color in the biomedical sciences, I was particularly inspired by Dr. May's story and I wish him all the best in the years to come.
Rufus Daniels (Thu Jun 18 12:21:56 EDT 2015)


I knew Dr. May as a playmate on his grandfather's farm in south Alabama. From our experience and "free range" of all the plants and animals, and on reflection, felt that he may have become a biologist rather than a chemist. He had the uncanny ability of making the insects duel with each other--a budding entomologist, perhaps? He developed an absolute disdain for the chicken family--as one gave him an unfriendly peck on his leg. Maybe that steered him away from the "living creatures" field.



I experienced the Birmingham days, as I lived with him and family one summer to earn funds for college. One of his associates hired me as a gardener in the housing development where he lived. I also remember him later as being studious, and having a near photographic memory, which was instrumental in his academic pursuits. I also know his love and "athleticism" in baseball and the follow-up of softball during his professional career at NIST.



His Absolute Proud Uncle

Rufus Daniels



Vaughn Robin Rattray (Fri Jun 19 02:09:44 EDT 2015)
I always admired Dr May and he may not know it but he is an inspiration to a significant number of chemists down here in Jamaica, West Indies where we met. Congratulations on a well deserved appointment!
Isiah M. Warner, Louisiana State University (Tue Jun 23 18:00:37 EDT 2015)
Willie,

Congratulations again! Well deserved recognition for all of your great work! Too bad they left out all the great things that I said about you! However, your colleagues provided a better view of you as the new director.
Neal Craft (Thu Jun 25 14:32:34 EDT 2015)
Congratulations, Willie. You will do an excellent job. It was a pleasure to work with you at NIST. It created a firm foundation for my future and formed life-long friendships with great scientists.
Samuel Wunderli (Sun Jun 28 03:42:05 EDT 2015)
Congratulations, Willie! The CITAC (Cooperation on International Traceability in Analytical Chemistry) community is proud of your achievements and your strong commitment for the progress in analytical chemistry worldwide. (Samuel Wunderli, CITAC secretary).
Jim Shoffner, Chicago Section, ACS (Tue Oct 20 12:13:06 EDT 2015)
My congratulations to a very wonderful human being! He has accomplised much and been of hreat help to many. I am honored to have known him and worked him in the American Chemical Society.

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